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“The State is the Biggest Goonda”: Civic Masculinity, Radical Victimhood, and Power in Bhim Army Discourse

Shantanu Kulshreshth


This paper explores the emergence of the Bhim Army, a Dalit-led social movement in North India that has gained significant political influence in recent years. In doing so, it develops the idea of “boss power” as a cultural repertoire in North India through which marginalized actors negotiate and engage with the state and society. It shows how the organization creates new identities based on masculinity, civic duty, and radical victimhood to enact power in response to caste marginalization and state capture. However, despite its attempts to build a diverse base, the Bhim Army’s appeal remains limited in terms of gender and class.

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I am very grateful to Gilles Verniers, Christophe Jaffrelot, Neelanjana Sen, Avishek Jha, and Ajinkya Mujumdar for their comments and support through various stages of this paper and to all the members of the Bhim Army who took the time to speak with me. I also want to thank the reviewers and editorial team of the SAMAJ for their encouragement and feedback. All the usual disclaimers apply.

  • 1 UP Tak. 2021. “UP Police से उलझे Chandrashekhar Azad, CM Yogi के लिए कही बड़ी बात!” Retrieved Decem (...)

1In a widely shared video from 2020, Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan, a Dalit man sporting a handlebar moustache and chief of the Bhim Army, can be seeing arguing with the Uttar Pradesh police who had blocked a private venue that was supposed to be used for a press conference addressing the upcoming Panchayat elections in the state. In the video, Azad points out that the police have no jurisdiction over the venue and that it is his constitutional right to speak and express himself freely.1 When the police refuse to listen, insisting that they had nothing to do with blocking off the venue, Azad insinuates that there could be serious repercussions for them in the area if they continue doing “things of this sort.” As the police cross their arms and tell him they cannot allow the press conference to be held, he begins to walk away, announcing that they will meet again soon and when they do he will “also have MLAs and power.”

2This episode, one of many documented and uploaded on the Bhim Army’s YouTube channel, gives an indication of the everyday realities of democratic functioning in India and the state of Uttar Pradesh. It shows the daily struggles of marginalized political actors and their strategies for dealing with everyday challenges. The video also points to a new form of Dalit social politics, one based on questions of power, bossism, and civic masculine performance.

3The Bhim Army Bharat Ekta Mission (popularly known as the Bhim Army) was founded in 2015 by four students—Chandrashekhar Azad, Vinay Ratan Singh, Manjeet Singh Nautiyal, and Kamal Walia—in response to the increase in discrimination and caste-based violence faced by Dalit students at an intermediate college in Uttar Pradesh’s westernmost district of Saharanpur after the electoral defeat of the BSP in the 2012 elections (Daniyal 2017; Kulshreshth 2023). Operating in and around Saharanpur district in the early days, the Bhim Army has drawn on the history of social mobilizations and political organizations in Uttar Pradesh (see Jaoul 2006 and 2013; V. Kumar 2006; Pai 2002; Tiwari 2016; Ahuja 2019), to mobilize a new class of Dalit youth as “protectors” of Dalit honor. In its initial years, the Bhim Army focused on local-level conflicts, engaging with upper-caste organizations through social mobilization using the vocabulary of Ambedkarite politics—referring to the emancipatory ideas of Dr. Ambedkar (Omvedt 1994; Hantal 2022, for a review on Ambedkarism). However, what made the organization different from previous forms of Dalit groups, like the BSP, was its use of confrontational strategies and a willingness to respond with violence and threats.

4Drawing on a variety of conceptualizations of power as well as the rhetoric enshrined in the Bhim Army’s discourse, this paper looks at ways in which the Bhim Army and contemporary Dalit movements are creating and conceptualizing new forms of identity assertion and strategies of power, especially in their interactions with the state and within the context of broader sociocultural caste marginalization. I build on Michelutti et al.’s (2019) idea of “boss power” as a cultural repertoire and “style” through which local actors practice and institutionalize functional power between the state and society.

5The following sections will look at two performative elements of counterhegemonic power through “bossism” in Bhim Army discourse and their subsequent strategies: the creation of the Dalit “boss” through practices of civic masculinity and radical victimhood and the exercise of boss power within the fields of law, public culture (A. Gupta 1995), and civil society.

6I will first discuss sociocultural ideas of power and powerlessness in relation to caste and how they structure the Bhim Army’s discursive practices today. In the second section, I will show how the Bhim Army creates and deploys bossing as a cultural style in order to imagine and exercise social power. I will focus specifically on ideas of masculinity, victimhood, and civic activism. Section three will look at the Bhim Army’s strategies of power for “making the state work.”


7The ideas developed in this paper are the result of research I conducted between 2020 and 2021. Much of this research took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, which heavily restricted my ability to carry out traditional fieldwork due to ethical, logistical, and health concerns (Wood et al. 2020). As a result, most of the qualitative analysis in the paper has been produced using two methods: digital ethnography (Biju 2016) and extended semistructured and unstructured interviews (Qu and Dumay 2011) over Zoom, WhatsApp video, and phone calls. From August 2020 to April 2021, I conducted digital ethnography to monitor the social media accounts of the Bhim Army, its affiliate organizations, and its activist networks on Facebook and Twitter. I created a separate Twitter handle to follow all public accounts of the Bhim Army and prominent Dalit influencers. I also joined four Facebook groups of varying sizes that indicated some association with the Bhim Army. I attended over 30 Facebook Lives by prominent Bhim Army leaders and joined two Bhim Army WhatsApp groups to monitor their content with the members’ consent. Data gathered from Facebook and WhatsApp groups have been anonymized due to their semipublic nature.

8For long interviews, I used the snowball sampling method (Noy 2008) by reaching out to a few prominent leaders on social media, scheduling interviews with them, and then using their networks to contact other leaders. I was eventually added to a WhatsApp group called “Bhim Army Sampurna Bharat Group” (Bhim Army All-India Group) with multiple leaders. Using their WhatsApp bios and cross-referencing their names to their Twitter account, I identified and set up interviews with a range of district, regional, and national leaders and activists. Overall, I interviewed 10 people for 1–1.5 hours and conducted follow-up interviews with five of them that lasted 30–45 minutes. Three interviewees were from Madhya Pradesh, one was from Maharashtra, and six were from Uttar Pradesh. There was one woman, and the rest were men. One of the interviewees was Muslim, six were Jatav, and the other three were from the Valmiki, Khatik, and Kori communities, respectively. During a research trip to Saharanpur in November 2021, I was also able to conduct in-person interviews with members of the Bhim Army Yuva Morcha, the Bhim Army Youth Wing. The members’ names have been used with their permission. The names have been anonymized where permission was not granted.

