File image: Twitter/@BhimArmyChief
Among the snapshots of the unique protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and other places were those of not just women and children on the streets. It was the picture of a self-styled Dalit leader on the footsteps of the imposing Jama Masjid near the Red Fort, symbolising yet another attempt to create a narrative of ‘Dalit-Muslim unity’.
On focus was the so-called Bhim Army and its chief Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’ who escaped detention first when violence broke out in Daryaganj areas and later showed up at the anti-CAA protest and turned himself in to the police. The drama added to his growing persona as the new face of the Dalit movement in the Hindi heartland.
After being detained in TIhar jail for more than three weeks, Azad was granted bail. Following this he participated in anti-CAA protests at the Jama Masjid and at Shaheen Bagh, signalling that he was heralding a new course among the Dalits and the Muslims in opposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On January 20, standing on the stone steps of the 17th century mosque Azad read out of the Constitution’s Preamble to the huge crowds and vowed to carry on the fight against the CAA on behalf of the Muslims. Those impressed by his words even saw a new ‘imam’ in him outclassing Jama Masjid’s official Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari who had defended the CAA.
Azad’s next stop was the protest site at Shaheen Bagh, where protesters, mainly women and children, have been on a month-long sit-in protest blocking an arterial road connecting south Delhi with Faridabad and Noida in Uttar Pradesh. There, Azad said, “in the next 10 days, there will be at least 5,000 Shaheen Baghs across the country. Till the Bhim Army is here, this law would not be applicable and they have to go through my corpse (to implement it).”
Of course, for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress, Azad’s shows have meant more support for them among the Dalits and the Muslims against Modi ahead of the Delhi polls on February 8. However, this is unlikely to pose a big danger to the BJP as there could not be additional loss of votes on this account. Besides, polarisation cuts both ways.
As things stand today, Azad is a political novelty who is bound to make waves. For those working on a pan-India unity of the Dalits and the Muslims, Azad is someone who will take head-on the BJP’s Hindu vs Muslim binary. They believe Azad has the potential in him to encroach upon the BJP vote-bank, especially among the Dalits though there is not enough evidence in this regard now.
Perhaps, Azad could develop the capacity to eventually throw a spanner at the BJP’s plans to work among the Dalits with initiatives such as the Ambedkar Navodaya Schools, etc. across India.
Significantly, the idea of Dalit-Muslim unity has been talked about for a long time. Its proponents have held that both the Dalits and the Muslims could switch votes from one party to another forming a bloc of voters whose needs cannot be ignored. Of late, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM)’s Asaduddin Owaisi has been trying to make this work. Keen to replace the influence of the so-called secular parties, Owaisi has been organising conferences to bring the Dalits and the Muslims together in areas where the Muslims dominate but need the Dalits to win assembly or Lok Sabha seats.
Many feel that at the height of her popularity Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati symbolised this unity. Then, Muslims leaders were often seen in the company of emerging Dalit leaders from the BSP in Uttar Pradesh.
With her decline, new Dalit icons, like Azad, hold out hope for the Muslims. In fact, in the AIMIM’s slogan ‘Jai Bhim, Jai Meem’, Bhim stands for Babasaheb Ambedkar and Meem is the Urdu alphabet ‘M’ for Muslim.
Owaisi, who saw some success with Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in Maharashtra, hopes a similar alliance with the Dalit parties and the Bhim Army can come up in Bihar. On December 29, Owaisi addressed a gathering of more than 50,000 people in Bihar’s Kishanganj. Back in 2015, he had pledged his resources for Dalit groups to hold protests at several places when the row over Rohith Vemula, the deceased student of University of Hyderabad, erupted all over India.
Vemula’s photographs recently surfaced as a face of the anti-CAA protest in an indication of attempts to forge Dalti-Muslim unity. On January 26, the tricolour was hoisted at the Shaheen Bagh by Vemula’s mother, who was accompanied by the grandmothers of Shaheen Bagh and former JNU student Umar Khalid.
Irrespective of whether the Saharanpur-born Azad emerges as the next big Dalit leader to replace the likes of Mayawati, the sight of a ‘low caste’ Hindu sporting moustache and riding an Enfield Bullet inspires hope for Muslims leaders who are looking for new ways to jinx the BJP.Shekhar Iyer is former senior associate editor of Hindustan Times and political editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi. Views are personal.