Challenges before Azadi Kooch and Bhim Army

The caste-annihilation movement must guard against threats from the State and from ‘within’.

Eighteen months after the start of the countrywide #JusticeForRohithVemula movement and 12 months after the radical response of the Gujarati Dalit to the Una atrocity, the upsurge of anti-caste protests led by militant Dalit organisations shows no signs of abating.

Notwithstanding a cycle of protest-arrest-protest-arrest-protest, the movement is yet advancing, gathering new forces with each new wave.

Azadi Kooch and Bhim Army

The ongoing Azadi Kooch (Freedom March) in Gujarat from July 11 to July 18, 2017, commemorating the first anniversary of the public stripping and thrashing of seven Dalits by gau rakshaks of Una town, is perhaps emblematic of this process.

Led by young lawyer Jignesh Mevani of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), it encompasses a wide-ranging coalition of Dalits, Muslims, Patidars and others and has been joined by activists of various shades from throughout the country, including student leader Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU. Despite cancellation of permissions and detention of all participants at the very start of the seven-day march, it determinedly soldiers on.

This has been preceded by several months of militant Dalit resistance to Thakur-led onslaughts in and around Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh. It was spearheaded by the Bhim Army, led by another young lawyer, Chandrashekhar Azad.

One of the high points of this resistance was a 50,000 strong gathering on May 21, 2017, at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, one of the largest agitational mobilisations seen in the capital in recent times.

This rally, held in the shadow of an imminent offensive by the state, saw Chandrashekhar and Mevani together on stage appealing to the crowds to take ahead the movement. Two weeks later, Chandrashekhar and a yet undisclosed number of Bhim Army activists were held, amid a total clampdown, including an indefinite internet blackout.

Chandrashekhar, in anticipation, had concluded his address at Jantar Mantar by prophesising, “I want to say that if they try to kill one Chandrashekhar, there will be lakhs more to rise.”

His statement well embodies the audacity of hope that such a movement on the ascent has, and must have. This obligatory optimism must however also confront the enormity of the challenges before any movement possessed with the mission of annihilation of caste in this country.


Threats and challenges

The threats and challenges before the contemporary anti-caste movement are broadly of two types: the first being the open attacks and repression of the dominant feudal castes and the State machinery that stands solidly behind them; the second being the surreptitious, sabotaging, interventions from “within” by those sections of the oppressed castes whose interests lie in holding back the movement’s creativity and militancy, and diverting it into acceptable channels.

State repression

It is no secret that the very State machinery that is supposed to implement constitutional provisions and laws for the abolition of caste, is itself deeply wedded to the preservation of the caste system. It is thus extremely rare for the perpetrators of upper caste violence to face action from the coercive arms of the state. Police authorities do not easily register complaints of caste atrocity. If they do, the cases are diluted and it is common to file false counter-cases against the victim.

If, on the other hand, should the oppressed dare to show some militancy in resistance, they must be ready to face all the vehement violence that the security agencies are capable of – lathi-charges, firing, implication in false cases under draconian laws, and even torture.



These brutalities are sought to be rationalised by first branding the anti-caste organisations and their leaders as Naxalites. Once this label is stuck, it is seen as fair justification for any cruelty and the abandonment of the rule of law.

Both Jignesh and Chandrashekhar have seen this branding. Jignesh says: “A Dalit activist is conveniently labelled a Naxalite.”

Chandrashekhar goes one step further. He told the May 21 crowds at Jantar Mantar: “If anyone speaks of justice these people call him Naxalite and terrorist.”

While denying being one, he warned his oppressors not to test the patience of the oppressed, thus implying that they would, if necessary, take such steps.

He even used the imagery of Udham Singh, the revolutionary who assassinated British governor O’Dwyer, to promise retaliatory violence on those involved in caste atrocities.

However, Chandrashekhar is now in prison with several cases clamped on him, and the cases against Jignesh too are steadily building up. This will call for answers from the anti-caste movement to the state violence that is bound to be its constant companion.