9As a young forward-caste researcher studying a Dalit movement, I am aware of critiques of the ways in which such scholarly studies can often perpetuate casteist knowledge control and manipulate Dalit subjectivities through the upper-caste gaze (Guru and Sarukkai 2012; Somwanshi 2017). In developing my arguments and conducting my fieldwork, I have attempted to be critically reflexive about my arguments in this paper, as well as in my interactions with, and writing about research participants. At the same time, this research is inspired by anticaste studies looking at caste not only as a sociological phenomenon to be studied but also as a set of unequal power relations to be resisted and critiqued (Dhanda and Manoharan 2022; Rawat and Satyanarayana 2016). Indeed, my research interest in the Bhim Army is a result of some of my affinities as a researcher with their stated aims. One cannot help but feel morally outraged and sympathetic to the organization being covered, especially when dealing with daily cases of atrocities ranging from the desecration of Dalit monuments to rape and murder. Instead of attempting to maintain “academic neutrality” in this context, I chose to function with a “cynical attitude” (Jaoul 2008).

10While conducting interviews, my position as a young male researcher often allowed me to easily connect with male members of the Bhim Army, many of whom were more than willing to share their experience with “a student” who was also someone from “the outside” and could thereby help publicize their cause. Once I made contact with a key leader who was the head of Bhim Army in Madhya Pradesh, I used his reference to speak with various other leaders. In the case of women leaders and one Muslim member, however, it was tougher to connect over a call. They only agreed to speak with me after I shared my social media details, which “proved” my credentials. I was able to supplement the interviews with digital ethnography.

Bossism, Caste, and the Bhim Army

11The term “Dalit” here refers to a historically marginalized group of ex-untouchable castes who, through a mix of sociopolitical mobilization and government-led affirmative action policies, have gained some upward mobility since India’s Independence (Gundimeda 2016; Kumar 2006; Rao 2009; Thorat 2009). This mobility has been uneven. Indeed, there has been a rise in regionally prominent subcastes who have dominated sociopolitical movements as well as benefitted disproportionately from government affirmative action policies. In Uttar Pradesh, this has been the case for the numerically dominant Chamar or Jatav subcastes (for politics of naming, see Rawat 2003), who have traditionally been associated with the leather industry (Rawat 2003; Pai 2001 and 2002; Lynch 1969). Nonetheless, Chamar-led Dalit assertion in Uttar Pradesh has been significant in establishing a political base for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a Dalit ethnic political party that has its roots in the electoral-administrative formulation of “unity in oppression” and seeks to unite a range of Dalit, Backward, and Minority groups under the umbrella of bahujan (the many) and create a political coalition to ensure Dalit representation in the Indian state (Kumar 2006; Pai 2002; Ahuja 2019). The BSP won multiple elections in Uttar Pradesh between 1995 and 2007 and was instrumental in establishing welfare policies for Dalits in the state along with making Dalit discourse mainstream under Mayawati, India’s first woman Dalit Chief Minister from the Chamar subcaste and the party’s head (Jaffrelot 2003; Kumar 2006). Since the 1990s, many Dalits—predominantly Chamars, but also those from other groups—have entered educational institutions, emerged as political leaders, and seen a rise in their economic position (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2004; 2008).

12With the rise of Hindu nationalism since 2014, many young Chamar people—especially those belonging to the emerging lower middle class in Uttar Pradesh—have seen a reversal in their position. Hindu nationalism has coopted aspects of the Dalit movement to break the Dalit electoral coalitions while simultaneously bringing about an upper-caste orthopraxy in its functioning (Ashraf 2019; Dreze 2020; Jaffrelot 2021). In Uttar Pradesh, there have been several high-profile cases of atrocities against Dalits since the Hindu monk Ajay Bisht, an upper-caste Thakur, was appointed chief minister after 2017. Dalit symbols and infrastructure developed under the BSP have been displaced or vandalized. The state has also cracked down against Dalit activists who have opposed its Hindu nationalist bent, while the government networks and power of emerging Dalit “new politicians” (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2008)—young, educated men working as brokers and community leaders—have eroded.

13In this context, the Bhim Army negotiates and exercises power in the face of socioeconomic and political challenges across various domains. Since its inception, the Bhim Army has proliferated and is now present in every district in Uttar Pradesh and in most states across the country. As it has grown, the organization has drawn on a small but significant pool of young educated Dalit men from the lower middle class, many with no family involvement in Dalit politics. Unlike previous generations of the Dalit middle class, all but two of the members I interviewed had never been employed in government or had family members who were government employees. While a large part of the organization is from the numerically and politically dominant Chamar subcaste, the organization has put a great deal of emphasis on recreating the original Dalit-Bahujan alliance of the BSP and has therefore recruited and given positions of power to several Muslims, non-Jatav Dalits, and some “backward castes.”

14Two questions remain in the discussion so far. What do we mean by “boss power?” And how can we understand ideas of boss power in relation to caste marginalization?

15For my theorization, I will focus on two aspects of power: its functional nature, dealing with how power functions “on the ground”; and its sociocultural composition, or how power is understood, socialized, and maintained. While power can be exercised and constructed across multiple institutional and noninstitutional domains, I am specifically interested in the interactive space of state and society where power is exercised.

16Bacharach and Baratz define functional power as “who gets what and how” and “who is left out” (Bachrach and Baratz 1963), which is not simply observable or positive but also negatively exercised through nondecision-making, influenced by the social, cultural, economic, and political backgrounds of various participants (632). In its functioning, power is a subtext deployed through various nonforce resources, including threats of meaningful sanctions and deprivation. For marginalized actors, challenging functional power therefore includes simultaneous attempts at participating in existing frameworks of power, as well as mobilizing to erode the social, political, cultural, and economic basis of the subtext of power (Debnam 1975:892; Stone 2006).

17In the context of India, scholars have shown how caste—through cultural hegemony and directed violence—constitutes a subtext that shapes Dalit subjectivities. For example, Gupta (2010) details how the figure of the Dalit man was constructed in the modern colonial imagination as weak, laborious, servile, “simple-hearted,” and stupid while also being criminal and lecherous (C. Gupta 2010:321). Masculinity within the system of graded inequality was also imagined through an upper-caste grihastha (householder) who controlled serfs, laborers, servants, a wife, children, and property as well as through the role of the Kshatriya warrior. In both conceptualizations, the Dalit man was seen as the source of “performing” masculinity through ritual and structural subservience or atrocities (Chakravarti 1993).

18The Gandhian conception of the Harijan—a controversial and largely abandoned term for Dalits meaning literally “people of god”—built on these ideas by imaging upper-caste intervention driven by grandeur and civility as an antidote to “Harijan victimization” and the Harijan’s “self-imposed social exclusion” (Jodhka 2002). With the institutionalization of Gandhian benevolence as state policy after Independence, statist interventions were often led by the same patronizing discourse, rejecting any self-definition or mobilization-driven actions by Dalits (Jaffrelot 2003; Jaoul 2006).

