Thousands of Dalits protested on the streets of New Delhi this week against recent attacks on the community in Saharanpur district of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
"It's a fight for equality, it is a fight against oppression," said Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan addressing the crowd, which mainly consisted of young Dalits - or Indians considered lower caste - many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres to the capital. The 31-year-old, who goes by the name Chandrashekhar, is a lawyer and an activist.
Chandrashekhar, along with Vinay Ratna Singh, founded the Bhim Army, which was behind the massive rally.
The Bhim Army takes its name from Bhimrao Ramji (BR) Ambedkar, the Dalit icon. Founded in 2015, the group runs free schools and coaching centres for Dalits in the western UP region, which has a significant population of former "untouchables", as they are called.
Emergence of Bhim Army
The Dalit group shot into the limelight after it objected to a rally held by the more priviledged Thakur caste in Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur district on May 5 to commemorate the medieval-era Rajput warrior-king Maharana Pratap. After scuffles between the two groups, the Thakurs torched dozens of Dalit houses.
A temple of Sant Ravidas, a Dalit Bhakti saint, was desecrated.
Many of the Dalits have fled the village fearing the Thakurs, who constitute 60 percent of its population.
Dalits say Thakurs stopped them from installing a statue of BR Ambdekar in their part of the village on the occasion of Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations on April 14. Ambedkar is the biggest Dalit icon and the main author of India's constitution.
Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations have proliferated among Dalits and Ambedkar's statues and posters dot Dalit settlements and villages across India.
Many Dalits have converted out of Hinduism because of the entrenched caste system that gives little space for their upward mobility.
The Bhim Army, experts say, draws many of its ideological positions from the Dalit Panthers, which emerged in the 1970s in Maharashtra state.
A protest rally organised by the Bhim Army on May 9 to seek compensation for the Dalits turned violent, after which the police filed cases against many members of the group, including Chandrashekhar.
Tension continues to simmer as two Dalits and a member of the Thakur community have died in the past few weeks.
Chandrashekhar, who is wanted by police, appeared at Sunday's rally, which was attended by an estimated 20,000 people.
"Now, Dalits have woken up. Chandrashekar will reach wherever there will be any atrocity on Dalits, to hold perpetrators to account. Keep that in mind," he said.
'We are not weak'
On Wednesday, the government headed by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) suspended internet services in Saharanpur to check rumours or protest organising from spreading on social media. Paramilitary forces have been rushed to the region, which is known for inter-community conflicts.
Saharanpur alone witnessed 544 communal flare-ups between 2010 and 2016, according to an investigation by the Hindustan Times.
The district's population is 40 percent Muslim, 25 percent Dalit, while 10 percent belongs to the priviledged Thakur or Kshatriya castes.
In 2013, the neighbouring Muzaffarnagar district experienced bloody violence between Muslims and Jats - an influential farming community. Sixty people died in the violence; most of the victims were Muslims.
Unlike other Dalit parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and various factions of the Republican Party of India, who have a history of aligning themselves with Congress and the right-wing BJP, the Bhim Army is vocal in its criticism of the BJP's ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - a hard-line Hindu organisation that espouses Hindu nationalism called Hindutva.
"If you kill one Chandrashekhar, thousands more will rise. The RSS and Hindu right organisations have been oppressing us for centuries, but we are not weak," he said at the New Delhi rally.
Emboldened Thakur caste
One of the first Dalit political mobilisations in the country was started in western Uttar Pradesh in the 1970s by Kanshi Ram, who founded the BSP.
The party's main leader, Mayawati, herself a Dalit, has been UP's chief minister four times, last serving between 2007 and 2012. Dalits form 21 percent of the state's population of 200 million.
For the past 15 years, the state's politics were dominated by the BSP and another regional outfit - Samajwadi Party (SP) - which tried to address the political and economic underrepresentation of Dalits and minorities such as Muslims.
Adityanath, himself a Thakur, is the first upper caste chief minister since 2002 when Rajnath Singh, the current federal interior minister, headed the state government.
"The Thakur caste have become more emboldened after Adityanath [Yogi] was made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh [in March]," Kancha Ilaiah, a writer and Dalit rights activist, told Al Jazeera.
"They [Thakurs] wanted to really teach a lesson to Dalits, who had acquired some amount of self-respect after BSP came to power in 2002," said the Dalit scholar.
Despite India's constitution declaring untouchability illegal in 1949, feudal mindsets and caste discrimination remain rampant in India.
And UP's record is anything but encouraging, something that might lead to further social conflict, Ilaiah said.
According to government figures for 2015, out of a total 38,564 cases of atrocities against lower castes about 8,357 cases were reported from Uttar Pradesh.
In 1989, the federal government had to introduce a new law to address entrenched caste discrimination. The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for the first time defined what constituted a caste-based atrocity.
Chandrashekhar has emerged as a hero for the community, as he has dared to take the dominant upper castes head on.
Dalit voices grow louder
In recent years, Dalits have been raising their voices for a life of dignity. Massive protests by Dalits erupted last year in the western state Gujarat after Dalit youth were flogged publicly for skinning a dead cow.
"It is not merely an expression of Dalits defending themselves against upper castes, but an assertion of and by Dalits against the relentless oppression they continually face," wrote Jignesh Mewani, a Gujurat-based lawyer and activist who campaigns for Dalit rights, in The Indian Express newspaper.
Mewani, a young lawyer, spearheaded the Dalit protests in Gujarat last year. He has come out in support of the Bhim Army.
"The desperation on the part of Hindutva forces to turn this country into a Hindu Rashtra is leading to bloodshed and violence. Saharanpur is just another example of this strategy," Mewani wrote.
Chandrashekhar has gone into hiding, but his one call via social media brought a huge crowd to India's capital.
"If we ask for our rights and we do not get them - we have to snatch them," Chandrasekhar said in an audio message to his supporters before the rally.
The lawyer and activist has been confrontational in his approach, but has publicly said the Dalit struggle will remain within a "constitutional framework".
Source: Al Jazeera