Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan: Man who wears azadi with swag

For decades, Indian politicians portrayed austerity and abstemiousness in public. But as soon as ageism started vanishing from Indian politi...

For decades, Indian politicians portrayed austerity and abstemiousness in public. But as soon as ageism started vanishing from Indian politics, in stepped authenticity and hard-core puffery.

Sample Chandrashekhar Azad’s description on Wikipedia: “He has established himself as Dalit icon and he is known for his style. Azad does something more: His style is ostentatious. It rejects docility, minimalism and discretion. It is not quietly elegant, but emphatically flamboyant. It flaunts Raybans alongside homespun, replaces hipster beards with the twirled 'tache. It is azadi with swag.”

That happens to be a young Dalit leader of contemporary times, not our freedom fighter with the same name. The adjectives aren’t intended just for self-promotion but are also conscious catering to a new electorate.

So, who is Chandrashekhar Azad? Why is he being talked about as the next big thing in Dalit politics? And why is he contesting from the Gorakhpur Urban seat pitting him against current Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath?

Azad aka Ravan is an Indian lawyer and Dalit-Bahujan rights activist. A self-professed Ambedkarite, he is the co-founder and national president of the Bhim Army. To add to his growing legend, in February 2021, Time magazine featured him in its annual list of 100 Emerging Leaders who are Shaping the Future.

Azad was born in Chhutmalpur in Saharanpur district, Uttar Pradesh. He came to prominence as a Bahujan leader after he put up a hoarding on the outskirts of his village that provocatively said: “The Great Ch****s of Ghadkhauli Welcome You”.

The story began with Azad, Satish Kumar, and Vinay Ratan Singh founding the Bhim Army in 2014, an organisation that works for the emancipation of Dalits through education in India. It runs free schools for Dalits in western Uttar Pradesh.

The Azad Samaj Party (Kanshiram) was launched on 15 March 2020 (the 86th birth anniversary of Kanshiram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party), ostensibly to become part of mainstream politics.

Cut to the present, where Azad is taking pedal to metal, challenging the incumbent. To many Uttar Pradesh poll watchers, there is no way Azad can be serious competition to Yogi.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath campaigns for NDA in Bihar. Twitter@myogiadityanath

Then why contest a losing seat? When a political rookie takes on a big gun, the limelight also focuses on the challenger. That helps immensely in establishing the challenger, sends his message across and the media strobe lights do the rest.

It’s as if Azad has taken a leaf out of his predecessor’s book. In 1987, the prestigious seat of Allahabad (Prayagraj) was the scene of a major political battle. VP Singh was contesting and his challenger was none other than Kanshiram, virtually unknown then.

During campaigning, Kanshiram was holed up in a hotel. A bunch of journalists landed up to see him. One of them happened to be a Brahmin triggering a rant from Kanshiram. Brahmins dominating the bureaucracy and suppressing Dalits.

Kanshiram. Image courtesy News18 Hindi

A sign of the times as that positioning benefited Kanshiram immensely during that campaign. He shot to prominence. His message got across in a high decibel campaign. Even as he clearly knew that he couldn’t defeat VP Singh.

That scenario will play out again — this time in the Gorakhpur Urban seat where the mighty Yogi Adityanath would be set for a big ticket win. Yet, Azad Ravan would acquire new sails.

Fair to say, Azad had tried for an alliance earlier with Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party(SP). That left a sour taste. He declared that he felt cheated by the SP. It had reneged on its promise to offer his party 25 seats to contest. Akhilesh said he would try to ensure that two seats were set aside for Azad's party. But Azad was no longer interested.

"I will defeat him {Adityanath}, we need organisational strength for it and we have that. Their failures are plenty... inflation, COVID handling, unemployment recruitment scams, law and order and women's security, this government has failed on all counts," he said.

“People of Gorakhpur will repeat the history of 1971 when they defeated a sitting chief minister," he said. That reference is to Congress-O leader Tribhuvan Narain Singh, who was from Varanasi and took oath as chief minister in October 1970. He was not an MLA then. He contested a bypoll from the seat of Maniram in Gorakhpur in 1971 but lost. He was forced to resign.

Interestingly, the BSP has been a consistent second runner-up on the Gorakhpur Urban seat in the last three Assembly elections. In 2017, BSP secured 11 percent votes, in 2012, it got a 14 percent vote share. Azad is eyeing the same vote bank as the BSP did.

The BJP also gets a large chunk of Dalit votes in Gorakhpur as Yogi himself keeps their issues in focus. Yuva Vahini, a right-wing affiliate organisation, invites Dalit youth regularly to Yogi’s events.

Azad Ravan’s attempts as a challenger can be interpreted as two-fold: One, push the interests of his own base and solidify his position. And Two, project himself as an alternative of Mayawati in Dalit politics. So far, he has not made any direct comments against Mayawati.

BSP chief Mayawati. ANI

Poll pundits would keep a close eye on how the Dalit vote-bank reacts to Azad and what the BSP does.

For any political movement to garner strength and move forward there has to be a ground opportunity, space for manoeuvre and a contextual edge. In Azad’s case, the backstory is linked to Kanshiram. The increasing disconnect and failure of Mayawati in carrying forward the legacy of the BSP has given Azad that space for a manoeuvre.

The Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, abbreviated as DS-4,  was founded on 6 December 1981 by Kanshiram to organise dalits and other oppressed groups of India.  DS4's slogan was "Brahmin, Thakur, Bania chhor, baaki sab hain DS-4". ("Leaving Brahmins, Thakurs and Banias, everyone else is DS-4."). The organisation was absorbed by the BSP in 1984.

Gauging the simmering resentment against the political ostracism towards Dalits, Kanshiram recruited disgruntled intellectuals and government employees to give wheels to the caravan of the Bahujan movement, writes Suraj Yengde, the author of “Caste Matters.”

“Educated and with a confident outlook, the young breed of Dalits are now aiming to give life to Ambedkar’s vision — of becoming a part of the ruling class of the country. Almost every student organisation, social and political outfit subscribes to the legacy of Ambedkar,” Yengde writes. This is exactly where Azad fits in.

Kanshiram understood that emotional appeal was a far more powerful way to use radical anger that would help tackle the oppressor. His deft editorial skills also found expression. The popular The Oppressed Indian and the Bahujan Sanghatak were his organisation’s mouthpieces.

Azad said his party is open to stitching an alliance with others and maintained that his fight has always been with the RSS and the BJP.

The 34-year-old Azad says, he wants to emancipate fellow Bahujans through education. His organisation helps educate minorities in western Uttar Pradesh. He wants them to pursue rights and literacy like Ambedkar envisioned in the Constitution.

Azad and the Bhim Army also “spearheaded a campaign for justice” in the case of the fatal gang-rape of a 19-year old Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras. He also became one of the most popular faces in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2020.

Cameras caught him standing outside the Jama Masjid in Delhi with a copy of the Constitution in one hand in 2020. Azad also read the preamble to the Constitution.

Ravan is pugnacious and confrontational, even as he assiduously sticks to the Dalit rhetoric and a familiar script. It is definitely azadi with swag.

The author is CEO, nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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