Bhim Army co-founder and chief Chandrashekhar Azad talks about why he formed the outfit, where his organisation fits into the politics of the country, the April 2 agitation by Dalits, the anger against the government, his views on the Congress, and announces the launch of a movement from Muzaffarnagar on Dec 1
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: What motivated you to form the Bhim Army?
I belong to an ordinary family. During my school and college days, I felt terrible things were happening in the country, and also to our community. In 2008, I entered the movement. Aarakshan Bachao and Sangharshana Neeti are some of the organisations I worked with. One day, my friend and I met. A discussion was underway on untouchability towards children. They were being made to clean seats and told to sit separately in school because they were from the Scheduled Caste… When they told us these things, we were hurt. After we spoke to the principal, a committee was set up. But it failed. Then we filed a complaint with police. Soon, pressure was exerted on us — we were told that a case would be filed against us if we did not back off. We realised that if we wanted to get rid of injustice, we needed a movement. So we sat down and thought of a name — ‘Bhim Army Ekta Mission’. It is called Bhim Army because it is Babasaheb Ambedkar’s army. The organisation believes in his principles.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: You started Bhim Pathshalas. Why did you think education was the way to bring about change?
Running a school was a way to address issues plaguing the people. Students would come to me and I would ask them to show me their school bag, which at most times would not have any textbooks. When I enquired, they would make excuses such as the teacher didn’t come and so on. I wondered how, in such a scenario, the lives of people would change. There are activists and politicians who scream about change but do not attempt to address even basic problems. I thought we need to guide them. When you plant a sapling, it has to be nurtured in a way that it grows. The same holds true for children. We held classes for them and we got great response. We wanted more and more people to support us in this movement. Today in Bulandshahar, in a place called Nehru Gram, a paathshala is running in the name of the Bhim Army. I visited this place, and I was amazed to see around 300 students enrolled… It is nice to see that the work we started is being taken forward by others.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: In Saharanpur, people talk about how the Bhim Army has helped them, how if anything happens, 15-20 men reach in an instant. Do you think this aggressive approach was lacking in the socio-political space of the Bahujan society?
There have been a number of Bahujan governments in Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, when the BSP was in power, I asked them why they were not working to improve the condition of Dalits. They told me not to create a ruckus as it would hurt the government. After that the Samajwadi Party government came. Again I asked the same question to the BSP. They said that since they were no more in power, they cannot do much about it.
SHALINI NAIR: Since the SC/ST Act amendment, and your release from prison, the Dalit anger appears to have subsided a bit. Has the BJP managed to neutralise it?
Actually this is the silence before the storm. We are waiting for the 2019 election. The Bahujan Samaj leadership has requested us to keep low because some matters don’t get resolved by shouting. Whenever we protested, the establishment used lathi. We even lost about 12 of our own people. I know the pain of losing someone. I don’t want to lose anyone in the future, so, in the coming times, we will stage protests in a democratic way. If I lose someone , it means there is problem in my leadership.
LIZ MATHEW: There are reports that Dalits in Madhya Pradesh are upset. Do you think that anger will be reflected in the upcoming elections?
My assessment is based on the ground-level reports I have received. There is immense anger, and if the people are given a chance, they can do a lot of things.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Why are Dalits upset with the BJP?
There have been several incidents… In Pune, a big incident (Bhima-Koregaon) happened, but people who fought for justice were attacked and the BJP remained quiet. There was the Rohith Vemula case and the Saharanpur incident (in July 2017, Dalits and Thakurs clashed, leading to death of at least two and injuring scores). The BJP talks about Hindu religion but when Dalits are tortured, they remain quiet. Which Hindu are they talking about? For the last four and half years, they did not do anything. They keep saying, ‘Ram Mandir banaenge (We will construct the Ram Temple)’. The BJP is in power in the Centre as well as in Uttar Pradesh. Why aren’t they constructing it?… The country is run in accordance with the Constitution and they won’t be able to go against it. The BJP said they will bring back black money and deposit Rs 15 lakh in every citizen’s bank account. They also promised two crore jobs… They did not do anything. The BJP is responsible for the formation of the Bhim Army. When they have no jobs, what will the unemployed do? There are a lot of people in the Bhim Army. If they had jobs, they would be working somewhere else.
