On September 13, radical Ambedkarite leader Chandrashekhar Azad “Raavan” was released from an Uttar Pradesh prison after nearly a year of preventive detention under the draconian National Security Act. Azad is the head of the Bhim Army, a Dalit rights organisation active in western Uttar Pradesh. The state government had accused the Bhim Army of precipitating inter-caste violence in Saharanpur district in 2017.

Azad’s release has created fresh ferment in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. The 24-year-old has spoken out strongly against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the emergence of the Bhim Army is being seen as an example of how the saffron party is losing Dalit support. However, Mayawati, chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party, has also spoken against Azad. Given that both the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bhim Army appeal to Dalits, some commentators feel that this overlap could divide the votes of Mayawati’s party.

Scroll.in travelled to Azad’s home in Chhutmalpur town in Saharanpur district to speak to the emerging leader on his political future, his relations with Mayawati and why he thinks the BJP should be defeated in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

How did the Bhim Army start?
Bhim Army started from a village called Fatehpur, in [Uttar Pradesh’s] Behat constituency. That is where it all started.

Initially I used to work alone, but I thought that working alone will not help, that’s personal work. But I have to make a change at the community level. So I spoke to Vinay bhai [Azad’s closest associate and national president of the Bhim Army] and started building a team. This happened in 2012, but that time we did not have a name for the organisation. We were working to spread awareness. We started with a coaching centre. It was then we realised that we will not survive the competition. Our fifth standard student who is studying in the Uttar Pradesh or Uttarakhand board cannot even compete with the first standard student of the CBSE board. So therefore we started opening coaching centres.

After coaching centres, we focused on issues affecting students at an inter-college close by [AHP Inter College] where I have studied too. Some students of that college were treated badly because of their caste. They would be beaten in the name of caste. They were made to do cleaning work, they would not allowed to drink water from the tap. They were beaten up for this. A system of untouchability was practiced in that college. We were very hurt by that. Since some of the inter-college students who faced these issues would also come to our coaching centres that we ran in the villages, they told us about these issues.

So while we started from those coaching centres, it is only when we realised that what is happening to students [at AHP Inter College] is wrong, that we started raising our voice. We protested a few times, saying that these things should not happen as the Constitution provides equal rights for all citizens. So nobody can stop a person from attaining education.

People were being stopped from studying too?
Yes. They would say that Dalits do not have any right to an education. They do not have the right to sit besides us. They would send Dalit students to the back benches, ask them to clean desks. The children who studied would be beaten. This was wrong. Therefore, we started raising our voice against it, which led to a movement at the community level. In 2014, this movement was given a name, Bhim Army. An organisation which will raise its voice against atrocities on Dalits. That is how the Bhim Army started.

You had put up a sign board which read “The Great Chamaar”. Why did people object to that?
Look, people ask, “Why are you calling yourself a ‘chamaar’.” So I want to tell everyone that all the caste documents that we have seen since childhood have “chamaar” as our caste. These papers are made by a district magistrate, who is part of the administration. When this is in writing, how can we hide it? Since we are from the chamaar caste, that is why we put up that board.

The Great Chamaar board in Gharkauli, Saharanpur. (Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal).

We [Dalits] are hardworking people, we do not loot or steal. We work hard to earn our living. So, that is why we are great. We are honest people. If someone does us a favour, we remember it for a long time. That is why we said we are great.

Anyone who works hard for a living, should also consider themselves great. Because people are identified through the kind of work they do. A thief should be held guilty, but we are honest and hardworking people. That is why we put up that board. But some people got irked. Some villagers thought how can they [Dalits] be great? They are poor people.

A belief in untouchability was still prevalent in the village. Some hooligans opposed us, and as a result of that, this board got highlighted in the media.

The Allahabad High Court said that your case was politically motivated. Why then were your imprisoned under the National Security Act?
The reason for putting the National Security Act was because the government wanted to stop me. This person who did not allow a riot to take place, his morale needs to be broken.

