NEW DELHI: “I will go to Bhima Koregaon, all our members of the Bhim Army will go to Bhima Koregaon, they cannot stop us,” asserted a visibly angry Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad from within the room he has been arrested in. From the window he could see the Bhim Army supporters who had come in solidarity being dragged by the state police, even as he gave interviews over the mobile and made it clear that he and the entire “bahujan samaj” would not be cowed by such threats and intimidation.

Azad was arrested under the National Security Act in 2017 as clearly the BJP and its government in Uttar Pradesh recognised his potential long before the opposition did. And released him a year later, only after it became clear that he could not be held any longer without court intervention in his favour. Since then Azad, after a tough time in jail where his health deteriorated amidst Bhim Army allegations of torture, is back in the field to lead the Dalit movement in Western UP. He has started speaking to the people directly through U-Tube videos on his Facebook wall, preferring this to using the suspect media as intermediaries. His remarks are laced with courage, promises, and an assertion that the Bhim Army will continue to protect the ideals of Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Constitution. He is also one of the few leaders today who does not hesitate to mention the Muslims, the OBCs, te Dalits of course, and the other victimised in the same breath.

The Maharashtra government moved to arrest him as he arrived in Mumbai on his way for the annual Bhima Koregaon event that sparked off a major controversy last year leading to the arrests of activists, lawyers and intellectuals by a paranoid government. Azad declared from house arrest, “the government is terrified, they are scared.” He added, “they want to destroy the Constitution, but we will not let that happen, Babasaheb said so long as the Constitution is alive, I am alive, so we have to make sure it is protected.” He spoke of love and peace and humanity, attacking the BJP and the Brahmanical forces for seeking to subvert the same.

“People are saying I should be shot, I am ready to give any sacrifice for humanity and the Constitution of India,” Chandrashekhar Azad said.

The CPI(M) has issued a statement condemning the arrest, and demanding this release along with all other Dalit activists detained by the cops. The Manali hotel where Azad is under house arrest is crawling with police, with the state government having pressed 12 companies of State Reserve Police, nearly 5,000 police personnel, 1,200 Home Guards and volunteers as per figures released by the Pune police. The government is determined to prevent a repeat of last year, where the violence against the Dalits had sparked off a series of protests that reverberated against the BJP through all of 2018. Last year Jignesh Mewani, now MLA from Gujarat, was amongst those who had addressed a meeting in Pune.

Azad who has emerged from jail, “stronger not weaker” as his supporters said insisted he would go to Bhima Koregaon in what is already becoming an emotive issue for the Dalit congregation. He has also asked the Dalit leaders in the BJP governments as to why and how they are keeping silent in the face of anti-Dalit policies and violence. “Remember you will be questioned, and answers will be demanded from you,” he said.

Azad is a grassroot worker, having spent years in setting up schools and education programs for the Dalit students in Saharanpur and neighbouring districts. His popularity increased along with his work, and he came into national prominence by thwarting a plan to create communal violence, by literally going in a house to house appeal and appealing to the communities to desist. He was arrested by the UP government soon after, as he shot into the national headlines with the Bhim Army emerging as a new force in the hinterland.

A concerted effort by the state government to break the back of the Bhim Army movement, with arrests and intimidation while Azad was in jail, did not work to the extent hoped for, and the organisation instead went on to stage several protests in Delhi demanding his release, along with that of the others arrested. Azad has emerged from jail stronger, according to his supporters, and while clearly suspicious of the media is using the social media directly to have his say.

Opposition leaders from the Left and the National Congress Party have met Azad in his hotel room. This is significant, as its the first support he has got from the organised parties of which many have been ignoring him till now. For instance, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati who sees every young Dalit leader as competition and has reportedly not responded to Azad’s overtures for joint action or at least understanding of some sort in UP.

It is clear that Azad is not going away. And as he says he is readying to “make any sacrifice for the Constitution and the ideals of Babasaheb”. As he said, “ we are witnessing the murder of democracy and we have to speak out, the bahujan samaj has to speak, the media has to speak. I had only heard of the emergency but now we are living it and worse.”

Azad is a forceful speaker, radiates confidence even through his video posts, and an assertiveness that has sharpened since before his arrest. The huge turn out when he appeared in Delhi to address his last meeting before he was arrested was a confirmation of his growing popularity. That has increased by leaps and bounds since his arrest with the detention in Mumbai--- that of course the state police continues to deny---launching him as a major leader on the national level. A young man poised to influence 2019.