19The production of Hindu Nationalism by masculine insecurities resulting from the “British gaze” has been documented by various scholars (Patwardhan 1994; Banerjee 2012). However, the Nehruvian state apparatus also engaged with these colonial insecurities by using Western rational citizenship as a definitional framework (Kaviraj 2000; Nigam 2000) to allocate participative resources through social formations, including its engagement with Dalits. This engagement reduced their status to subjects, vote banks, or criminals, often associated with the Dalit male body, and followed vocabularies of martial classes (Dasgupta 2020), criminal tribes (Gupta 2010), or marginalized subjects.

20Even after extending the franchise and constitutional rights to all citizens after Independence, the epistemological origins of these rights continued to be defined by narratives of “civility” and “rationality” in the public sphere, operationalized through upper-caste male participation and vanguardism. Within the political sphere, the Congress party’s “coalition of the extremes” converted citizens into vote banks through clientelist relations (Kothari 1964), relying on the same processes of ritual masculinization in the social sphere. Using socioeconomic control over Dalits, landlords would “deliver votes” to the state. This citizen-subject binary is also reflected in academic works such as Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil and political, where political society is seen as more “authentic” due to the operationalization of “actual democracy” by Dalits and other “subaltern” subjects within the political sphere (Chatterjee 2004). Chandra’s definition of Dalit parties as carriers of “elite patronage politics” also perpetuates this binary by portraying Dalit voters as passive subjects who vote for ethnic parties, for ethnic associations and the possibility of patronage (Chandra 2004).

21These processes of marginalization have not gone unchallenged. Indeed, as my examination of the Bhim Army will show, Dalit movements have rejected and resisted patronizing state discourses and actively created alternate vocabularies and identities. In doing so, Dalit groups have specifically used masculinization and respectability as strategies, often through sociocultural mediums of visual masculinity (S. Anandhi, J. Jeyaranjan, and Rajan Krishnan 2002) and the creation of rational and reasoned publics within the civil sphere by building new political subjectivities (C. Gupta 2010:333; Rawat 2003).

22However, the scholarship cited here, while providing impressive vignettes of Dalit associational life through the counterhegemonic performance of masculinity, has often not sufficiently engaged with masculinity and muscularity as strategies or paths toward cultivating functional power. Furthermore, scholars have often ignored the civic potential of such counterhegemonic masculinities (for an exception, see Waghmore 2012).

23To fill this gap, I suggest the idea of “boss power,” drawing on Michelutti et al.’s (2019) concept of performative and negotiated functional power between the state and society, specifically the liminal brokers and agents of power. Michelutti et al. examine how power is exercised through the figure of “the Boss” in South Asian societies where postcolonial economies and polities have functioned at the level of dual authority, the formal and the informal (Michelutti et al. 2019). Especially in Uttar Pradesh, as Michelutti shows, bosses are highly mythologized figures incorporating historical and cultural repertoires of power and muscularity to command “personal sovereignty” within the sphere of the state and society (Michelutti 2017).

24Three features of boss power are important when analyzing the Bhim Army: interaction with the state, the use and potential of violence, and the institutionalization of power through electoral competition. The state plays a vital role in the manifestation of boss power in South Asia, where it acts as a supplementary agent through which systems of intermediaries interact when obtaining and influencing material and symbolic resources. Their ability to perform power in this feature is premised on the existence of “sovereign power,” whereby the state recognizes actors not only as intervening agents who perform these tasks through requests, pleas, and bribes but as legitimate influencers exercising sovereign control (Michelutti et al. 2019:4). This personal sovereignty is often accumulated and enacted through the capacity of violence, which in turn empowers legitimacy.

25However, while Michelutti et al. examine the state and economy of the boss in the mafia and criminal systems, my analysis of the Bhim Army does not seek to place them within these traditions. Instead, I situate the Bhim Army within a larger culture that enables the use of counterhegemonic power (Im 1991) by social movements operating within such localized semilegal and criminal moral and political economy, particularly by cultivating personal sovereignty. Bossism as a performance of power, therefore, is a useful cultural repertoire through which marginalized actors can play the field of functional power without being part of the criminal or mafia economies that create such repertoires in the first place.

Radical Victimhood and the Politics of Viral Outrage

  • 2 Literally Hail Bhim, referring to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

26One of the Bhim Army’s earliest mobilizations was its response to upper-caste protests around a signboard with the words “The Great Chamar” that was erected in the village of Gharkoli, which had a large Jatav Dalit population and a Jatav headman. In response to the signboard’s placement at the entry point of the village, local upper-caste organizations, with the help of a senior Brahmin police officer, mobilized and demanded the removal of the word “great” (Sethi 2016). The village’s Dalit headman agreed to remove the sign. However, Chamar youth in the village reached out to the Bhim Army, who came riding in on Harley Davidson motorbikes shouting slogans of Jai Bhim,2 and mobilized a large crowd to protest the move and pressure the administration.

27Over the next year, the Bhim Army responded to increasing cases of statues being defaced, caste atrocities, and administrative neglect. They perfected their strategies of outrage, action, and mobilization, linking the discourse on self-respect to the need for a vigilant Dalit society. In his work on Dalit Panthers in Uttar Pradesh, Jaoul (2013) conceptualizes “politicizing victimhood” as a move away from passive Harijan victimhood toward more radical forms of production of outrage (Jaoul 2013:21) by the Panthers in response to atrocities and acts of violence. Jaoul’s characterization of the image of a crying mother next to an angry man giving a speech, disconnecting atrocities from upper-caste charity or the upper-caste gaze and instead linking it to forms of Dalit anger, is important for understanding how the Bhim Army has built on earlier strategies of producing community outrage in order to actualize Dalit victimhood. In protesting against atrocities or mobilizing around issues, the Bhim Army has largely engaged in similar acts of contrast through their online broadcasting of personal meetings with victims’ families, which have expanded the moral framework around the production of outrage.

28Using the vocabulary of constitutional rights and social justice, the organization has drawn from the moral legitimacy of the Constitution created by Dr Ambedkar (Jangam 2017), which Dalits have long celebrated as a counterbalance to the “laws of Manu”: a popular ancient Brahminical legal text that provides a base for Brahminical Patriarchy (Dirks 2001). In doing so, the Bhim Army has extended victimhood not only as the production of community outrage or the performance of anger, but also as a violation of constitutional protections and guarantees. I use the term “radical victimhood” (Samuels 1992) here instead of Jaoul’s “political victimhood,” as the latter assumes that either the discourse on caste atrocities was not part of the Indian state’s political considerations before the BPD’s push for reorientation or that Dalit self-victimhood was something that was itself new. However, as Rao (2009) shows, the category of atrocity and the idea of “Untouchable” victimhood was always political and conceptualized by the state (at least formally) as well as by Dalit groups as an arena of intervention (Rao 2009).