Could you tell us about this. Which riot did you stop?
In Saharanpur, there is a village called Sadak Dhudhli. There, on April 20 [2017], the Bharatiya Janata Party MP Raghav Lakhanpal wanted to take out a shobha yatra, a procession in the name of Babasaheb [Ambedkar]. The people of the village, however, did not know about this. MP sahab was taking out the procession without permission. And every BJP leader in the area was involved in this. As a result of this, the situation became very tense. The procession was about to clash with members of the Muslim community. When this clash happened, people [in the procession] were asking why aren’t Dalits helping us.

I was then consulted since members of the Dalit community respect me as I am their son, their blood. I told them, “This fight is being created by politicians. We need to save ourselves from them. No one benefits from a riot. Politicians are never killed in riots, the common man is.”

I told them to stay away from the riot. Dalits and Muslims do not want to fight. We are both oppressed people. After I made this statement, neither Muslims not Dalits rioted.

So you think this is the reason you were put in jail?
Yes. The BJP does this. Ruling parties often start riots so that votes are split.

Your preventive detention was to finish in November. Why do you think they released you early?
My jail term got over a long time back. They kept me in illegally for 10-and-a-half months. The [Allahabad] High Court itself called it a “politically motivated” case. You are trapping him forcefully, there is no evidence. You have charged him with Section 307 [attempt to murder] but there is no backing for that. The district magistrate called me himself [on May 9, when violence broke out in Saharanpur town]. He said he is not able to handle the situation. I was told, “This is your district save it.” So I agreed to go.

So they kept me for 10-and-a-half months extra. Can the BJP return those months to me? They cannot. They kept me without charge. What is the National Security Act? That this person might do something in the future. He has not actually done anything till now. I was put in jail under it since I stopped a riot. They [the BJP] wanted a riot to happen. But because the Bhim Army was successful, they could not do what they wanted.

(Photo credit: Aabid Shafi).

You have mentioned many times that the BJP is anti-Dalit. But the BJP also claims it works for Dalits, it also says it respects Ambedkar. Why then do you think the BJP is anti-Dalit?
I have proof, that is why. See, the BJP is influenced by the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The BJP works according to the RSS. What does the prime minister do? What the Sangh says. And if someone says, no they are different, I can give proof. The Uttarakhand chief minister is a person from the Sangh. So is the chief minister of Haryana and Maharashtra. You only make people from the RSS chief ministers, is that not so? So this means you are connected to the Sangh.

And the Sangh has burnt statues of Babasaheb [Ambedkar] in Maharashtra. I oppose the BJP because it takes orders from Nagpur [the location of the RSS headquarters]. And under no condition are we going to ever accept the policies and programmes of Nagpur. That is why we oppose them. Under their government there is always large-scale oppression [of Dalits]. During the April 2 movement [when Dalits called a strike to oppose the Supreme Court’s dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act] 12 people were killed. Thousands are [still] jailed. Now the BJP has accepted our demands and rolled back the dilution of the Act. So why then were those people put in jail?

Why was my younger brother, who is district head of Muzaffarnagar for the Bhim Army, charged under the National Security Act? Their talk of being pro-Dalit is all show. They were never concerned about Dalit welfare. Their fight is for Hindutva.

When there was a riot in Shabbirpur [on May 5, 2017], Thakurs burnt down 55 Dalit houses. The sitting BJP MP Raghav Lakhanpal only went to the houses of Thakurs. He said that others will be prosecuted. Doesn’t that make him and the BJP anti-Dalit? They need to stand with Dalits, help them, get them compensation, stop them from getting prosecuted.

I will oppose anyone who follows anti-Dalits politics. If anyone else does it, I will oppose them too. If Congress does it, I will oppose them too.

