UP govt releases Bhim Army chief jailed under NSA 45 days before term ends

Saurabh Sharma | Sep 15, 2018 | 5 min read


Champion of ‘The Great Chamar’ could be BJP’s tool to counter Bahujan Samaj supremo   

By Saurabh Sharma

Lucknow: The Uttar Pradesh government in wee hours of Friday, 14 September, released Bhim Army Chief, Chandrashekhar Azad, alias Ravan, before his term ended on 1 November, 2018. He was jailed under the National Security Act (NSA) in connection with the Saharanpur riots of May 2017 where clashes between Thakurs and Dalits had left 16 injured and one dead.

Chandrashekhar was arrested in June, 2017, from Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh. The Dalit community in Uttar Pradesh was unhappy with action taken by the police and government, which gradually transpired into mass scale conversions to Buddhism in Saharanpur and the community maintaining an arm’s distance from the Saffron party.

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 Army 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 Friday, according to the government order. The state government decided to release Chandrashekhar on grounds of sympathy, as his mother’s health is in question, it states.

After his release around 2.30am Friday, Chandrashekhar told the 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 support of Dalits across the country, particularly in states like Haryana, Uttarakhand and Punjab, as several protests were held demanding Chandrashekhar’s release. A sign board 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.

Attempt to woo Dalits?

Post the Saharanpur riots, the impact of the Dalit 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 BJP’s defeat is believed to be Bhim Army extending its support to the opposition (Congress + BSP + SP+ RLD) candidate, Tabassum Hasan.

Adding fuel to the fire, police arresting multiple Dalit protesters, including minors, in connection with the violence that took place during April’s Bharat Bandh further pushed away an already estranged community.

With these factors, it seems like the BJP is going to try hard to mend the broken fence.

According to documentary filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney, who has been documenting atrocities on Dalits in Saharanpur, it is a win for the Dalit movement in the country. “Ravan is the voice of Dalit movement in India and not just in Uttar Pradesh or Saharanpur,” says Sawhney.

That Ravan had been a constant voice against atrocities committed towards the Dalit community did not go down well with the government, and they unconstitutionally imposed NSA on him, says Sawhney.

The move 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 Bhim Army, welcomes the decision while also adding that they will not allow the saffron party to encash it in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

“We extend our thanks, but if this has been done to woo Dalits, 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 Vs Maya?

The government’s move to release Chandrashekhar before his jail term ends could also be an attempt of the BJP to break the Dalit vote bank so far enjoyed by 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.

Dalit votes in Uttar Pradesh have been under the firm grip of Mayawati, which was evident with the mandate of Phoolpur and Gorakhpur by-election, where SP-BSP alliance vanquished an over-confident BJP.

However, according to Dalit activist and former IPS, S R Darapuri, Mayawati has been opposing the Bhim Army, and has once even said that Chandrashekhar is a product of 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 UP government has made a calculated move to sway the Dalit vote in their favour in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But, it remains to be seen if the Dalit voters will return the sympathetic favour, though it was long-overdue, to the BJP. As a vigorous Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar enjoys staunch support from the community youth, which could be utilised against the BSP in the upcoming election.

It is upto the Bhim Army now to decide its course ahead in the best interest of the community.


(Saurabh Sharma is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)

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