Around 1 pm Friday, Bhim Army founder Chandrashekhar, who was released from UP’s Saharanpur jail at 2.45 am after more than a year, stepped out of his home in Chhutmalpur to meet supporters and well-wishers. Within minutes, the mob crowded around him, and he fainted.
“First, we didn’t let him sleep through the night in our excitement. Now, since morning, people are not letting him take rest. He is not saying no, either. He hasn’t even eaten anything since last night,” says an associate, as Bhim Army workers help their leader back on his feet.
The popularity that Chandrashekhar enjoys here among the Dalits, particularly the young, is no less than that of a Bollywood star. Since morning, the small public space near his one-storey house in Saharanpur’s Chhutmalpur has been teeming with people arriving in batches from as far as Haridwar and Aurangabad. Most of them are in their 20s, sporting moustaches like their icon and seeking nothing more than a selfie.
Chandrashekhar obliges them, hugging and thanking everyone. Then, twirling his moustache, it’s time for politics. “Our sole aim is to defeat the BJP. We will support whoever that can do it. If we see the Mahagathbandhan is not coming through, we will create social pressure on the BSP to join hands with other parties. We will hold rallies across the state. Everyone must understand that it is important to defeat the BJP,” he says (interview, page 13).
So does that mean support for Mayawati, who once described Bhim Army as the BJP’s B-team? “She has struggled a lot along with Saheb (Kanshiram), and after was gone. It is now our turn to do something. To build the society, to boost the morale of our people, to empower them with education. She can continue doing her electoral politics. We both have the same blood. She may have some issues with me, I have none with her. It is not in my values to speak ill of my Bua (aunt). Our only aim is to defeat the BJP,” he says.
His supporters, meanwhile, watch in awe. “This is the kind of leader we want. Thok-ke bolta hai (He minces no words),” says Deepak, 21, a welder sporting a T-shirt with Chandrashekhar’s silhouette printed on it. Deepak and a friend, 22-year-old Amit who runs a food stall, decided not to work today to be with Chandrashekhar. “He stayed in jail for us for 14 months. What’s losing a day’s work for him?,” they say.
The anger is palpable and directed at the BJP government for Chandrashekhar’s prolonged incarceration. “Yeh toh Thakuron ki sarkar hai (This government is for Thakurs),” is the refrain directed at the Yogi Adityanath government.
Echoing the mood around him, Chandrashekhar says that despite the BJP’s efforts, Dalits will not vote for the ruling party. Asked if the BJP will gain political mileage from his release, he says, “Until I am free and alive, I will not let that happen. Main voton se BJP ki nasbandi kar dunga (I will sterilise BJP with my votes).”
On speculation that he was released as a part of the BJP’s strategy to divide Dalit votes, he claims he was released because the state government knew it was going to be reprimanded by the Supreme Court, where a petition was up for hearing Friday. “In any case, I am not going to fight elections. I want to keep away from electoral politics and engage at the social level. But I will support the right kind of people,” he says.
On Thursday, the UP government revoked the National Security Act (NSA) against Chandrashekhar, setting the stage for his release more than a year after he was jailed for his alleged role in clashes between Thakurs and Dalits in Saharanpur in May 2017.
Chandrashekhar was arrested along with two others — Shiv Kumar, pradhan of Shabbirpur village, and Sonu, a resident. The Bhim Army chief was granted bail by the Allahabad High Court in November 2017 before the government detained him under the NSA. On Friday, Kumar and Sonu were also released.
In the crowd surrounding Chandrashekhar, meanwhile, is a sizeable number of Muslims. The Bhim Army has been pushing for Dalit-Muslim unity, and had extended support to the Mahagathbandhan’s Muslim candidate in the Kairana bypolls.
“Chandrashekhar is doing what Kanshiram always dreamed of — Dalit-Muslim unity. Today, no political party wants to associate with Muslims. But he is openly embracing Muslims,” says a Muslim teacher, who does not want to be identified.
As for Bhim Army fans, the road ahead is clear: Chandrashekhar should fight the elections. “So what if Mayawati is not supporting him? He should fight as an Independent. He will win. Without political power, there is no power,” says Kuldeep Kumar, 26, a Dalit journalist from the area.