Speaking of the Congress. After your release, you met Imran Masood, a Congress leader from Saharanpur. However, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, always argued that Congress and the BJP are the same when it comes to Dalit politics. Do you still believe that?
I read that Kanshi Ram said that while one is the naagnaath [cobra king] the other is the saapnaath [snake king]. Both are brothers. About Imran Masood, I have a personal relationship with him. I run the bahujan movement. He also belongs to the bahujan society. I want to get him back to the bahujan movement. Why does anyone join politics? To effect change, development, to improve society. So I said to him, “Come to the bahujan movement and work to change society. How can you change society by working for someone else?” So this is a family matter, a personal matter. Bahujan society is my family. Other Backward Classes are my brothers, Muslims are my brothers, and of course so are the Dalits. He came and asked about my health. He said it pained him that I was in jail for so long.

I said, “You might be doing politics in whichever party, but you are my brother. That cannot be changed.” Like the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati is my aunt since she also belongs to the Dalit community.

You spoke of Mayawati as you bua (aunt). In another place you said that her ideology is getting past its date and the Bhim Army will fill in whatever gaps remain.
I never said anything about her ideology but she is my aunt that is true. But some of her advisors are conspiring to make us clash. I am fighting a social battle. She has nothing to fear from me. She is being misled and being made to deliver such statements [referring to Mayawati’s criticism of the Bhim Army].

She loves me a lot, there is not doubt about it. She loves every member of the Dalit community.

Mayawati has also said, why don’t you join the Bahujan Samaj Party? Why can’t you lead the bahujan movement from inside the party? Why did you make your own organisation?
See, the Bhim Army is a social organisation. We can make our point forcefully. But the Bahujan Samaj Party is a political party, which has people from every community. There are also people with criminal cases against them. Even cases in the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Cases of murder and rape. So I must oppose this.

People in political parties cannot speak their mind. They have to take permission before taking any step. If I am wrong, fine, I can take permission. But if my people are getting oppressed then there is no need for me to ask anyone’s permission. It does not matter who is doing the crime, what is his caste, I will oppose him. I will fight for justice. Political parties cannot do that. Political parties have constraints but I do not. I have given myself to my community. Even if I have to shed blood, that is fine. If the police shoot at me during a protest, put me in jail, fine.

Mayawati held a press conference on September 16 where she snubbed Chandrashekhar Azad for calling her his bua. She said she had no relation with "such kinds of people". (Photo credit: PTI).

Does that mean you will not contest elections in 2019?
It is meaningless to even talk of 2019. We are doing social work. We need to connect people and grow the bahujan movement. We need to unite castes in order to make a strong country so that the country is not broken into pieces. And we will establish the Constitution. The rights given in the Constitution have to be taken to the grassroots, made to reach each and every person.

But does that mean you won’t even support any party in 2019?
We will work to defeat the BJP. Because their policies are wrong. We cannot support wrong policies. Since we oppose them, we need to teach them a lesson, right?

On reservations, a number of Dalit leaders during the April 2 strike had accused the BJP of wanting to end reservations. What do you have to say about that?
The BJP does have a policy of trying to oppress the Dalits. So they can finish reservations. If they claim to be pro-Dalit, reservation should be instituted as per caste population. What needs to be done now is a caste census. And then distribute quotas as per population.

We need to understand what reservation is. Reservations means representation. How many people are there to represent their caste. How much is that caste getting from the government. But the narrative spun around reservation is as if its a handout. That is not so. This is their right. The OBCs [Other Backward Classes] are 52% of the population. It is their right to have a 52% quota.

And once the caste census is completed we will find out who is actually strengthening the country. The farmers, the country’s working classes, we need to find out how many there are. And then quotas should be distributed as per population. And this goes specially for the OBC [Other Backward Classes] given that their rights are being denied to them now [OBCs have 27% reservation in India]. I support them in their demand.

And let me reiterate: Anyone who oppresses bahujans will not be allowed to sleep peacefully at night. Under the rights awarded to us by the Constitution, we will protest against them and send them to jail.