By Manik Sharma Dec. 22, 2019
Chandrashekhar Azad’s now viral photograph, holding the Constitution on the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, screams resistance and unity. His Bhim Army prides itself on the Constitution, a document that is secular and impartial to any one religion, caste, or sect. No wonder the increasingly distressed Indian Muslims now see an ally and perhaps even a leader in Azad.
On a foggy afternoon in Delhi on December 20, a dramatic moment of screeching clarity offered itself to a country on the boil. On the steps of Jamia Masjid, appeared, a Dalit, with Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Constitution in hand. He lifted the thick document above his head and the Delhi’s oldest vanguard rifled with applause, cheer, and defiance. That on the steps of a sacred Muslim monument, a Dalit man emerged as the lodestar of collective conscience and concern was emblematic of the nationwide struggle for plurality and secularism that has been prompted by the projected application of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. After giving Delhi police the eyes, Chandrashekhar Azad flummoxed a tight security setup – jumping across terraces – to emerge, film-like at Jama Masjid. Later in the day, he surrendered after requesting the release of protesters who had been detained by the police. Years later we’ll look back at the moment on the steps of the masjid as the day India found its “second Azad”.
Azad was born in Uttar Pradesh’s Chutmalpur to Govardhan Das, a school teacher who retired as a principal. After graduating in law, he wanted to pursue higher studies in the US before the illness of his father turned life around for Azad. While ferrying his father from hospital to hospital, Azad’s father shared his experiences with his son. “Chamar hai master ji” is what the principal heard from time to time; his transfers were often stopped, he told his son in his last days. Das succumbed to cancer. The lifelong suffering of his father and others like him from prejudice, eventually pushed the young Azad to form the “Bhim Army” in 2015. It started to fight oppression in a college where Dalit boys faced discrimination. Four years on, the Army is a force to be reckoned with.
Azad’s politics is clear as daylight. He wants to emancipate fellow bahujans and believes good-structured education is the only way to do so. His organisation helps educate minorities in western UP and cultivate in them a political passion to pursue rights and literacy like Ambedkar envisioned in the Constitution. That’s the reason the 33-year-old has become popular with the youth in UP with a reputation that is only growing. So much so, he attempted to directly take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the recent elections in Varanasi.
Azad is a 33-year-old, well-read and thoroughly articulate. He has a voguish moustache, like the freedom fighter of the same name and it accentuates his steadfast and confident personality. He often wears a blue scarf that symbolises Ambedkar’s own iconic blue suit. Azad has also found ways to invert discrimination and wear his identity and his lack of privilege on his sleeve. In 2017, he helped villagers in his hometown Saharanpur, UP install a signage on their property that read “The Great Chamar”. Rather than a jibe against the pejorative term used by upper-castes to describe the lower caste, Azad put up an honourable photograph of himself, sunglasses-on, alongside the sign on social media. This act of defiance, of course, did not go well with the local Thakur population. After clashes between Dalits and upper caste Thakurs, Azad was arrested, booked under the National Security Act, and put behind bars for 15 months. The man, though, had already made himself heard on the national radar.
Chandrashekhar Azad wants to emancipate fellow bahujans and believes good-structured education is the only way to do so. Sanchit Khanna /Hindustan Times /Getty Images
Chandrashekhar Azad wants to emancipate fellow bahujans and believes good-structured education is the only way to do so.
Sanchit Khanna /Hindustan Times /Getty Images
To most upper-caste Indians who draw power from their privilege and ignorance, the likes of Azad and his compatriot from Gujarat, Jignesh Mewani, are social deterrents, men who might topple the well-stocked ship of historic endowment – caste privilege. Discrimination, here is the sea and we, all of us who moan about reservations, are complicit. Azad likes to sometimes call himself “Ravan” to symbolise this unclaimed ugly sight of caste bigotry that most deny they subscribe to, in the open. There is evil in everyone who thinks a human ought to be designated by ‘jaat’ or a similar social identifier.
Which is why the Azad’s Bhim Army, prides itself on the Constitution, a document that is secular and impartial to any one religion, caste, or sect. No wonder persecuted minorities, like the increasingly distressed Indian Muslims now see an ally and perhaps even a leader in Azad. What this incarnation of a common socialist leader means for the minorities in India, remains to be seen. The image on the steps of Jama Masjid, will however, be termed iconic at least for the unity it momentarily accomplished. And therein lies the importance of someone like Azad, a man in touch with the youth and capable of uniting them unlike the flaccid, hesitant politics of the disorientated Congress or the opportunism of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
Azad, who received bail after almost a month in jail, is not new to incarceration. He has been arrested by the UP police on several occasions. This time, however, he has taken his struggle to the capital and with it elevated, not only his own profile, but the stakes at the heart of his mission – equality and justice for crimes that have been committed for generations and continue under the garb of the system.
If you were, like me, fascinated by Azad’s resemblance to Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s Nishad from the critically acclaimed film Article 15, it is only one of the many signs of this man’s growing stature. His methods may not always be genteel, but neither were those of the great Azad we have heard and read about in history books. In Article 15, rather tellingly Nishad, a Dalit leader was played by Ayyub, a Muslim. Rarely, do rivers of thought merge this way between celluloid and reality. Rarely does a man pull off a coup under unconstitutional restrictions, like Azad did at Jama Masjid. Rarely is such a coup captured in a time-stopping image that screams resistance and unity – the Constitution, the man holding it and his names.