Lucknow: The Uttar Pradesh government in the wee hours of 14 September released Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad, alias Ravan, from prison. His jail term was due to end on 1 November. He was jailed under the National Security Act (NSA) in connection with the Saharanpur riots of May 2017, in which clashes between Thakurs and Scheduled Castes had left 16 injured and one dead.
A signboard that reads ‘The Great Chamar’ erected outside Ghadkoli village is believed to be the initial feud, with the Thakur’s objecting to it but the Bhim Army having its way, which led from one event to another resulting in the riots.
Chandrashekhar was arrested in June, 2017, from Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. The Scheduled Caste community in Uttar Pradesh was unhappy with the action taken by the police and government, which gradually led to mass scale conversions to Buddhism in Saharanpur and the community maintaining an arm’s distance from the BJP.
Chandrashekhar, 30, who hails from Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur, founded the Bhim Army Ekta Mission in 2015 to counter the dominant Thakurs’ influence in the district. The organisation claims to have more than 40,000 members across seven states, including Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan.
Two other persons — Sonu and Shivkumar — who were in jail in connection with the riots, were also released on Friday, as per a government order. The state government decided to release Chandrashekhar on grounds of sympathy, due to his mother’s health, it states.
After his release around 2.30 am on Friday, Chandrashekhar told mediapersons that he will continue his fight against the oppressive government in the state and strengthen the mahagathbandhan. He also said that the government could not prove any charge against him under the NSA and thus have released him before the next hearing in the case.
After the Saharanpur riots, the Bhim Army had garnered the support of Scheduled Castes across the country, particularly in states like Haryana, Uttarakhand and Punjab, as several protests were held demanding Chandrashekhar’s release.
Attempt to woo Scheduled Caste community?
Post the Saharanpur riots, the impact of the Scheduled Caste community distancing itself from the BJP was seen to such an extent that despite the latter winning 312 out of 403 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections, the party lost both Kairana Lok Sabha and the Noorpur Assembly seats when bypolls took place in May, 2018. One of the main reasons behind the BJP’s defeat is believed to be the Bhim Army extending its support to the Opposition (Congress + BSP + SP+ RLD) candidate Tabassum Hasan.
Adding fuel to the fire, the police arrested multiple protesters, including minors, in connection with the violence that took place during April’s Bharat Bandh. This further pushed away an already estranged community.
In this background, it seems like the BJP is going to try hard to reach out to the community.
According to documentary filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney, who has been documenting atrocities on Scheduled Castes in Saharanpur, it is a win for the movement for the community’s rights. “Ravan is the voice of the movement for the rights of the Scheduled Caste community in India, and not just in Uttar Pradesh or Saharanpur,” says Sawhney.
That Ravan had been a constant voice bringing to light atrocities committed against the community did not go down well with the government, and they unconstitutionally imposed the NSA on him, says Sawhney.
The move to release him is not out of sympathy, but out of pressure from the Scheduled Caste community which has been protesting against Ravan’s arrest, Sawhney adds.
Manjit Nautiyal, the national spokesperson of the Bhim Army, welcomed the decision, while also adding that they will not allow the BJP to use the issue for electoral gains in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
“We extend our thanks, but if this has been done to woo the Scheduled Castes, then we are not going to let it happen,” says Nautiyal, adding that the community will continue the struggle until they are treated equally.
Pitching Ravan versus Maya?
The government’s move to release Chandrashekhar before his jail term ends could also be an attempt of the BJP to break the Scheduled Caste vote bank, which has so far supported Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. Chandrashekhar has in the past voiced his dissatisfaction with the BSP supremo while praising party founder Kanshi Ram in the same breath.
Votes from Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh have been under the firm grip of Mayawati, which was evident with the mandate of the Phoolpur and Gorakhpur by-elections, where the SP-BSP alliance vanquished an over-confident BJP.
However, according to activist from the community and former IPS officer SR Darapuri, Mayawati has been opposing the Bhim Army, and has once even said that Chandrashekhar is a product of the RSS. “So, this move makes it very clear that Ravan will come out as a competitor of Mayawati and will downplay her,” he says.
To break it down, the BJP has made a calculated move to sway the votes of Scheduled Castes in its favour in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. However, it remains to be seen if voters from the community will align with the saffron party. Chandrashekhar enjoys the staunch support of youth from the community, which can be utilised against the BSP in the upcoming election.
(Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com)