29Furthermore, the “radical” in the Bhim Army’s conceptualization of victimhood is not so much the electoralization of violence, but instead, as I will later show, the linking of this violence to the direct violation of the role of the state and the Constitution, as opposed to simply an act of communal or social violence. The state’s role within this discourse is then radically altered, where Dalits are no longer petitioning subjects or “subaltern” communities within the state, but active citizens functioning within the moral economy of the Constitution rather than that of the society. The state, instead of being the “mai-bap” (paternal-maternal figure) or the patron, (C. Gupta 2010; Chandra 2004; Tiwari 2016) is the agent against whom rights must be demanded, often in “radical” ways including threats, dharnas (strikes), gheraos (encirclement), and even violence.

  • 3 Rai, P. 2021. UP: Youth beaten up by neighbours, sustains 19 fractures, dies. Times of India, Jan (...)
  • 4 Sirohi, D. 2021. आकाश हत्याकांड: पाल समाज की महापंचायत आज, व्यापार संघ ने की बाजार बंद रखने की घोष (...)

30To understand this process better, we can use Chandrashekhar Azad’s Facebook Live following the death of Akash Pal, a Dalit from the Gadariya-Pal community who was beaten to death by a Brahmin couple in Meerut on the night of January 11, 2021.3 The police in the case allegedly refused to file an FIR at first and refused to arrest any of the accused once it was filed.4 After Pal’s death in the hospital on January 27, 2021, and the police’s delay in taking action, his family members reached out to the Bhim Army’s local representatives, who proceeded to stage a protest by blocking roads and calling for a citywide bandh (general strike/shutting down). Azad visited the family on January 30, 2021, when he asked the family about the incident and pointed out that the fact that something similar could happen in a Pal stronghold was indicative of the administration’s complicity in protecting the accused. He went on to tell the crowd that “while our parents may have been oppressed, we will not be” and that “everyone needed to come together.”

  • 5 Facebook Live from Bhim Army page on Facebook, January 30, 2021.
  • 6 Hindustan. 2021. आकाश हत्याकांड में इनामी दंपति की गिरफ्तारी को चार जिलों में दबिश,” February 1. R (...)

31In response to those who pointed out that people had repeatedly requested the police to act on the matter and to no avail, Azad said that “to trust that the police will actually work for your welfare is to believe in something false.” He added that “the Constitution gave all of us rights, and it was the police’s duty to do right by the family without being requested, as they are people’s servants.” He promised to take up the matter and ensure justice for the family and the community. When people began thanking him, he asked them to stop, as this was “his duty as their son,” and instead requested they give him “their blessings.” At this point, the victim’s father was quite overwhelmed and began crying. Seeing this, Azad asked the father not to cry and, with tears in his eyes, said that he would cry if he saw the father crying.5 The police finally arrested the couple, who they claimed had been “absconding” on February 1, 2021.6

32This event, documented and livestreamed through social media, clearly captures how the Bhim Army engages with radical victimhood, both methodologically—through radical forms of protests like chakka jams (road blockages), dharnas, and bandhs, which help to visualize and bring attention to the outrage—as well as discursively, by engaging with the state and the society through the moral economy of constitutional rights and duties as sources of power. Furthermore, the visual imagery of Azad crying next to the victim’s father and asking for his blessing to provide justice to “a brother” imbues the event with a sense of powerful victimhood, which acknowledges the everyday atrocities faced by Dalits in the country while simultaneously projecting a sense of power associated with the rhetoric of communal justice embodied by Azad.

Civic Masculinity

33The second move away from passive victimhood and toward the cultivation of counterhegemonic power has been the reconstruction of the Dalit self in popular discourse through developing alternative vocabularies and ideas of Dalit masculinities. As opposed to upper-caste hegemonic masculinities defined in the previous sections (Connell 2005), here the Bhim Army engages in what I will refer to as “civic masculinities,” actualized not through the oppressive frameworks of masculine performance but, rather, employed in the process of Waghmore’s conception of the Dalit remaking of civil democratic life (Waghmore 2013).

34In the case of the Bhim Army, this involves simultaneous attempts at inversing caste emasculation and cultivating a new Dalit citizenship within the civil sphere. Bhim Army members have emphasized both the visual performance of masculinity through the ways in which they talk and carry themselves, often using interpellative features of North Indian masculinity in the form of moustaches, guns, Scorpio cars, and Harley Davidson bikes (Hall 2009; Daniyal 2017), as well as through active engagement in the discourse of rationality and Constitutionalism. We can understand how the organization constructs and deploys ideas of civic masculinity by looking at the following vignettes.

  • 7 Interview conducted in February 2021.
  • 8 “Harijan” is literally translated as “the people of god.”

35In an interview with Manvendra Bodh,7 the district chief of the Bhim Army in Jalaun whose Twitter profile features a “pinned tweet” showing him proudly holding a gun and demanding the right to arms for all Dalits, I asked about his thoughts on the use of the term “Harijan.” He related the term to the rape of Dalit women by pandits (Brahmin priests), whose “bastards” would then be called Harijan.8 For Bodh, the term carried connotations of the loss of “community honor” and emasculation, making it problematic. The rejection of the term for him was linked not only to the discursive arena of the rejection of passive victimhood, but also involved the performance of “being a man” by protecting Dalit women. He told me that he personally prefers the signifier of being azad (free), as it is linked to Dr. Ambedkar’s notions of civil liberties and modern identities outside of the oppressive social structure. However, he continued to imagine a free community through the performance of community protection.

36Among many others, Kannabiran et al. (1991) have shown how community honor is constructed around the honor of women in caste societies, where—especially in the context of hegemonic masculinities—Dalit women are subject to humiliation, rape, and sexual assault by upper-caste men in order to “teach [the entire community] a lesson” to and “socially castrate” Dalit men (Kannabiran and Kannabiran 1991). In this context, the concern echoed in Bodh’s discourse and those of other leaders—while playing into tropes of “protecting our women” in his conception of masculinity—is still civic, as it does not imagine masculinity through the performance of oppression as limiting the role of women in public spaces, but instead does so through a discursive shift in self-identity and thereby civil-democratic life.

37On another level, the Bhim Army also deploys Dalit masculinity against upper-caste masculinities through the appropriation and invocation of pride. A prime example is “The Great Chamar” signboard erected in a village in Saharanpur that brought much publicity to the Bhim Army.

38After the backlash against the signboard and the simultaneous attack on a young Dalit man for sporting a moustache, the Bhim Army linked the personal to the political by asking Dalits in and around Saharanpur to post pictures on social media of them riding motorbikes and displaying their moustaches, in addition to using strategies of mobilization and defiance to stop the signboard from being torn down. Here it adopted similar strategies and aesthetics as other dominant-caste youth street “gangs” (Michelutti et al. 2019), riding in on motorbikes, creating a ruckus, issuing threats, and generally being “macho” (Michelutti 2020b). The signboard and its use of the term “Great” were linked to Dalit male pride, and thus any attack on it by upper-caste requests to remove it was linked to the emasculation of this pride (Sethi 2016).

