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Class act: the great Dalit fightback that started in the schoolroom


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A network of free after-school coaching classes for Dalits is just one way that India’s lowest caste is raising its sights


When he was 14, Govind Gyan Chand started attending the large school near his village. In the first week, some upper-caste boys took him aside and asked him about his caste. He told them he was Dalit, considered the lowest caste in Indian society. When he left school for the day, the boys were waiting outside, and flogged him. “I don’t know why they did it,” he says. “All I know is the upper caste likes to torture us. I wanted to give up school – somehow I didn’t.”


Now 22, Chand divides his time between classes in college, working, and teaching English and maths to the Dalit children of his village. He is a volunteer for Bhim Pathshala, a network of free after-school coaching classes for Dalit children run by Bhim Army, an organisation that works for the education and rights of Dalits.


Every day, Chand teaches about 20 children between the ages of four and 15 in the courtyard of a temple in Sona village, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, an area that was in the news last year for violent caste riots.




When he signed up to be a teacher for Bhim Pathshala two years ago, Chand had to read up on Dalit icons and the history of oppression of his people. The temple where the after-school classes are held is dedicated to Guru Ravidass, a 14th-century poet and saint revered by Dalits; when Chand arrives, the children call out “Jai Bhim”, a greeting used by Ambedkarites, followers of Dalit icon and social reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar.


He asks the older children about Jyotirao Phule, the 19th-century anti-caste social reformer, and Deepak, 12, replies with easy confidence, “He fought against the caste system.”


“I’m doing this for my community. We have to help each other and knowledge is our only weapon,” says Chand’s friend Siddharth Rajesh Kumar, a college student who also teaches on the project.


Bhim Army, which has emerged as a dominant voice in Dalit politics, burst upon the scene in 2015 in Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh.


The rise of Bhim Army has coincided with the ascent of a new, aggressive form of Dalit politics in India steered by young and dynamic leaders. Bhim Army is led by Chandrashekhar Azad, a young, charismatic Dalit man who achieved notoriety when he put up a signboard outside his village that said “The Great Chamar” – Chamar is used as a pejorative term for “untouchables” – incensing members of the upper caste.


In the last two years, there have been increasing instances of large nationwide protests staged by Dalits. At the same time, cases of violence against the community have increased.


As Bhim Army has grabbed national headlines, its education project for children, which involves an estimated 400 pathshalas (schools) running after-school classes across Uttar Pradesh, has been steadily working to bring change.


Local community members contribute to the costs of running the after-school classes, and the children are provided with stationery and textbooks.


“They were set up to support Dalit children, most of whom cannot access good education and come from families where parents are illiterate and cannot afford private tuition,” says Vinay Ratan Singh, president of Bhim Army.


Bhim Army admits that it is inspired by the right-wing nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which trains its cadre from a young age through a network of schools. Bhim Army hopes the students in these classes will go on to become leaders in their communities and change the situation for Dalits.


The pathshalas also tap into the need for mentoring that Dalit children rarely find. Discrimination begins in the classroom, with studies showing Dalit children are segregated and excluded, forcing them to drop out of school.


“The very idea of going to the countryside and telling Dalit families to focus on educating their children is revolutionary,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer and entrepreneur who created a temple to the “Dalit Goddess of English”, to inspire his community to use education as a form of resistance.


Lalita lives in Sona village. Her daughter Ritika never misses a class in the pathshala andsince starting there is doing better in her normal school classes as well. Ritika says that while she feels scared of asking questions to the teachers in school, it is easier to ask Chand, whom she calls bhaiya (older brother).


“We are labourers, but we want her to study and have a different life,” says Lalita.


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