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Chandrashekhar Azad, founder of Bhim Army. He was arrested on Thursday for spearheading protests in Saharanpur. Photo: HT
Chandrashekhar Azad, founder of Bhim Army. He was arrested on Thursday for spearheading protests in Saharanpur. Photo: HT

Chandrashekhar Azad—The man in the blue scarf

Chandrashekhar Azad, the founder of the Bhim Army, clearly wants the scarf to be his calling card

New Delhi: The blue scarf is a constant. Draped casually around the neck, it makes an appearance in every photograph and every video. If B.R. Ambedkar made the blue suit the ultimate symbol of identity assertion, Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan", the founder of the Bhim Army, clearly wants the scarf to be his calling card.

Azad, who is accused by the police for spearheading the violent protests in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh on 9 May—he organized a Dalit maha panchayat which turned violent— was arrested Thursday at Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. The arrest came within days of Azad claiming he would surrender if 37 “innocent" Dalits currently behind bars were released.

Azard went underground after the 9 May incident though not before he became the face of Dalit protests in the northern part of the country. He made a brief (and surprise) appearance at the heavily attended Dalit protest in Delhi on 21 May in Jantar Mantar. In a widely circulated video, following the Saharanpur incident, he warns state forces to not mistake Dalit silence as weakness. “Don’t be under the illusion that we are quiet because we are weak. We are quiet because we are following the Constitution," he says in Hindi.

The rise of the 30-year-old lawyer from Chutmalpur, a small town situated around 20km from Saharanpur, may seem meteoric to some but for those who have been following his career with interest, it was only a matter of time. In 2013, Chandrashekhar Azad’s father, Govardhan Das, a retired government school principal died (he had been fighting cancer for some years). Azad who had finished his law degree and was eyeing further education in the US, had spent two years taking his father from hospital to hospital in the hope of delaying the inevitable. In the meantime, he had also spent a lot of time with his father. He says he discovered many things. “He shared his experiences with me about how his transfers were nixed, his salary often blocked if he complained," Azad revealed in an interview to The Quint in January this year. At one point of time he says, “chamaar hai master ji" (Master ji is a chamar, a Dalit) was a statement his father had to hear over and over again, never mind his relatively senior position in the school’s hierarchy. It was then that the thought of doing something for the community took root in Azad’s mind.

Since 2015, the Bhim Army which was founded by Azad along with Satish Kumar and Vinay Ratna Singh has been involved in local issues, most of which centred around Dalit victimization by the upper-caste Thakur community. Be it the case of a sign board outside a village bearing the legend “The great chamar" or the issue of Dalits being harassed in a college, the Bhim Army was always at hand to respond to the community’s call for help. So when on 5 May, Dalit houses were torched and families beaten up at Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur, Azad and his men responded. In an interview to Open magazine dated 19 May 2017, Azad said: “An army’s job is to protect its citizens. That’s why we named our outfit Bhim Army. We swore to protect the honour of Dalits."

From building statues of Ambedkar in villages to promoting small scale businesses amongst Dalits, the army has slowly established itself and wants to make western Uttar Pradesh a safe haven for Dalits. The state, home to 20% of India’s Dalit population, also has one of the highest rates for crimes against them.

The Bhim Army now claims to have a presence in almost 40 districts of Uttar Pradesh with membership having reportedly shot up after the Saharanpur incident.

Over the past two years, as the issue of Dalit identity and struggle against discrimination has become more mainstream, younger leaders such as Azad and Jignesh Mevani (in Gujarat) have emerged. Mevani, founder of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, came to prominence after gau rakshaks (vigilantes who seek to protect cows) thrashed four Dalit youth for skinning a cow. Mevani told Mint there is “tremendous anger" in the Dalit community today which is a result of several factors ranging from “severe economic crisis, onslaught of fascism, unemployment, and lack of justice" leading to the rise of leaders such as himself and Azad. He adds that he is not sure of Azad’s ideological leanings or whether the Bhim Army has a specific game plan for the upliftment of the community. “I wouldn’t have let the anger at Jantar Mantar on 21 May dissipate. I would have taken the movement forward. Atma samman (self respect) is important but with astitva (a sense of belonging)," Mevani said.

In his interactions with the media, Azad has stressed the importance of being there for the community. Political ambitions, if any, have not been openly expressed, though that hasn’t stopped parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (the erstwhile keeper of the Dalit flame) and the Bharatiya Janata Party from accusing him of being a stooge of the other. “There is a vacuum of leadership and there are minimal organizations for Dalit welfare so if someone is making an effort, we need to welcome it," says Bezwada Wilson, Dalit activist and national convener for Safai Karamchari Andolan, a human rights organization. Focusing on the violence in Saharanpur is missing the woods for the trees according to him, because organizations such as the Bhim Army “are challenging violence and discrimination," he says.

Wilson has had sustained interactions with both Mevani and Azad and welcomes the change of attitude they represent in the younger generation. “There is no shame or hesitation. They are able to project issues, bring them to centre stage which is what matters the most." Time will tell how successful Azad will be in addressing these issues.

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