More than 20 leaders from states as disparate as Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar and Gujarat, raised their voice to demand the release of Bhim Army's Chandrashekhar, at Delhi’s Parliament Street on January 9. Chandrashekhar has been in jail since June 2017 under the draconian National Security Act (NSA) for his involvement in the violence between Dalits and upper castes in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur.
Newly elected MLA from Gujarat and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani arrived late, spoke last but succeeded in presenting a picture of unity among a motley group of young leaders.
Against the backdrop of a gigantic banner with Chandrashekhar's face, media channels and Delhi Police were blamed for the thin crowd at the rally. Touted to be a youth assertion rally to demand the release of Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar, the event did succeed in bringing together an array of progressive voices and Dalit organisations. However, the weak turnout at the protest led a journalist to remark that "this seems like a 'JNU protest' outside JNU".
'Instead of arresting the perpetrators of violence at Bhima Koregaon, they are jailing Chandrashekhar under NSA. Why?': Jignesh Mevani.
Be that as it may there was adequate symbolic representation of youth from different parts of the country. From the women's collective working on safety and gender issues, Pinjra Tod, to Dalit activists from Una in Gujarat, to Bittu, to a transgender activist who spoke against both the Transgender Bill pending in Parliament as well as the “fascist ideology of the government”, a rainbow of youth made speeches at the rally.
While their critics will point to the poor turnout, it cannot be denied that youth activists are galvanised and working in tandem. Among those who arrived late was Swami Agnivesh, conspicuous by his presence, who added a touch of saffron to the stage.
Because of the delay in the arrival of Mevani, the rally couldn't start before 1.30pm; his entry only triggered chaos, with a barrage of TV camera crew refusing to budge from the stage despite repeated requests by the organisers.
At least 50 cameras remained suspended in the air like mini drones till finally someone declared from the stage, "If the media friends don't move back we will ask our volunteers to move them back."
The winter sun shone off the steel chairs, underscoring the success of the misinformation campaign run from BJP-linked Twitter handles as well some tweets by Delhi Police about the cancellation of the rally.
Till 4pm, when JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar began his speech, the few hundred-strong crowd had stayed put instead of dispersing, contrary to certain media reports.
Kanhaiya Kumar, the crowd favourite, did not disappoint. After needling his archenemy on TV, Sambit Patra, he also dared the media to do primetime debates on Anant Ambani's speech, asking why the Ambani scion didn't say “Bharat Mata ki jai” when he recently addressed the audience at a Reliance function.
“I dare the media to mock Anant Ambani the same way they mock us,” said Kanhaiya Kumar. He also called out the Republic TV reporter from the stage for showing only empty chairs instead of the crowds.
One of the channels that played a leading role in the misinformation campaign against Kanhaiya Kumar and several others, Republic TV was present at the event with its crew of at least four people.
Throughout the protest meeting, that lasted more than five hours, people continued to raise slogans demanding the release of Chandrashekhar, justice for missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmad and an end to the killings of Dalits and minorities.
Swaraj India's Anupam spoke about media propaganda and commended the crowd for their support despite repeated attempts to derail the rally.
Predictably, Republic TV, India TV and Zee News reporters were booed and boycotted. An elderly woman in a red shawl and red bindi was heard telling the reporters to stop doing chamchagiri (sycophancy) of the government as the reporter continued to report about the thin crowd and the presence of “usual suspects like controversial Shehla Rashid and Umar Khalid”.
At the Yuva Hunkar Rally. PC: Nadim Asrar
Many young men could be seen twirling their thin moustaches in the manner of their icon Chandrashekhar. As he energetically repeated a slogan demanding the release of Chandrashekhar, Dilip Yadav, a youth activist, also raised the issue of disproportionate number of Dalits, Muslims and tribals being incarcerated in India's prisons.
He drew loud cheer when he openly called BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi “the biggest goons in India”. Yadav ended the speech with exhortations to another Dalit icon, Jyotiba Phule from Maharashtra.
Manoj Manzil from Revolutionary Youth Association, Bihar drew an arc studded with the numerous incidents of atrocities on Dalits, killings over cow, love jihad, Rohith Vemula's death, and the rise of self-proclaimed yoga guru-turned-billionaire Baba Ramdev.
His reference to Ramdev caused an eruption of laughter and revived the gathering in the fast fading winter sun.
Bhim Army's national president, Vinay Ratan — who got the NSA charge against him quashed by the Allahabad High Court — shared Chandrashekhar's message from inside the Saharanpur prison.
He said the Bhim Army leader wanted his supporters to know that he “will continue to fight” and the day he “dies more leaders will sprout to continue the work of our great revolutionaries”.
Ratan ended his speech with salutations to Dalit icons Buddha and Ravidass and other revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. Richa Singh, the former president of Allahabad University, underlined the need to unite Dalits and Muslims to save the Constitution and the shared Hindu-Muslim legacy.
Among the last to speak was Akhil Gogoi, who has recently been released from prison upon a Guwahati High Court order. He, too, had been detained by the BJP government in Assam under the NSA.
Midway through his speech, the mike stopped working for a bit because of power failure. Gogoi resumed his speech attacking the implementation of the National Citizen Register.
As Mevani started his speech a little before 5pm, the crowd had thinned further. Undaunted, in a brief speech, he summed up the purpose of the rally as well as the future plans of the assembled youth leaders.
"Before I won the elections I used to be detained in Gujarat and now they want to detain me in Delhi too," he said, explaining the delay in his arrival.
"Instead of arresting the perpetrators of violence at Bhima Koregaon, they are jailing Chandrashekhar under NSA. Why?" he thundered. Love and not love jihad, jobs for India’s youth and Chandrashekhar's freedom formed the thrust of Mevani's speech. He challenged prime minister Modi to choose between the Constitution and the Manusmriti.
"We are united in these times of tremendous crisis and we will not be scared," said Mevani, before he and others on stage joined their by now tighter circle of friends, comrades and supporters in raising slogans for Chandrashekhar’s release.
By 5pm, the sun had disappeared like the bulk of the police personnel mobilised for the rally.
Yet, even without the loudspeaker, the crowd’s slogans for “Azadi”, “Jai Bhim” and “Hum Ek Hain” could be heard till far off.