In an unannounced move, Chandrashekhar Azad “Raavan”, the head of the Bhim Army group that has been pushing for greater Dalit rights, was released from prison on Thursday by the Uttar Pradesh government. The administration had accused the Bhim Army of precipitating inter-caste violence in Saharanpur district in 2017.

It’s still unclear what repercussions to Chandrashekhar’s release will have on Dalit politics in the state. After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party is opposed sharply by many Dalits so this release isn’t likely to win it much goodwill. But it could make gains by splitting Dalit opinion, since the Bhim Army squarely challenges the Bahujan Samaj Party’s claims to being the sole voice of the community.

Dalit-Thakur clashes

The clashes between Dalits and Thakurs for which Azad was arrested had its roots in an incident in Shabbirpur village in Saharanpur on May 5, 2017. They occured after the village’s Dalits prevented Thakurs from marching in a procession on the birth anniversary of Rajput king Maharana Pratap. The Dalits were retaliating against a similar blockade by Thakurs a month earlier, when members of their community were prevented from celebrating the birth anniversary of Babarao Ambedkar.

Enraged by what they saw an impertinence by Dalits, groups of Thakurs sacked Shabbirpur’s Dalit quarter. Dalits alleged that there was assaulted, their homes set fire too and even their temples desecrated. Thakurs, in turn, claim that Dalits killed one person, though the Dalits insist the man accidentally suffocated to death while torching Dalit homes.

In response to the violence, the Bhim Army organised a protest meet in Saharanpur town on May 9. Clashes between the police and protestors followed, with each side blaming the other for starting the violence. In the melee, protestors attacked a Maharana Pratap memorial in the city. Later on, videos emerged of policemen being beaten up by mobs.

Police crackdown

The violence led to a crackdown on the Bhim Army. The Saharanpur police even announced that an investigation would be carried out to determine whether the Bhim Army had links with Maoist groups. In the meanwhile, Chandrashekhar, the group’s charismatic head, went into hiding. He emerged dramatically at a large raly in Delhi a fortnight later. He was finally arrested in June, 2017.

In November, however, the Allahabad High Court rubbished the Uttar Pradesh government’s contention that Chandrashekhar had organised the May 9 violence. Describing the charges as “politically motivated”, the court granted bail to the founder of the Bhim Army in various cases of rioting. Unable to detain Chandrashekhar under the initial charges of rioting, the Uttar Pradesh government turned to the draconian National Security Act, which gives the authorities the powers of preventive detention.

Political background

The Uttar Pradesh government’s sudden decision to release Chandrashekhar needs to be seen in context of the state’s current political sitution. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been under constant attack from sections of the Dalit community. During a strike on April 2 by Dalits protesting the dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court, allegations of police brutality were heard across several North Indian states. Scrambling to contain the fallout, the Modi government decided to pass a bill reversing the Supreme Court order.

Dalit anger against the BJP was one the reasons cited by commentators for the party losing its Kairana Lok Sabha seat in a May bye-poll. Located in western Uttar Pradesh, Kariana abuts Saharanpur.

The other political factor at play is the Bahajan Samaj Party and its alliance with the Samajwadi Party, which has the BJP on the backfoot in the state. Given the Bhim Army’s belligerent politics, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and Chandrashekhar have clashed in the recent past. Mayawati was slow to demand Chandrashekhar’s release and, in fact, even accused the Bhim Army of being a BJP stooge. Since both the Bhim Army and the Bahujan Samaj Party are largely Dalit outfits, the accusation meant to suggest that the BJP wanted to split Dalit votes.

On his release on Thursday, while Chandrashekhar strongly attacked the BJP, he also seemed to criticise the Bahujan Samaj Party. Calling Mayawati his “aunt”, Chandrashekhar said, “She has, till now, run the Dalit movement very well. But now she is getting old. Whatever is lacking, whatever is wrong, our social movement will make amends.”