Bhim Army founder, Chandrashekhar Azad was recently featured in 2021 TIME100 Next, a list of 100 emerging leaders in entertainment, politics, art, and advocacy around the world. Much has been written about Azad’s political work but here, we take an exclusive look at Azad’s roots and how they have influenced his rise as a prominent leader. This report is based on intimate conversations with his family and immediate community.
At the time when Azad learned that his name was featured by TIME as an emerging leader, he was under stress. His brother, Bhagat Singh, had called him and informed that his mother was very sick and she wanted him to come back home. At the same time, two Dalit girls had been murdered in Unnao. Immediately after such atrocities, the administration follows his movements closely. He had to cautiously make his way to his village to visit his ailing mother. On arrival, he found the whole street in front of their house cordoned off with barricades and a heavy police presence outside of his home.
“Can’t a son even come and meet his mother now?” asks Bhagat Singh.
Azad’s family home is located in the Dalit section of Chutmalpur village in Saharanpur. His father, Govardhan Singh passed away eight years ago. Now his mother, Kamlesh Devi, lives in this house with her two other sons, Bhagat Singh and Kamal Kishore.
The walls of the small drawing room in their house are decorated with pictures of famous Bahujan leaders. Among these, is an old picture of Azad’s father and even a picture of Nelson Mandela.
Although Bhagat Singh is a year older than Azad, he doesn’t call him by his name, he refers to him as ‘Bhaisahab’ (elder brother).
“Chandrashekhar is was always a much more serious person than me,” Bhagat Singh said with a smile. “He was always ahead of me in studies as well.”
Relatives and neighbors call him Shekhar bhai. Azad's neighbor and childhood friend, Firoz has come over. He says that whenever Shekhar bhai comes on TV, his sister shouts out from her in-law’s house: “Come and see the courage with which my brother is speaking!”
Firoz also tells us that Azad is now doing the work that is ordained to him by the blood that runs through his veins. “He could have easily become a cricketer. There were very few in the area with his kind of talent”.
The unity of the marginalized, in particular the unity of Dalits and Muslims that Azad strives for at a political level, can be seen in practice in this neighborhood.
Just next to Azad’s house is a lane where predominantly Muslim families reside. The Dalit and Muslim streets live in harmony here. Bhagat Singh says that they have always offered iftar during the month of Ramzaan. Kamalesh Devi moves her hand along Chandrashekhar’s closes friend, Firoz Khan’s forehead and exclaims, “He is also my son only! Firoz and Shekhar were schoolmates and friends since they were very young kids."
Kamlesh Devi's health has suffered in the past few years.
“This weakness is because of the tension I have about Chandrashekhar, I am a mother after all,” she says. “He says that his brothers, Bhagat and Kamal will take care of me, that I should let him do society's work. That is all right with me, but that doesn't mean I can stop worrying about my son. I am not keeping well now, and he is unable to take time out to see me also; the only worry I have is that he should get married now.”
We ask if she has heard about TIME Magazine. She shakes her head no. "It's not my concern."
Azad’s younger brother, Kamal Kishore tells us that Chandrashekhar came home last week.
“My brother understands her concerns. But the blood that is rushing through his veins reminds him of his responsibilities entrusted to him by our father, the responsibility towards society,” Kamal Kishore said.
Kamlesh Devi informs us that Shekhar’s father was a government teacher. He passed away eight years ago. She ran the house, educated her children, all from his meager pension. The family went through a deep financial crisis at one point.
“Only I know the difficulties that I had to face,” she said. “But I tell these children that their father vigorously fought social discrimination in his lifetime. That they should take his spirit with them. And you know what , Shekhar is completely like his father!"
Chandrashekhar’s brother-in-law, Sonu, has also come here today. Sonu says that he came to know of the TIME Magazine news through social media and was elated.
“I forwarded the news to everyone in my contact list,” he said.
Kamal Kishore also came to know of the news through social media. “Although this was such a big achievement. that it should have been flashed on TV Channels as Breaking News,” he says, “This too points at the discriminatory attitude of the media. Because after all, he has made the country proud on an international platform and everyone should take pride in this achievement. But we don't see it playing out that way."
Bhagat Singh takes us to a school house with a thatched roof under where the Bhim Army was born.
The school that Azad attended is now famous because of how strongly he fought for the rights of the Dalit community there. The tap water in this school had first brought him to the limelight.
Firoz tells us that there were two water taps in the school, out of which, one was exclusively reserved for the children of Thakur caste. Nobody else could drink water from that tap for fear of caste pollution.
Although this discriminatory practice was resented by everyone, Azad was the only one to take action. He started drinking water from that tap and this led to conflict.
Similarly, there was a conflict regarding the seating arrangement in the classrooms. Seats in front of the class were reserved for Rajput caste children and nobody else could sit on them. Azad raised his voice against this practice as well. A section of teachers and a lobby of school management were enraged with him. These are the events that inspired Azad and eventually led to the founding of Bhim Army.
While he recounts this history, Kamal Kishore also thinks about the hard times. He becomes emotional while talking about Azad’s time in prison.
“My brother was in jail for almost two years. The three months he spent in the Tihar jail at Delhi were the most painful,” he said. “In the 15 months that he spent in Saharanpur jail, we were grateful to be able to visit him. We were very troubled in those days. We are grateful to our community and our relatives who stood by us even during those extremely tough times. We faced lot of hardships. Hundreds of Bhim Army boys were behind bars. 190 boys from the same village were in prison. We are just waiting for these painful days to end now”.
Kamalesh Devi says, “My son is not a thief or a dacoit. He is the voice of a community which is being oppressed. I am proud of him, he should not be harassed. The appreciation that he is receiving from across the world should be a matter of pride for the whole country as well. "