Dalit dissent

Print edition : September 28, 2018

Activists of Bhim Army at a rally demanding the release of their leader Chandrashekhar Azad, in New Delhi on April 18. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

DRACONIAN laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and the National Security Act (NSA) and charges of sedition are increasingly being used against anyone who criticises the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. While Adivasis fighting for their rights have always been maligned as naxalites, Dalits too are now being branded naxalites and anti-nationals.

In Uttar Pradesh, ever since Yogi Adityanath became the Chief Minister, the NSA has been slapped on political opponents, especially Muslims and Dalits. The most prominent of those arrested under this Act is of the Bhim Army leader, Chandrashekhar Azad “Ravan”.

On May 5 last year, Thakurs in Shabbirpur village of Sahranpur district in western Uttar Pradesh torched more than 50 Dalit homes and hacked people and cattle (“Targeting Dalits”, Frontline, June 9, 2017). In protest against the caste atrocities and demanding justice for the victims, Dalits organised a mahapanchayat on May 9. The police clashed with the protesters and picked up members of the Dalit outfit Bhim Army. Chandrashekhar went into hiding but was arrested on June 8 from Dalhousie. While no action was taken against the Thakurs who attacked the village, Chandrashekhar and Bhim Army cadre were arrested and charged with rioting.

Supporters of the Bhim Army feel that the government wants to “fix” the likes of Chandrashekhar, who was emerging as a strong leader against the Thakurs and the police. A vocal critique of the Adityanath government, he has been working for the rights of Dalits and their welfare. The Bhim Army has an education outreach programme under which it runs 350 schools that cater to all castes. “We also conduct blood donation camps. Why do the media never mention these activities of the Bhim Army and instead paint us as a violent group?” asked one of the Bhim Army members of Saharanpur.

Soon after Chandrashekhar’s arrest, the state machinery came down heavily on other Bhim Army members. Nearly 7,000 Dalits have been charged under various sections of the law, according to Kamal Singh Walia, Saharanpur district president of the Bhim Army. Every time the Bhim Army organises a programme, its members are charged with new crimes. Recently, when right-wing groups burnt the Constitution in Delhi, some 150 Bhim Army members presented a memorandum to the Senior Superintendent of Police in Saharanpur against the act. Ironically, the police slapped cases against those who submitted the letter, stating that Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (prohibiting assembly of more than four people in an area) was in force in the district. “Is Section 144 for entire Saharanpur or is it only for Bhim Army members of Saharanpur?” asked Kamal.

There are 28 cases against Kamal and 27 against Chandrashekhar. Most Bhim Army members have more than eight cases against them. “The cases are such that they require bail amounts of up to Rs.1 lakh each, which is impossible for us to pay. But we are not scared. It is not an individual fight but an ideological one,” Kamal told Frontline.

Kamal was incarcerated for seven months and 20 days. While he was kept in a cell with other prisoners, Chandrashekhar was kept in solitary confinement. According to Kamal, Chandrashekhar was beaten by fellow prisoners at the instance of the Thakurs. “The government can get him killed,” said Kamal, relating an incident when poison was apparently mixed in their food.

On November 2 last year, Justice Mukhtar Ahmad of the Allahabad High Court called the charges politically motivated and sanctioned bail for both Kamal and Chandrashekhar. But almost immediately, the NSA was again slapped on Chandrasekhar, prolonging his incarceration by another year. While the period of preventive detention under the NSA is coming to an end soon, Kamal feels the Uttar Pradesh government wants to keep Chandrashekhar behind bars until after the general election which is due next year. They fear that his popularity will affect the elections against the BJP government.

Growing popularity

After Chandrashekhar’s arrest, the popularity of the Bhim Army has grown manifold, with the organisation having 1.5 lakh members in Saharanpur alone. From a local unregistered organisation, it has emerged as a national platform for Dalits. Following the all-India strike on April 2 against the dilution of the provisions of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by the Supreme Court, Dalits were randomly picked up and put in jail (“Blind and brutal”, Frontline, August 17, 2018). Kamal said as many as 2,500 Dalits were arrested in Meerut, 500 in Saharanpur and 350 in Alwar, Rajasthan. The NSA has been slapped against Shivkumar, the sarpanch of Shabbirpur; Sonu, a poor person from the same village; and Upkar Bawara, district president of the Bhim Army in Muzaffarnagar.

“Across the country, they have created fear so that no one can speak against tyranny,” said Robin Gautam, who has several cases against him. “People in power should not forget that they came to power because of the Constitution, be it Modi or Yogi,” he said.

According to the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, the use of the NSA is cynically done (in this case as in others since its inception in 1980) to detain the accused by simply painting them as a national security threat, with no compulsion to provide evidence. “The imposition of the completely draconian NSA allows the authorities to keep Chandrashekhar under preventive detention when he has not really committed a crime and cannot be charged under [the] IPC. It is being used as a means of crushing the legitimate struggle of the Bhim Army for Dalits who are demanding their democratic rights, and trying to resist entrenched casteist right-wing attitudes and groups and biased governmental machinery.”

Meanwhile, Dalits have been carrying out peaceful protests against the imposition of the NSA on Chandrashekhar. A “jail bharo aandolan” was called for against the imposition of the NSA in several districts of Uttar Pradesh. Rajya Sabha member Ali Anwar Ansari has condemned the imposition of the NSA on Chandrashekhar. Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani has expressed solidarity with Chandrashekhar and the Bhim Army. “We will continue to focus on our primary work of education while they continue to target our leaders,” said Samrat Gautam of the Bhim Army.

 

 

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