The BJP even lathicharged farmers. Anyone who goes to this government with their demands is lathicharged. The BJP has said that they want to change the Constitution, we will change them. We are supporters of the Constitution and it is in our DNA.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: The BJP also woos Dalits as part of a greater Hindu unity. But the Bahujan Samaj politics is a struggle against the inherent discrimination within Hinduism. So Dalits are trapped between two competing streams of politics.
This is for those in politics to answer. I will share an anecdote. When I was in jail, I attended an Eid namaz. The moment the dua ended, a rumour spread that I had adopted Islam. I told those who were enquiring that I didn’t become a Hindu despite ringing temple bells for 25 years, how will I become a Muslim now? We are running the Bahujan movement as per the path shown by Kanshi Ram, who said people of all marginalised communities are the same. Muslims and OBCs also come under this category. We are trying to unite all such weak people.
ABHISHEK ANGAD: You released a note during the May 2018 Kairana elections, urging Dalits to ensure that their votes were not wasted.
I had written that the votes should not be split. There’s a difference between wastage and division… I belong to Saharanpur and if the BJP had won there, it would have meant that there had been shortcomings on my part. So I have taken it upon myself to raise awareness. People said that it may lead to fresh imposition of the NSA (National Security Act) against me, but I believed it was my responsibility.
ABHISHEK ANGAD: Tell us about your time in prison? What are the problems you faced?
When you are in jail, all facilities are taken away. You have to abide by the jail manual. While undertrials can meet visitors thrice a week, those serving a sentence can meet visitors only once in a fortnight. I was running such a big organisation but was not allowed to meet people… In a way you are meant to be broken. You are not allowed to read. You suffer from loneliness. I have seen people die due to lack of treatment. There’s only one doctor and he is not available 24 hours… If politicians start living in jails, all problems would be solved.
SHALINI NAIR: Recently, the I&B Ministry directed that the term ‘Dalit’ should not be used, that ‘Scheduled Castes’ be used instead.
They should do the same for the word ‘Hindu’. Why not use Bania, Rajput, Pandit, Brahmin, Gujjar, Jat, Saini. Dalit is an entity under which a lot of different communities gather.
UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: At the ground level, what is the equation between workers of the Bhim Army and BSP? Will you campaign for BSP candidates?
The BSP is a political party and their leaders will decide what work will be given to their cadre. We ask our cadre to work in the field of education and lend support to victims of atrocities. The people should feel that there is someone to listen to them. Our people also file FIRs on behalf of the people. FIRs have a language and if they are not properly framed, then the case can fall apart in court… When even the CBI lacks autonomy, how can a police constable of a local police station be autonomous?
I am part of a social movement. If I feel that BSP candidates are weak, we will support them. We are there to help the weak, not the strong.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: You are telling your supporters not to vote for the BJP. But are you also telling them whom to vote for?
The BJP government is a strong one. So I’m trying to make sure that there is a strong gathbandhan (alliance) to oppose it. In such a situation, weak forces should come together. If that doesn’t happen, we will support the party which is working for the Bahujan movement.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: In the past, the BSP has entered into several alliances, including seeking support from savarnas. How do you see the party’s current politics?
Why should I analyse the BSP’s politics? If it was up to me, we would strengthen the social movement so much that we would not need to give support to anyone. If the Bahujan community stops voting for savarnas, they cannot enter any office. They won’t even win a Zila Parishad seat.
It’s now time for the savarnas to think what they want to do. Either they join the mainstream, respect all humans and stop the practice of untouchability, or I will tell my supporters not to vote for them.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Why don’t you enter politics? Your idol Kanshi Ram always spoke about political power.
I am preparing the people so that they themselves can struggle. The politics of today does not impress me. What is happening now is that people struggle, spend some money and become MP or MLA. Then they use that to make money. People keep waiting for their leader but he never visits his constituency. I do not support this… Politician are sevaks (servants) of the public.
FAIZAN MUSTAFA (Vice-Chancellor of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad): With regards to the SC/ST Act, there was good mobilisation and the government also had to give in. But the battle will not be fought by Dalit doctors or engineers but by lawyers. And Dalits have not excelled in the legal field. So how will the community’s concerns be voiced?
You referred to what happened on April 2. The government bent and necessary instructions were issued. But if a Bahujan government comes to power, the issue will be resolved and the Supreme Court will also not interfere… We want that sunehri chaabi (golden key) to land in the hands of Bahujans this time. Everyone gets opportunities, why not give it to the Dalits?
FAIZAN MUSTAFA: What are your thoughts on reservation-based promotions? Do you think there will be mobilisation on this or are people not understanding this issue at all?
People understand the issue. Someone here asked me why I am against the BJP. This is because such things are happening for the first time. It is a way to stop Dalits from moving forward. This government is working with an objective and agenda. The government wants Dalits and OBCs to remain suppressed… I do not want to comment on the Supreme Court decision (applying creamy layer to promotion for SC/STs in government jobs), but I believe there is interference. The Supreme Court is also under pressure. But things will change. Like I said, the media will also feel relieved after the BJP goes. Once the undeclared emergency ends, the media will be able to put issues forward in a proper manner.
RAVISH TIWARI: We know your views on the BJP. How do you see the Congress?
The same way that Kansi Ram and Babasaheb see it. The Congress and BJP are two sides of the same coin… The work of both is the same as the top brass of the two parties have the same mentality. If the ideology of a leader is that someone cannot be allowed to rise beyond a certain point, how will it work? Until these people change their ideology, my views of the two parties will remain the same.
RAVISH TIWARI: You have always said that your choice for the Prime Minister is Mayawati. But why doesn’t the BSP like the Bhim Army?
This is their personal choice. This is their way of thinking. I am working towards strengthening a social revolution. I have no idea what she thinks. But I have already made my point clear. If things are left to me, I will remove Modiji, make her the PM right away. It is all about choices. But it is a democratic country and we have to follow certain rules.
DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: In the long run, do you think the Bhim Army can be a successor of the BSP?
The BSP is a party. Why does it need to have a successor? Does the BJP or Congress have successors?… Those who are working will stay. We all are working for the country. People who are working should get a chance. The youth of our country should definitely get a chance to be part of its politics. But not people like me. People who are educated and can contribute well should come forward.
ABHISHEK ANGAD: Is the Bhim Army a registered organisation? How many members are there?
The Constitution has given us the right to form organisations, to carry out a social movement. It is not necessary to have registration. People who suffer always support the Bhim Army. The media portrays us in such a way that when something goes wrong, the blame is put on us. Obviously there are people who are against us and are jealous of us… We are in the process of building a website. As soon as I have an idea of the total number of our members, I will provide the information.
RAKESH SINHA: What do you think of Gujarat leader Jignesh Mawani?
Both of us are Dalits. Hence, we are brothers.
RAKESH SINHA: Following Bhima-Koregaon, Dalit activists were called urban Naxals. What is your view on it?
Sometime back, it was claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s life was in danger… A case is filed and after 10 years the court says the person was falsely accused… The government is doing this out of fear since there is talk of development from the other side. Someone who wants to talk about development will not resort to violence. I don’t know how the Naxal movement started, but I can tell you that someone will come out on the streets only out of desperation. When you push people out of their houses, rape their daughters, seize their property, they will take to the streets… From what I know, such cases against people are false and the government is merely afraid. We will fight against the government through constitutional means. We will launch a movement from Muzaffarnagar on December 1. It will end on December 6 in Delhi, if necessary permissions are granted. The movement will be nation-wide. Last time, we compelled the government to accept our demands. We will fight the same way this time. We will continue our struggle.