One of the answers has been Chandrashekhar’s earlier mentioned pronouncement that “lakhs more will rise” to replace him. He is thus telling the casteists and the State that attacks and repression will only inspire many more to join the movement. While not denying the historical truism in his statement, there will yet be the need for more practical and immediate solutions.

The attempts underway to rapidly ramp up the organisational structure of the movement in both Gujarat and UP is one of the answers. The solidification of genuine solidarities and the emergence and spread of similar struggles in other centres could be others.

Challenges from “within”

The other challenge, that is emerging from some members of the oppressed castes, is however more complicated. It lacks the simplicity of direct confrontation that is there in the contradiction with the violent caste oppressor and state repressor.

Over the years there has been an extremely tiny segment of Dalits who have earned places high up in the structures of the state and academia. Ruling politicians, high-ranking officers of the IAS, IPS and other services, and professors inhabiting the upper echelons of elitist academic institutions in India and abroad are typical of those who have been able to occupy seats at centres where opinions, decisions and policies are formulated.

Most of them have the natural aversion to fundamental transformation that is characteristic of people in high places. Though their caste origins compel them to pay lip service to the revolutionary mission of annihilation of caste, they have long abandoned that project. They typically seek to confine themselves to lobbying and adjustments that could strengthen their position without significantly displacing contemporary social structures and power relations.

They thus are among those who feel highly threatened by radical movements which aim to shake up and demolish the existing caste order. In the face of such upsurges they see their role as interveners, who can ensure that things do not go “out of hand”. Though extremely small in number, they, by virtue of their positions of relative power, demand and command considerable influence, within Dalit communities as well as organisations. They use that influence to control and contain the movement within limits that do not threaten the existing order of things.


Stemming radicalisation

Such a role was played by a coterie of Dalit IAS-IPS officers during the #JusticeForRohithVemula movement. They pooled money, expressed support on social media and directly established connections with the students. Their expressed purpose however was clearly expressed as “Ambedkarisation, not radicalisation”. By thus counterposing “Ambedkar” and “radical” they were clear that they wanted to keep #JusticeForRohithVemula well away from Ambedkar’s radical mission of annihilation of caste.

A member of this group is RS Praveen Kumar, an IPS officer who, when asked about the ongoing anti-caste movement, has expressed a desire to play the role of keeping it within constitutional means. His own past however has seen involvement in numerous fake encounters of Naxalites, with scant respect for constitutional guarantees and rule of law.

One explanation of the thinking underlying this is provided by Suryakant Waghmore, a professor at top-rung institutions like Tata Institute of Social Sciences and IIT-Bombay. While analysing the Bhim Army and its “rhetoric of “hitting back”, he propounds that “use of violence undermines the Dalit cause and emancipatory politics”.

In a classic convoluted argument typical of academia, he, while arguing that the Bhim Army should refrain from violence because the law-implementing machinery will target Dalits, in the same breath proposes that the “Dalit response to atrocities is one of legal measures”. This means that he is telling the Dalit victims to go for justice to the same law-implementing machinery that targets them.

Suryakant also bases his argument of non-violence on the premise that the aim of Dalit movements is to mobilise towards civilising the oppressor (caste Hindus). The absurdity of expecting that the Thakurs of Saharanpur would be amenable to being “civilised” by its Dalits is lost on him. Any farcical prescription to embark on a mission to civilise the oppressor has nothing to offer to the Bhim Army or any other movement serious about the annihilation of caste.

As the ongoing anti-caste movement grows in strength, the impact of such arguments on it has so far been minimal. But the leadership would have to be vigilant to guard against the confusion and diversion they have the potential to cause.

By Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira


“A desperate state is making Maoists”

A desperate state is making Maoists out of innocents

Arun Ferreira smiles easily. The four years and eight months of incarceration, as an alleged Naxalite/Maoist, sit lightly on the 40-year-old quintessential Bandra boy. Released on January 5 from Nagpur Central Jail—acquitted in 10 of the 11 cases and bailed in one—Ferreira is taking his time to readjust to his life with family and friends in Mumbai. He must build anew the relationship with his son, who was barely two-and-a-half years old when he was arrested on May 8, 2007. And everyday technology, like mobile phones, is no longer what he remembers it to be. “I tried texting and I was all thumbs,” he says. “There’s some adjustment to do there.” Ferreira’s wife Jennifer, a sociology lecturer, didn’t visit him in jail for months for fear of being arrested as a Maoist sympathiser too.

