I am writing this article about a Dalit rights movement knowing that the section of society it pertains to will mostly not be able to read it. This is so because buying a phone or computer is not within the means of every poor person to this day. Even if it were, the state of education is such that rather than read something, a considerable section prefers to watch baseless primetime television shows.
Our friendship in struggle began after May 9, 2017. On June 8, 2017, Chandrashekhar Azad was put behind bars. From that time on, I have been meeting him almost every month. What transpired in Saharanpur was nothing new for the Dalits; it was merely one more episode in a long history – where the houses that are set ablaze happen to be of Dalits, and those who are sent to prison also happen to be Dalits.
When I first visited Shekhar – it is how I address Chandrashekhar Azad – in the Saharanpur jail on June 18, 2017, it seemed as if the whole matter would get sorted soon and those in prison would be released. About 42 workers of the Bhim Army and Sonu Pehlwan of Shabbirpur village were in prison at the time. Five months elapsed before our eyes. Gradually almost everybody was released on bail. The three who continued to remain in prison were Sonu Pehlwan, Kamal Walia and Azad.
On November 1, 2017, Azad and Walia too were granted bail by the Allahabad high court. However, a day later, the Uttar Pradesh government slapped the National Security Act (NSA) on brother Shekhar and Sonu Pehlwan. The Act allows a state government or the Centre to hold an individual in preventive detention for up to a year without bail or trial.
The reason I am writing this article is that I want the readers to get acquainted with the ongoing situation. The violence that took place in Saharanpur in May 2017 has harmed not only the Dalits but also the so-called upper castes who take advantage of the protection afforded to them by the system to carry out such acts almost on a daily basis, thus giving the Dalits one more reason to hate the ‘upper’ castes.
Just as it is beyond anybody’s power to obliterate all the Dalits, so it is impossible for anyone to annihilate all the savarna castes, or send all the Muslims to Pakistan. In the end, everybody has to live side by side in the same society. However, to be able to do that, what we need to do is place humanity and integrity above caste and religious affiliations.
I can write this article in a way that it reflects a completely polarised perspective, but I realise that what our society is in urgent need of at this juncture is not polarisation but inclusion.
With this perspective, let us look back at the Saharanpur incident and its aftermath. When I last met Shekhar, on January 25, 2018, he had received a letter saying that the advisory board had confirmed his detention for six months under the NSA which could be further extended. Sonu sarpanch’s detention too was confirmed. I met his son during my last prison visit. He seemed overwhelmed by the situation his family is faced with.
In spite of this turn of events, I saw on Shekhar’s face the same smile I have been seeing from the time I first visited him in June 2017. On his face was not the look of a defeated man, just his usual smile, accompanied by a forceful salutation of ‘Jai Bhim’. In the seven odd months that he has been in prison, I have visited Shekhar’s family – his brother and mother – several times. His mother is a very courageous woman but the implacable harshness of the times clouds her eyes with tears sometimes.
About two months ago, Shekhar suffered a bout of ill-health and was taken to the government hospital in Meerut. He was sent back to prison without any proper treatment. To this day, Shekhar has not uttered one word of complaint to me. Every time we meet, we have engaging conversations about Babasaheb, Saheb Kanshiram, Bhagat Singh and Nelson Mandela. Time flies as we talk and laugh, and before we know it, the visit is over.
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During my last visit, there were immediately pressing things to talk about. Shekhar told me laughingly that the court order granting him bail in the last remaining case (he has now received bail in all the 27 cases filed against him after the May 9 incident) and the letter confirming his detention under the NSA came on the same day. He put his signature on the latter without reading its contents for he knew what it would say. “I knew the letter with its narrative of intimidation would contain a challenge to the Dalits from the powers that be – ‘don’t demand your rights or else you will continue to rot like this in prison’. I was proved right.”
This brought home to me the stark fact that through the centuries oppressive rulers have diminished the oppressed by writing the history of their struggles from the ruler’s perspective. Turn the leaves of history and you will only find incidents that are in the nature of cautionary tales for those groaning under the yoke – be it peasant leader Gokul’s body hanging from the gallows in Mathura in 1670 as proof of an emperor’s hubris or the many instances of Dalit houses being set alight even after the country gained ‘freedom’, and the freedom enjoyed by the perpetrators to carry out such acts.
Today the entire spectrum of India’s oppressed awaits Azad’s release. While his release is a long way off, the pressing issue is of his very survival in the struggle. The last time we met Shekhar did tell me that there was a possibility of him being transferred to some other prison.
In passing Shekhar often says, “My greatest desire is to work for society, but the BJP will make sure I never leave prison. I cannot appear to be despondent or break down before someone with tears in my eyes for the simple reason that the spirit of my community has been broken so often that there is only one option left for us now – of struggle.”
Now I myself have started feeling squeamish about visiting him in prison because when you go to meet an individual accused of a political conspiracy, he places all his hopes on you that you will do something somehow to prove his innocence. Today the government of the country is in name only; the real power is in the hands of Hindutva forces determined to stamp out every voice that calls for an equitable society, before whom even the judges of the Supreme Court are helpless.
This article is not a ballad composed by a bard in praise of his king – the Dalit has never been either a king or a court poet. What I have written captures a few moments exchanged by two comrades-in-arms. I end with an appeal to all progressive sections of society to support us in this struggle so as to ensure that this time around it is the victory of the oppressed that is chronicled.
Pradeep Narwal, a student of JNU, is a coordinator of the Committee for the Defense of the Bhim Army.
Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan