It was back in 2017 when, for the first time, I came across the names of Bhim Army and Chandra Shekhar Azad through a documentary made by The Quint. Post Rohith Vemula and the Una Dalit uprising, this was yet another movement in anti-caste politics that reminded me of the politics of the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra, and armed rebellion by Dalits in the 1970s around Srikakulam against the Kamma landlords. During these initial encounters, I felt this may be a region-specific mobilisation, limited to western Uttar Pradesh, which has had militant Dalit mobilisations earlier. But gradually, I saw that I was wrong in my assessment. The phenomenon of the Bhim Army grew beyond the frontiers of western UP.
Post the Saharanpur violence on Dalits by the Thakurs in 2017, Chandra Shekhar Azad and many of his colleagues went underground, and from there, he announced that he would come to Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, and address a protest gathering. Protesters from across Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab had come for the gathering. The Bhim Army chief appeared there amidst thousands of protestors, marking a grand gesture before being arrested by the police under the National Security Act. The grand presence of Chandrasekhar Azad – and that particular gesture in New Delhi on the day – was widely felt among Dalits across the country. A new leader was born that day.
This was the beginning of a series of many grand gestures Chandra Shekhar Azad would go on to make in the consecutive years, post his release from jail in 2018.
Bhim Army emerging as an autonomous entity within Dalit politics was something hard to grasp from various quarters. Unlike Jignesh Mevani — another Dalit leader from Gujarat who kept shifting stands and also got close to the civil societies and liberal circles of New Delhi, emulating their articulations and sharing stages with the likes of Kanhaiya Kumar — Chandra Shekhar Azad did not let that happen.
Instead, he went on to speak of the language of Bahujan politics articulated by Kanshiram Saheb, bringing together the suppressed majority, and the significance of the Constitution, while reinvigorating an aggressive brand of young anti-caste politics with symbolisms and gestures unpalatable not only to BJP but also to the popular Left-Liberal-civil society- alternative media" version of politics.
Amidst criticism and support, Bhim Army, as an organisation spread to places like Odisha, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan etc, with Chandra Shekhar being the brand name for its propagation.
In this historical backdrop, I would like to particularly focus on one aspect of Chandra Shekhar Azad as a leader – and that is his presence in public space, in defying caste and making grand gestures.
The notions of public and private space in India are regulated by caste. What is considered to be private for a majority of Dalits is not private, but accessible to everyone starting from the political leaders who suddenly pop up and sit there on the mud floor, under leaking roofs, to have food before an election; to the documentary makers who land up in front of you with their cameras, focusing on the deplorable state and intimate moments of life.
On the contrary, most of the spaces that are considered to be ‘public’ for everyone else, either have strongly regulated access or no access to Dalits, starting from the stairs of temples, to the grounds of Dandiya dance, to the courtyards of literary festivals and talks in India Habitat Centres.
This contradiction of caste is what Chandra Shekhar Azad keeps breaking again and again with his grand gestures. He shares his life with the above mentioned sections of Dalits who have had lived experiences of untouchability and segregation of spaces under the rule of Thakurs. The nature of caste here is different from the experience of the tiny section of Dalits who have gained some mobility, and thus have some limited regulatory access in their respective places.
Be it during the night of protest at the Delhi police headquarters, against the violence on students of Jamia Millia Islamia, or the protest against Ravi Das temple demolition, or sitting on the steps of Jama Masjid – Chandra Shekhar Azad is making public spaces habituated with grand visual entries of Dalits by breaking normative notions of caste and space.
He comes with his four-wheelers and supporters – mostly Dalit and Muslim youths – who sit on the top of a car calmly, while also engaging in one-to-one conversations with every individual who comes to speak to him.
In a country where you get killed as a Dalit for putting your foot on the steps of a temple, where your hands are chopped off for touching a hand pump, where you are killed for keeping a moustache, Chandra Shekhar stood there on the steps of Jama Masjid, a holy space for Muslims, while hundreds of Muslim and Dalit youth together stood around, listening to him.
He came out of jail with a similar grand gesture amidst the crowd standing on top of a car, with a blue scarf and shades. He does not detach from the crowd, yet retains his presence of grand gestures almost like a big spectacle that opposes the caste notion of public and private space.
Most importantly, these gestures are not an end in itself, but also embrace and extend solidarity with other oppressed sections, especially to Muslims who are at the extreme receiving end of this ruling dispensation of BJP and RSS.
In contrast to the merit-laden tongue of caste, he uses crude, unrefined statements like, “Koi mere Musalman bhaiyon ko marne ayega, sabse pehle goli main khaunga". (Whoever comes to attack my Muslim brothers, I will take the first bullet.)
This has not been a one way process. Students like Ladeeda and Ayesha, who became the face of resistance against the police violence in Jamia, have stood hand-in-hand with Chandra Shekhar Azad, continuously reciprocating the solidarity. At a time when Dalits, Muslims, Adivasis and lower castes of this country are forced to bow down to the ideals of Hindu Rasthra and remain subservient, the shades-wearing, well dressed, blue scarf around the neck, confident, and Constitution holding grand presence of Chandra Shekhar Azad defies many caste dictums.
It challenges the present regime and in the process these grand gestures have gone viral with videos and images of him being circulated among Dalit and Bahujan youths from Uttar Pradesh to Kerala, with hope, defiance, and autonomy – and not with victimhood.
All of these grand gestures and defiance of Caste and regulations of space has come with a cost for him by being charged with acts of NSA and being jailed amidst severe medical conditions.
The defiance of caste by occupying public space derives its essence from the Ambedkarite stream of politics passed down from Ayyankali, Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Kanshiram Saheb, Mayawati to Chandra Shekhar Azad. Only the Savarnas of this country had occupied space for themselves, cunningly, with falsehood and caste morality – starting from Gandhi's crocodile tears for Harijans to claim being the “empathetic Hindu Upper Caste”; Nehru's modern lifestyle of liberal Hindu Pandit; Yogi's vulgar display of fanatic Hinduism; Kejriwal with a broom in his hand; to Kanhaiya Kumar being made the larger than life figure by the clan members despite being a “Poor Bhumihar.”
Only time will tell how this brand of politics is going to take shape, but for now Chandrasekhar Azad and Bhim Army have definitely reserved a place in the anti-caste history of this country.
Sumeet Samos is an anti-caste hip-hop artiste. Views expressed are the author’s own.