Ferreira’s easy manner and smile belie his personal pain, and the weighty larger issue of political prisoners, individuals arrested and tortured for holding and propagating ideologies. Ferreira is a statistic in the long list of those taken into custody since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed Naxalism and Maoism the “gravest threat” to the country. But Ferreira’s is also the story of how law enforcement authorities make a mess of addressing the “threat”, if indeed it is one.

Ferreira was arrested in Nagpur in 2007 while he was on “social work”, along with alleged Naxal leader Arun Satya Reddy alias Murali, local leaders Dhanendra Bhurule and Naresh Bansod. Eight cases under Sections 10, 13, 18, 20 of Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and one under the Arms Act were lodged against him. The Maharashtra police, at that time, stated that Ferreira was the Maharashtra chief of communication and propaganda wing of the CPI (Maoist) and was in Nagpur to carry out a conspiracy along with his comrades. Ferreira, according to the police, operated under several aliases—Sanjay Chaudhary, Shukla among them.

In December 2009, Ferreira was “re-arrested” on a fresh set of charges. By September 23, 2011, Ferreira was acquitted in these cases by a court in Chandrapur. He was, legally speaking, no longer an alleged or suspected Maoist. Four days later, his aged parents waited at the Nagpur Central Jail to welcome him as a free man, but Ferreira did not walk out. Inside the jail gate, he was accosted by burly men in plain clothes, a towel thrown over his face and he was whisked away in a van ostensibly by the Gadchiroli police. He was produced the next day in court with two new charges pressed against him, cases that he had not been made aware of all the four years he spent in prison. It was plain and simple abduction, says his lawyer Surendra Gadling even if the authorities called it a “re-arrest”.

That episode galvanised Ferreira’s friends into action; online and offline petitions garnered some 6,000-plus signatures, the condemnations came fast and furious from the prestigious St Xavier’s College, from where Ferreira had graduated in mathematics in 1990; the Bombay Catholic Sabha, the Catholic Secular Forum and so on. Congress MP Priya Dutt wrote to Maharashtra chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan. The three others, arrested along with Ferreira, had all been acquitted. “This is the modus operandi,” says Ferreira. “It begins with false cases and chargesheets, opposing bail without grounds, then abducting or re-arresting those who have been acquitted or given bail by the courts. The idea seems to be: you are a so-and-so and I will keep you behind bars somehow or the other.”

Citing his case, the Indian Association of People’s Lawyers (IAPL) filed a writ petition before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court for infringement of fundamental rights of liberty and freedom of movement, demanded a judicial inquiry into his abduction, a compensation of `25 lakh and apology for harassing him by implicating him in false cases. “There has been a spate of such cases in Maharashtra in the last couple of years. It’s a larger issue of political prisoners,” says Justice (retd) Hosbet Suresh. “If I work for downtrodden children or hold a particular opinion, I can be arrested. This cannot go on. In a sense, we have many Binayak Sens.” In fact, rights activists have prepared a list of nearly 30 such abduction-rearrests by Gadchiroli police between July and December 2011.

Maharashtra home minister R.R. Patil declined to comment, but analysts have their knives out already. “If, as the state police said, he was ‘a prize catch’, how come he was acquitted? It means the police were not able to prove anything at all,” says a rights campaigner. Ferreira’s case shows, among other things, the high-handedness, followed by embarrassment, of the law enforcement agencies—initially desperate to show the arrests of those with uncomfortable or extreme ideologies but unable to make those charges stick.

State must take first step to end violence: Ferreira

Jan 11, 2012-A smiling Arun Ferreira faced a barrage of questions on Wednesday here as he addressed his first press conference since his release from Nagpur Central Jail on January 4. In May 2007, Ferreira was arrested and accused of being part of a Maoist plot to blow up BR Ambedkar’s memorial in Nagpur.

The press conference was called by Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights and the fiery activist in Ferreira was much in evidence. He spoke largely about his jail term and how he plans to actively campaign for activist Sudhir Dhawale, resident of Mumbai and publisher of Vidrohi, who was arrested in 2011 near Nagpur.

Ferreira largely spoke of the “torture he faced and how he was forced to undergo two rounds of narco-analysis despite protests. “The hierarchies that remain in society exist in jail also,” he said referring to the 2G scam trial. “It’s a fallacy that every inmate is equal in jail because caste, class and money matter as much in prisons as they matter outside, and treatment meted out to each person is specific to that.”

Ferreira, who has come under the glare for being a Naxal sympathiser, stands firm on his beliefs. The activist said that he supported all people’s movements and it was up to the state to “end the cycle of violence”. “To end violence, the state must take the first step just as an elder sibling should take responsibility.”

“It’s good that because of me, plight of others facing similar situations has been highlighted,” said Ferreira adding that his case was in the forefront of media attention as he was from Mumbai, but there were “many other nameless faces that belonged to rural areas and whose voices were never heard”.

Ferreira is still deciding his future plans as he spends time at home with his family. But he is determined to raise awareness and fight for people like him who represent the voice of dissent but are labelled Naxal sympathisers and have been arrested. Ferreira has filed a petition before the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court challenging his re-arrest and the slapping of ‘false’ cases. His petition mentions cases of 27 undertrials who “were abducted from prisons immediately after release and rearrested by Gadchiroli police between July and December 2011”.

Sunaina Kumar is a Senior Correspondent with

Arun Ferreira addresses Press Conference, Mumbai

Police kidnap Arun Ferreira, activist for Dalits and tribals

09/30/2011 1
Nirmala Carvalho
Just after he was released  after four years of imprisonment and torture, plainclothes agents stopped him, hooded him and took him away without a mandate. His lawyers were beaten when  they intervened to stop the kidnapping. For Fr. Allwyn D’Silva, president of the
Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, this shows “complete  disregard by the state for human rights.” Fr. Cedric Prakash, director of the  Prashant Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace: “He is innocent, and  deserves justice.”

“The warrantless arrest of Arun Ferreira once again demonstrates the state’s complete disregard for human  rights.” This is the opinion of Fr. Allwyn D’Silva, president of the Justice  and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Mumbai and uncle of the activist  for the rights of tribals and Dalits. In prison since 2007 due to an accusation  of being a Nassalite (a Maoist guerrilla), on September 27 a special court in
Maharashtra acquitted the man and ordered his release. Which, in fact, never  happened: just after he was released from Nagpur prison, plainclothes officers  stopped him, covered his face and forced him into an unmarked car, in which they  fled. All under the gaze of his elderly parents, who were waiting for him  outside the prison. His lawyers tried to intervene but were beaten.

His  lawyers immediately sent a letter to the Commissioner to ask for the reasons of  the arrest, but have not yet received and answer.

According to Fr. Allwyn, the new arrest – like that of 2007 – is linked to his struggle to defend  the rights of the most marginalized in society, because “there are many cases  like Arun’s of false accusations against those who defend the rights of the weakest”.

Fr. Cedric Prakash is of the same opinion. Prakash, who is  director of the Prashant Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and
Peace, signed a petition to the chief minister of Maharashtra, asking that Arun  Ferreira be released immediately.

“This episode”, the Jesuit explains, “is a terrible stain on a country that believes in democracy and in the freedom  of each individual citizen. Arun Ferreira is an innocent man. He fought for the  rights of tribesmen, for their forests and for the Dalits who were killed. He has been subjected to inhumane torture. A special court had declared his  incarceration null and had cleared all charges.”

“Always”, continued Fr.  Prakash, “the Catholic Church has been the side of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and anyone who is denied his rights and his dignity. Arun Ferreira  deserves justice, he must be able to live as a free man.,-activist-for-Dalits-and-tribals-22783.html