Supporters of Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad react to his release from prison, two months before schedule
Amidst chatter of political strategising, minority groups across Bundelkhand react to the release of Bhim Army supremo Chandrashekhar Azad
In what was touted as a victory for minority rights, Dalit leader and charismatic commander of the Bhim Army, Chandrashekhar Azad was released from jail almost two months early by the Uttar Pradesh government, as per orders from the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Azad’s release came after almost year-long protests by his supporters from all over the country, who celebrated the moment with much pride and joy.
A resident of the state's Saharanpur district, Azad founded the Bhim Army in 2015 with the twin aims of protecting minority rights as well as furthering the interests of Dalits and other marginalised communities. Ever since, Azad and his supporters have been involved in extensive development work for the Dalit community — from running schools providing free education to Dalit children to fighting for Dalit rights on a daily basis. Through the years, the Bhim Army has fast emerged as a political party in the region, often associated with Mayawati’s BSP, though neither has confirmed that officially.
Not surprisingly, Azad has been a vociferous critic of the incumbent government, and has incorporated that as part of his political aura — with frequent repercussions from the State. In May 2017 when the Dalits of Saharanpur put up a board bearing the legend ‘The Great Chamar’, under Azad’s leadership, it upset the upper caste Thakurs of the area. Violent clashes followed and Azad was arrested and detained under the National Security Act, 1980 (NSA) for allegedly instigating communal violence.
The NSA, as a piece of law, is all but vague, allowing the government to detain an individual in jail for a year without trial — in the name of preventing him from acting in a manner “prejudicial to the defence of India, the relations of India with foreign powers, or the security of India”. Needless to say, it is often simply a convenient tool in the hands of unchecked powers, and can be used to essentially lock up anyone who disagrees with those holding office. Detention under the NSA is different (from ordinary detention under the IPC, for instance) for it is “preventive” in nature, ie instead of being arrested for committing a crime, a person is arrested so as to prevent him from doing a potentially illegal act. To make matters worse, the NSA empowers the government to detain a person practically indefinitely, for it can detain the same person on fresh grounds on the expiry of the original detention; there is no limit to the number of times a person can be detained. Ganesh Shankar, a student from Chitrakoot, explains it well, “Anyone can be slapped with a random charge under the NSA and put behind bars these days. Azad was supposed to be released almost a year ago, but they constantly kept extending his detention — sometimes by three months, sometimes by six months.”
This is not the first time when the vague blanket of “national security” is being used to silence those who dare speak against a government in power. The recent arrest of ten prominent human rights activists in the Bhima Koregaon case, under similar charges relating to national security, has exposed an eagerness to eliminate dissent — one among other similar episodes across the nation. This is an issue that rights activists across Bundelkhand understand only too well. When Azad claimed so dramatically, upon his release from prison, the Bhim Army’s intention to perform “nasbandi” on the ruling BJP party, probably hinting at his own plans for the 2019 elections, he found celebratory echoes across the heartland too. A social worker from Chitrakoot, Kailash Baudh, was visibly overjoyed at the release of his hero, “Raavan [as Azad is popularly called] is a true hero – not just for one caste, but for everyone. He says that not only Dalits, but all communities are a part of him, and fights for the rights of one and all. He goes by the principles of Ambedkar and Kanshiram [founder of BSP], and directly associates with the Bahujan Samaj Party now. After Kanshiram’s death, Behenji [Mayawati] took charge and has been the guiding light of the party ever since. But there were many who felt that the BSP’s founding mission, as had been imagined by Kanshiram, had got lost somewhere. As a result, the BSP has been struggling to find a leader for almost a decade now – which they have finally found in Azad.”
Although Azad had been granted bail by the Allahabad High Court in November last year, he was booked under the NSA and his detention was effectively extended till 1 November, 2018. The Yogi Adityanath government’s unexpected act of magnanimity – the decision to release him almost two months in advance — is being met with certain suspicion though. Again, this is in light of the upcoming general elections. Munnalal Dinkar, Secretary of Banda district’s Rashtriya Swaraj Panther, gets straight to the point. “One obviously wonders that when they initially came after him with such force – with the aggressive investigation, repeated arrests and all the bad-mouthing — why are they being so kind to the same person now? They claim it is for the sake of his mother. But that same mother has been protesting in Saharanpur, Lucknow, and even Delhi, for months, begging for her son to be set free. Why didn’t they listen to her then? This is undoubtedly a political gimmick.”
Khabar Lahariya is a women-only network of rural reporters from Bundelkhand.