16, Feb 2018 | Mansi Mehta and Sushmita
Chandrashekhar Azad is a prominent Dalit rights activist who has been wrongfully incarcerated since June 2017. He took on the popular moniker ‘Ravan’ as an act of defiance against accepted social order that rewards upper caste Hindu god-fearing men over all others. Over the last few years he has become a force to reckon with in the movement for Dalit rights because of not just his flambouyant personality, but also because of his commitment to empowering the Dalit community through education. This is Chandrashekhar Azad’s story.
Azad was born in Dhadkauli village near Chhutmalpur in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh in 1986. He completed his law degree from a local district college. Chandrashekhar Azad first faced trouble in 2015, when he erected a sign on his property that read ‘The Great Chamars of Dhadkauli Welcome You’, sparking tensions between Dalits and Thakurs. He started organizing Bhim Army soon after this incident and mobilized many young Dalits under the banner. The Bhim Army was founded in 2015 by Azad with the objective of empowering Dalits through education.
Azad’s commitment to social justice stemmed from injustices faced by his father, a school headmaster, who, as the story goes, was told to bring his own utensils for food and water. Chandrashekhar highlighted the discrimination that Dalit students had to face at the local AHP inter-college by bringing attention to the incidents of violence against Dalit students for simple things such as not cleaning benches and drinking water. “To fight against this sort of caste oppression, we felt the need for an organisation,” Chandrashekhar said explaining his motivation. Vinay Ratan Singh, the Bhim Army’s national president, talking about the need for an organization like Bhim Army said that not only did Bhim Army strive to fight caste oppression but also it started pathshalas, schools, where senior Dalit students helped out their juniors in order to overcome the poor quality of teaching in government schools. The first paathshaala was established in FatehpurBhado village in Saharanpur in 2015, and the numbers swelled over the next years. By May 2017, there were around 350 schools, not just in Saharanpur but also in its neighbouring districts–Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, and Shamli.
The Saharanpur Clashes
On May 5, 2017 anti-Dalit violence broke out against the Dalit community members in Shabbirpur and Rampur villages in Saharanpur, when they protested a ‘Shobha Yatra’ initiated by Thakur community members to commemorate Maharana Pratap’s birth anniversary. Dalits had alleged that there was no permission for the said Yatra. In this incident 60 Dalit houses were burnt. On May 9, 2017 mob violence broke out in Shabbirpur village when the police lathi-charged a group of peaceful protesters who had assembled in Gandhi Maidan under the leadership of Bhim Army. The Bhim Army called for affected Dalit families to be compensated and police action against the attackers. Several people were grievously injured in the attacks. While the violence that followed the unprecedented lathi-charge was of course condemnable, it is important to note that no one was killed or even seriously injured in this violence.
On May 21, 2017, several thousand Bhim Army activists gathered at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, where Chandrashekhar gave a rousing speech. The entire speech may be viewed here:
Unlawful Arrest and Prolonged Detention
Chandrashekhar was arrested by the UP police on June 9, 2017. Apart from multiple criminal cases that were unjustly foist on him, the draconian National Security Act (NSA) was also slapped on him since November 2017… just the day after he was granted bail in other cases. In late January 2018, the government extended the application of the NSA under Section 12(1) of the said Act. His detention has been extended for a period of 6 months starting November 2, 2017 implying that he will be detained till May 2018. The order says that “after consideration of all material on board” and the “advise of the advisory board (detentions) of the government the period of detention is being extended tentatively.” This despite the fact that he had already received bail in 27 criminal cases and was soon to be released.
Chandrashekhar Azad has already spent 9 months in jail and his life remains in grave danger. It sounds utterly unbelievable that he is being seen as a threat to national security, when in fact he was doing the exemplary work of raising consciousness and empowering Dalit community by making education accessible. In fact, the rise of the Bhim Army is a new chapter in the text-book of Dalit assertion and is likely to change the course of the Dalit movement of India forever. “The developments in Saharanpur and the gathering of thousands of Dalits in Jantar Mantar is a warning to all political parties” K Raju, Head, Congress’ Scheduled Castes Department had said to Scroll, acknowledging that the party had not been successful in holding onto Dalit support. Chandrashekhar’s arrest has also reportedly galvanised Muslims; Chandrashekhar himself opined to ChalChitra Abhiyaan that Muslims are not a threat to this country, Brahminism is. The speech may be viewed here:
CJP actively participated in a campaign for the release of Chandrashekhar since January 2018. An online petition by Citizens of Justice and Peace, (CJP) has received massive number of signatures (6,800 plus) with heart-warming comments that resonate – in word and emotion – what Chandrashekhar has come to mean to a vast number of Indians today. One and all need to join in and echo the demand for his immediate release. You too can show your support and sign our petition to Free Chandrahsekhar Azad Ravan NOW! Just click here:
Feature Image by Amir Rizvi