39The use of masculinization in both of the cases discussed so far is linked to notions of self-respect, which do not seek to create an “other” but, rather, reinforce the right to participate in the cultural performance of power and pride. While in one way this is a reactionary response to years of Dalit emasculation, in another way it is also a defiant claim on the participative arena of the social politics of power as practiced in North India, where the performance of masculinity and muscularity defines the association of power. Thus, to be able to perform bossism, you must look and act like a boss (Picherit 2020). That the signboard and its invocation of the Great Chamar, in particular, have been imagined as forms of masculine Chamar assertion is evident from subsequent popular representation of the term.

40Figures 1.1–1.3 (below) show popular imageries of the terminology and the incident. In all three images, the representation of Chamar Manhood follows symbols associated with dominant forms of masculinity in North India. The use of the lion in figure 1.1, along with the poem linking Chamar identity with fear and authority, uses these ideas without mentioning the figure of the man. Figures 1.2 and 1.3 extensively use the symbols of the tractor and the jeep, both associated with technological rural masculinities (Brandth 1995). Figure 1.2 also uses the image of a well-built and well-dressed man displaying a gun, playing into narratives of male protectors and armed masculinity in the discourse around the “Great Chamar.” “Chamar Badmash” (Notorious Chamar) is an interesting reappropriation of the discourse on Chamar male notoriety and criminality (C. Gupta 2010).

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1

Popular Facebook status about the Great Chamar. The text reads as follows: “There is no city, where we do not inspire fear. Let me add to that: there is no street where a Chamar cannot get his way.” Source:​243446276198900/​posts/​the-great-chamar/​287772238432970/​.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2

Photoshopped image from the Facebook page “The Great Chamar.” The text reads: “He is here: Chamar Sahab (sir)” on the left and “Notorious Chamar” on the right. Source:​The-Great-chamar-466824770446624/​.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3

Screenshot from a song on YouTube titled “The Great Chamar Song.” The text reads: “We are Dabang” (a powerful and masculine figure of performance, inspired by a movie of the same name) and “everyone is harassed” (see Michelutti 2020a for more on Dabangs). Source:​watch?v=O6XEWmi7pZ0.

  • 9 Chauhan, S. and R. Lal. 2021 Chandrashekhar Azad का सबसे बेबाक Interview देखिए | The Shudra | The (...)

41Beyond just (re)conceptualizing and deploying masculinities, members of the Bhim Army also perform masculinities in their everyday styles and aesthetic representation. Members generally wear a spotless white shirt and dark pants (usually associated with student organizations) along with a blue Ambedkarite scarf, and, most of them have a moustache. In doing so, they communicate a distinct style of masculinity linked to their status as young, educated middle-class Dalit men, even as they draw on other traditional features of masculinity. Many of these ideas are also visualized by rejecting the fetishized ideas of poverty deeply ingrained within the popular imagination of the semiclothed, starving, and village-based “Dalit subject” in India. In an interview with Dr. Ratan Lal, Azad agreed that it was important for Dalits to flaunt their wealth and status as a way of recognizing the struggles that they had to face, as well as reclaiming the space of respectability denied to Dalits even when they have achieved class mobility.9 Instead of the semi-clothed, starving, village-based “Dalit subject,” the Bhim Army, therefore, conceptualizes at the center of its identity a well-dressed, educated middle-class, mustached Dalit man on a Harley Davidson bike.

42The role of the moustache within this discourse is particularly important. Various calls to action by the Bhim Army use the moustache as a direct representation of masculinity, pride, and honor.

  • 10 Nair, R. 2021. Privatisation Gets Mega Push in Budget 2021, Most Ambitious Plan since Vajpayee Era (...)

43In a Facebook Live after the government announced a massive privatization drive,10 Azad likened the government’s actions to “someone chopping off your moustache” when speaking about the importance of the public sector for ensuring generational mobility for Dalits. He urged the cadre and viewers to feel the shame of this act and associate it with the government’s rollback, asking people to “fight for their honor” and their rights in each district.

44In Azad’s call to action, the act of someone cutting off the moustache plays into two important social connotations. The first is associated with the moustache as the performance of publicly visible manhood: something that “differentiates the men from women” and is a more “public feature” compared to the penis (Dahms 2011), the cutting off of which in many ways represents the phallic social castration that expresses the loss of manhood under dominance (Chowdhry 2015). Second, the Dalit moustache is a symbol of a hard-earned honor and pride, whose cutting off reminds the listeners of the continuing humiliation perpetuated by upper caste hegemonic masculinity, thereby linking a visceral socio-personal experience to greater civic demands.

45The livestream illustrates another aspect of the Bhim Army’s discourse on masculinity, viewing education as a source of “individual dignity and masculine prowess” (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2004:974) in the context of an employment crisis for a growing number of young, educated Dalits prompted by a decreasing number of government jobs and the upper-caste networked control of the private sector (Jodhka 2008). Such a crisis has meant that, in the absence of “respectable” sources of employment for educated Dalit youth, they have had to engage in the traditional and oppressive forms of manual labor that they sought to escape through education.

46Given the ongoing societal and structural barriers (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery 2004) to obtaining and maintaining educational respectability, returning to physical and semiformal sources of underemployment in particular involves an undermining of masculine prowess. Here, the Bhim Army’s opposition to privatization and the demand for more jobs for Dalits is linked to the lived realities of the new generation of young, lower-middle-class, and educated Dalits who have witnessed this crisis of respectability—many of whom are members of the Bhim Army.

47Nevertheless, education and middle-class identity continue to be important components of members’ identities. In my interviews, members of the Bhim Army often distinguished themselves as parhe-likhe (educated) as opposed to the bechare (helpless) or gharib log (poor people) that they sought to help. At the same time, many of them were also critical of the “forward(s)”—referring to the upper-middle-class and generationally mobile Dalits, whom they considered either too disengaged from “the ground” or having “forgotten about their people” entirely. As opposed to the poor, uneducated masses and the disengaged elite, some members therefore imagined their position “in the middle” as being best suited morally and socially to bringing about change and “uplifting” Dalit society.

48By focusing on education, aesthetics, and virility, the Bhim Army has thus sought to cultivate a boss identity that allows it to communicate and perform both the civic and cultural components of masculinity in its everyday discursive practice.

  • 11 Azad, Chandrashekhar (@bhimarmychief. 2021. किसान आंदोलन एवं CAA, NRC आंदोलन के दौरान आंदोलनकारियो (...)

49Finally, beyond serving simply as a “gang” or a pressure group, the Bhim Army also functions as a civic association for young, middle-class Dalit men by representing its members’ interests through activism at local and national levels, engaging with policy parameters, and developing activist networks. Its engagement with a broader public beyond social media and local-level activism—carried out through press conferences and interactions with international organizations and movements like the UN,11 Equality Labs, Black Lives Matter, and the Harvard India Conference—also allow it to create a space within the sphere of civil society. In this form, the Bhim Army also challenges constructed binaries between civil and political societies based on colonial-masculine ideas of upper-caste “rational” citizens as opposed to lower-caste “political” subjects.

50While reconceptualizing and challenging notions of hegemonic masculinity, the organization’s engagement with gender remains fairly limited. In almost all of my conversations with leaders of the Bhim Army, references to women were encoded within moral or familial discourses. Women were either mentioned in their role as victims of upper-caste sexual violence or as “mothers and sisters” in need of protection. Furthermore, Dalit women’s experience of sexual violence was often discussed in conjunction with upper-caste “immorality.”

51The organization’s political and civic functioning, while undeniably dominated by a masculine culture prioritizing forms of male solidarity and brotherhood, and viewed through masculine identities in opposition to dominant masculinities, is also shaped and influenced by a large number of Dalit women—for instance, through social media where Dalit women influencers form a vital part of the Dalit discourse (Subramanian 2021). This role is also extended to the political-discursive arena, driven in part by the prominence of Mayawati—popularly known as Behenji (older sister)—as a leading Dalit political figure and in part by the cultural and ideological foundations of Ambedkarite thought as linked to the emancipation of women (Rege 1998; Vajpeyi 2016).

52Some women representatives of the Bhim Army were actively engaged in ground mobilization, tending to victims and negotiating with the administration, and were seen as important leaders within the Mandal. However, when women participated within the Bhim Army, they were often relegated to a separate vertical organization called the Mahila Morcha or included in the political wing, Azad Samaj Party, instead of occupying positions in the central Bhim Army organization.

Functional Power and the State in North India

53Based on my analysis of how the Bhim Army employs concepts of masculinity and victimhood to establish counterhegemonic “boss power,” this section examines how this power is put into action and its effectiveness vis-a-vis the state. More specifically, three interconnected arenas of power will be scrutinized: law enforcement, public culture, and electoral politics. By examining how these strategies interact, we can better understand how the Bhim Army mobilizes and shapes its relationship with various sociocultural and state institutions.

54Various academic works have examined the creation and sustenance of localized criminal economies in India and their interaction with the country’s political culture. In her work on goonda politics in Uttar Pradesh, Michelutti (2020b:3) identifies such criminal economies as often being directly linked to state power obtained through democratic and political resources, whereby business survival is attached to a “negotiated” lack of law enforcement.

55Within the context of intense democratic competition and limited state capacity, the control of the state proves especially essential in ensuring material, political, and social resources. Control of the state not only grants individuals and communities economic and political rewards, but also provides control over the large policing and judicial networks—making justice and the state’s monopoly on “legal violence” important tools in actualizing power.

56Performing power thus is fundamentally linked to the democratic and political ability of bosses to influence the competition and participate against the state. In this way, “boss power” can be actualized in two broader contexts: power through the state, whereby negotiations, directives, and patronage can be provided using institutional mechanisms, and power against the state, whereby even in the absence of direct political capture of state institutions, the state can be made to perform actions it might not otherwise.

  • 12 Singh, A. 2017. UP Cabinet a Balancing Act of Castes, Allies. Times of India, March 20. Retrieved (...)
  • 13 Saurabh. 2018. 2019 लोकसभा चुनाव से पहले आई ये आफत मोदी-योगी को सबसे ज्यादा सता रही होगी. The Lal (...)

57In the case of Uttar Pradesh, where the police are generally seen as largely politicized and corrupt (Pullat 2018) and the rule of law as enshrined in the system of the judiciary is viewed as either too slow or equally corrupt (Verniers 2014), power can be measured by who controls the state and who is able to get it to perform the desired functions despite this control. Since 2017, the state has been ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), whose chief minister, Ajay Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, is a Thakur Rajput from Gorakhpur and the mahant (Head Priest) of the Gorakhnath shrine. While the BJP has undertaken what has been called a “balancing act”12 in the composition of its cabinet by appointing seven Dalit ministers, the government led by Adityanath has been accused of casteism and anti-Dalit tendencies by a range of actors, including its Dalit MPs.13 Scholars like Jaffrelot (2021) have argued that the rise of Hindu nationalism in the state has ensured the “promotion of some upper-caste orthopraxy” through the dilution of the discourse on social justice of the past years, and a legal sanction to upper-caste displays of violent power (Jaffrelot 2021).

  • 14 20-year-old Bhim Army student leader. Interview with author (February 2021).

58In this regard, the state, as driven by government control, is both the agent, through the legal system, police force, and the courts, as well as the target of opposition because of its political and caste control against which Bhim Army conceptualizes its power. In the words of Rajan Gautam,14 who inspired the title of this paper, “Sabse bara gunda to sarkar hai” (the State is the biggest goonda). Using constitutional and legal guarantees alongside the numerical strength of the caste identity, the Bhim Army is able to cultivate boss power by operationalizing the masculine identity of the Dalit boss backed by the constitutional rhetoric of rights at the level of state authority and righteous threats of violence at the level of the social domination.

  • 15 Ambedkarite Peoples Voice. 2021. भीम आर्मी प्रमुख चंद्रशेखर आजाद और पुलिस अधिकारी में फिर हुई नोक (...)

59This dual role can be understood with reference to the video to which I initially referred, showing Azad arguing with police officers who (presumably under political orders) had shut down a local site where the Bhim Army had planned to hold its press conference, later telling them that “he will meet them once again soon.”1 In another incident on April 17, 2021, while going for a Panchayat election rally in Uttar Pradesh, Azad was stopped by the Muzaffarnagar police who restricted him from taking more than one car and threatened him with police action. In the video from this incident,15 Azad can be heard reminding the police personnel that they are “servants of the people” (janta ke naukar), not the government’s stooges, and that it is his right to move around in his car. Linking their refusal to Azad’s potential to incite violence or create social conflict, they claim that Azad’s movement is being restricted following an order from the magistrate. When Azad asks for the written order, the police officers present become rude, and Azad tells them to “lower their hand[s]” and “speak respectfully” (tamiz se bat karo). When one of the police officers asks Azad who he is to say that, he responds, “I am the people” (janta hain), embodying the power of the visible crowd as a representation of his “personal sovereignty.” There is eventually a perceivable shift in the interaction during this exchange, visibly prompted by Azad’s invocation of the people (as he is surrounded by a significant crowd) along with his angry stare, and the officers become more respectful in their tone and tell him that he can proceed forward, but only in two cars.

60In both of these cases, we see that boss power involves the active use of insinuations and threats, made powerful not by the subsequent carrying out of the threat but, rather, its actualizable potential. For the Bhim Army, it is also linked to the rhetoric and discourse of rights and expectations of the state, in which underlying power dynamics are cloaked in constitutional and legal moralities that complement the organization’s interactions with the state. A third observation concerns the actual ability of boss power to get “something done.” In at least the two cases I explored, the art of bossing involves ensuring that the state treats you with respect more than “getting your way,” something it would not have done otherwise, at the same time as it makes minor rhetorical and actual concessions.

  • 16 Venkataramakrishnan, R. 2018. The Daily Fix: Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar’s Year-long Detention (...)
  • 17 Sengar, M.S. 2019. Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad Arrested Day After Protest in Old Delhi. NDTV, (...)

61It is important to note here that for both the Bhim Army and Chandrashekhar Azad, boss power is not implicit but is instead produced through constant conflict with the state. At various points during this process, Azad, as well as various Bhim Army leaders and karyakartas, have been arrested by the police.16 In Azad’s case, when he was granted bail by the High Court in 2017 after the Shabbirpur case with the court observing that the charges were “politically motivated,” the state arrested him under the National Security Act (NSA). The police detained him for 15 months, during which time his health deteriorated significantly. He was also detained overnight after the Ravidas temple protests in Delhi in 2019 and arrested for at least a week after his protest at Jama Masjid against the CA-NRC.17

62While subsequent cases have been registered against Azad (as seen after the Hathras rape case protests led by the Bhim Army), the police and the administration have not arrested him even in the face of what I would argue are bigger and more confrontational spectacles of protest engaged in by the Bhim Army. This is a surprising development, especially considering the draconian use of state power in Uttar Pradesh against a range of activists, leaders, politicians, and journalists. In February 2021, when I asked Koshal Valmiki, the Bhim Army head for Kanpur, about this change, he ascribed it to sangathan ki takat (power of the organization), the organizational and mobilizing capacity of the Bhim Army having grown manifold since the last time Azad was arrested, and said the government was scared that arresting him might lead to violent protests.

63It is also worth pointing out that while the organization actively uses threats and insinuations as part of its everyday subtext in interacting with the state to get things done, its deployment of actual violence is fairly limited. Indeed, the organization has made active efforts to distance itself from instances of riots and violence with which it has been associated, like the Shabbirpur case or violence in Gwalior. Even when protesting against the government, members have never attacked symbols of the state. While many adopt aggressive postures against upper-caste groups and violence, no member has publicly advocated a direct violent confrontation with such groups. On the one hand, this is a strategic maneuver, given the marginality of Dalits within the government and the experience of state persecution when linked to violence. On the other hand, it is also inspired by an alternate vision of civic action through the constitutional state.

64Besides using the state’s fear of crowds and broadcasting the figure of the boss, the Bhim Army also employs publicity to apply mental pressure and reputational damage. Through the quick production of outrage via social media (Kulshreshth 2023) and the popularity of Chandrashekhar Azad and the Bhim Army, even within the mainstream media, the Bhim Army is able to raise the stakes for administrators in case they do not act. Thus, publicity becomes part of boss power, allowing the Bhim Army to hold administrators and politicians accountable as well as to display power through videos of Azad bossing. Utilizing strategies of virality, outrage, and ground mobilization through social media, the Bhim Army has set a precedent for the dismissal and humiliation of bureaucrats and politicians in their conflict with the state.

  • 18 Mint. 2023. Hathras Gang-rape Case: A Look at the Timeline as UP Court sets 3 Accused Free. March (...)
  • 19 The victim was from the Valmiki samaj, whose members are traditionally employed as cleaners, sweepe (...)
  • 20 Express News Service. 2020. Bhim Army Workers Dump Garbage outside Hathras DM’s Jaipur House. The (...)

65We can look at the functional change in administrative behavior using the example of Hathras District Magistrate (DM) Praveen Kumar Laxka, whose handling of the Hathras rape case—from authorizing the burning of the victim’s body without the family’s consent and issuing veiled threats to members after the case became viral to barring politicians and media personnel from visiting the family members and basically holding the family members hostage—provoked widespread outrage and public anger.18 Before the case gained such national attention, the Bhim Army ensured that videos, stories, and narratives from the case and the administration’s handling came out, bringing mainstream attention to the issue. Enacting popular outrage against the DM using symbolic metrics of the victims’ caste identity (Bodley 2011),19 members of the Bhim Army in Rajasthan also dumped garbage outside the DM’s house in Jaipur,20 thereby bringing more attention to the DM and his actions. Eventually, despite being considered close to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, the DM was transferred from his post.

66The use of publicity in such cases can result in administrators and bureaucrats facing significant backlash and public humiliation for their role in perpetuating state oppression, even if they are not suspended or transferred. This subsequently allows the Bhim Army to ensure that the state fulfills its moral and public duties by producing outrage and the threat of potential publicity.

67Name recognition also plays an important role in exercising power, as it helps individuals establish networks and connections and increases their potential power (Kam and Zechmeister 2013; Neyazi 2018). For Bhim Army members, being known is critical to ensuring that they can use the power of the boss and publicity as actualizable threats, acting as intermediaries between the people and the government (Michelutti et al. 2019).

68Given the tenuous nature of social power, as well as the central nature of the state within an array of conflicting influencers, however, simply acquiring legitimacy and personal sovereignty is not enough. Even after attaining the position of a boss, the exercise of personal sovereignty outside of an individual’s sphere of influence can still be undermined by the state and other competing parties. In this regard, the electoral arena acts as a platform to control the state, legitimize sovereignty through popular mobilization in the form of votes, and gain recognition.

69With the creation of the Azad Samaj Party, the third base of power for Bhim Army members in addition to Chandrashekhar Azad is the institutional potential of electoral politics. In the video I first mentioned, one of the lines that Azad uses while threatening the police officer is “kal hamare bhi MLA honge, phir dekhna tum (We will also have MLAs and then you’ll see). With the 2021 U.P. Panchayat, the party has been able to get a good number of candidates it backs elected to various local bodies. While its performance in the subsequent 2022 legislative elections in Uttar Pradesh was quite dismal, it did manage to mobilize a small but loyal base of educated lower-middle-class youth. During my fieldwork just before the 2021 Panchayat elections, many members recognized the importance of winning electoral power to institutionalize forms of boss power exercised by the Bhim Army. They often spoke about the need to “maintain the legacy of sahab (lit. Sir) Kanshi Ram,” BSP’s founder.

70The organization’s turn to electoral politics, which it initially eschewed, is also a result of the increasing “electoralization” of Indian democracy and growing state violence against social movements. Therefore, building up political networks and constituencies is also focused on avoiding arrest and showing power through electoral mandates. This is not to say that the Bhim Army and Azad Samaj Party can get away with anything in the same way as Mafia bosses or even powerful political leaders can. Both ASP and the Bhim Army still operate within constitutional, semilegal, and moral parameters, engaging in civil outrage rather than violent acts of protests and actively using the state instead of directly fighting with upper-caste groups. The act of bossism here involves making the state work within those same parameters rather than fighting against the state outside of it or subverting the state by acting in contravention of it.

71At the same time, potential institutionalization through the organization’s entry into formal politics might lead to the deradicalization of the Bhim Army in similar ways as those documented by Gorringe (2007) in his influential work on the Dalit Panthers in Tamil Nadu. Indeed, Chandrashekhar Azad’s decision to drop Ravan from his name during the 2019 general elections, and stop its use entirely subsequently is indicative of such a possibility.


72With the operationalization of power through various new nonstate actors, the centrality of the state in social science is changing. The rise of the Bhim Army can be attributed to this increasingly dynamic nature of state power and control. Using the vocabulary of power and domination enshrined within the “art of bossing” and multi-institutionalism, I have shown how the Bhim Army in its interaction with the state often functions within both civil society and so-called “political society.” In doing so, I add to the literature in two significant ways.

73First, existing literature on state performance and functioning has looked at the role of civil society in the context of elite social change (for an exception, see Waghamore 2012; Appadurai 2001). There is an understanding that the marginalized can only make the state work through political mobilization or vote bank politics. Furthermore, in the context of Dalits in North India, state welfare and actions have been tied to electoral power explained through “pork barrel politics,” patronage, or appeasement (Chandra 2004; Pai 2002; Ahuja 2019). The case study of the Bhim Army in this paper is important for understanding how marginal actors and associations can create, institutionalize, and exercise power over the state in order to “make it perform.” In this context, this paper problematizes the binary between political and civil society, and furthers the empiric of civil society action on the ground.

74Next, with the second and third democratic upsurge in India (Yadav 1999; Vaishnav and Hinston 2019) as well as the post-1991 economic liberalization, various scholars have shown how middle-positioned castes and classes have created alternative ways of “dealing” with a weak state (Michelutti et al. 2019; Michelutti 2020b; Michelutti and Harris-White 2019; Jeffrey 2001 and 2010; Witsoe 2011). Michelutti’s (2007) work in Mathura has shown how upwardly mobile Yadavs, who dominate OBC politics in North India, have been able to make use of the state in their understanding of it as a “community/caste business” and thereby create alternate and often semilegal mechanisms that have enmeshed their power in the processes of a vernacularizing democracy (Michelutti 2007). In his work on Jats in Meerut, Jeffrey (2001 and 2010) has shown how Jats have successfully navigated the state for their benefit, even without entering formal politics through institutionalized corruption, jugar, and networking (Jeffrey 2001; 2010). In all of these contexts, it can be argued that the “democratic upsurge” has led some “middle” groups to institutionalize and exercise their power through informal or semiformal means, often in opposition to the declared aims of the state.

75In the case of the Bhim Army, however, exercising power is not oriented toward justice, welfare, or benefits in spite of the state but through it. This involves making the state perform the role it is supposed to perform through established rules and norms. The second contribution this paper makes is thus to lay out a framework for understanding the relationship of some “middle” marginalized populations to the state not through existing paradigms of cynicism, distance, or victimization but, rather, through engagement, citizenship, and ownership.

76At the same time, however, this performance of power is fairly gendered and class-limited in its appeal. While various Bhim Army members seemingly encouraged the participation of women in the organization, at least in formal interviews online and with the researchers, they often did not recognize the structural or organizational issues that limited such participation.

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1 UP Tak. 2021. “UP Police से उलझे Chandrashekhar Azad, CM Yogi के लिए कही बड़ी बात!” Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

2 Literally Hail Bhim, referring to Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.

3 Rai, P. 2021. UP: Youth beaten up by neighbours, sustains 19 fractures, dies. Times of India, January 30. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

4 Sirohi, D. 2021. आकाश हत्याकांड: पाल समाज की महापंचायत आज, व्यापार संघ ने की बाजार बंद रखने की घोषणा. Amar Ujala, February 2. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

5 Facebook Live from Bhim Army page on Facebook, January 30, 2021.

6 Hindustan. 2021. आकाश हत्याकांड में इनामी दंपति की गिरफ्तारी को चार जिलों में दबिश,” February 1. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

7 Interview conducted in February 2021.

8 “Harijan” is literally translated as “the people of god.”

9 Chauhan, S. and R. Lal. 2021 Chandrashekhar Azad का सबसे बेबाक Interview देखिए | The Shudra | The News Beak | AmbedkarNama. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

10 Nair, R. 2021. Privatisation Gets Mega Push in Budget 2021, Most Ambitious Plan since Vajpayee Era. The Print, February 1. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

11 Azad, Chandrashekhar (@bhimarmychief. 2021. किसान आंदोलन एवं CAA, NRC आंदोलन के दौरान आंदोलनकारियों के साथ मानवाधिकार उलंघन पर UNHRC के समक्ष अपनी बात रखते हुए...” Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

12 Singh, A. 2017. UP Cabinet a Balancing Act of Castes, Allies. Times of India, March 20. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

13 Saurabh. 2018. 2019 लोकसभा चुनाव से पहले आई ये आफत मोदी-योगी को सबसे ज्यादा सता रही होगी. The Lallantop, April 8. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

14 20-year-old Bhim Army student leader. Interview with author (February 2021).

15 Ambedkarite Peoples Voice. 2021. भीम आर्मी प्रमुख चंद्रशेखर आजाद और पुलिस अधिकारी में फिर हुई नोकजोक, केस दर्ज || Bhim Army. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

16 Venkataramakrishnan, R. 2018. The Daily Fix: Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar’s Year-long Detention is a Blot on the Indian System. Scroll, June 8. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

17 Sengar, M.S. 2019. Bhim Army’s Chandrashekhar Azad Arrested Day After Protest in Old Delhi. NDTV, December 21. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

18 Mint. 2023. Hathras Gang-rape Case: A Look at the Timeline as UP Court sets 3 Accused Free. March 2. Retrieved April 10, 2023 (

19 The victim was from the Valmiki samaj, whose members are traditionally employed as cleaners, sweepers, and garbage collectors (see Bodley 2011).

20 Express News Service. 2020. Bhim Army Workers Dump Garbage outside Hathras DM’s Jaipur House. The Indian Express, October 3. Retrieved December 10, 2023 (

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1.1
Caption Popular Facebook status about the Great Chamar. The text reads as follows: “There is no city, where we do not inspire fear. Let me add to that: there is no street where a Chamar cannot get his way.” Source:​243446276198900/​posts/​the-great-chamar/​287772238432970/​.
File image/jpeg, 9.6k
Title Figure 1.2
Caption Photoshopped image from the Facebook page “The Great Chamar.” The text reads: “He is here: Chamar Sahab (sir)” on the left and “Notorious Chamar” on the right. Source:​The-Great-chamar-466824770446624/​.
File image/jpeg, 11k
Title Figure 1.3
Caption Screenshot from a song on YouTube titled “The Great Chamar Song.” The text reads: “We are Dabang” (a powerful and masculine figure of performance, inspired by a movie of the same name) and “everyone is harassed” (see Michelutti 2020a for more on Dabangs). Source:​watch?v=O6XEWmi7pZ0.
File image/jpeg, 53k
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Electronic reference

Shantanu Kulshreshth, “The State is the Biggest Goonda”: Civic Masculinity, Radical Victimhood, and Power in Bhim Army DiscourseSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 15 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Shantanu Kulshreshth

University of Melbourne 

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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