Straight out of Tihar

Chandra Shekhar Aazad discusses jail and the CAA protests

Aazad after being released from Tihar jail, on 16 January 2020. Shahid Tantray
Aazad after being released from Tihar jail, on 16 January 2020. Shahid Tantray
17 January, 2020

Chandra Shekhar Aazad was arrested in Delhi on the intervening night between 20 and 21 December. Aazad, a leader of the Bhim Army, had given a call for a protest on 20 December, against the recently enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Thousands had gathered in the day at the steps of the Jama Masjid, where Aazad read out the preamble of the Constitution. Later that day, according to eye witnesses, the police also led a brutal crackdown on anti-CAA protestors in Daryaganj, an area near Jama Masjid. The first-information report against Aazad connected him to the violence at Daryaganj. It stated the charges against him as rioting, arson and destroying public property, among others. 

In early January, Azaad’s physician tweeted that jail authorities at Tihar, where Aazad was being held, were not providing the Bhim Army leader with necessary medical treatment—he suffers from polycythaemia, a blood-related disease. On 9 January, Delhi’s Tis Hazari court issued a direction to Tihar jail authorities, asking them to allow Aazad access to medical care.

On 15 January, a Delhi court granted Aazad bail on several conditions. The court barred Aazad from visiting Delhi for four weeks, and directed him to present himself at a police station in Saharanpur, Aazad’s home district. Aazad was released from Tihar jail late in the night on 16 January. Shahid Tantray, the assistant photo editor at The Caravan, met Aazad as soon as he came out of Tihar. Aazad denied the charges against him, saying they were “false.” He said, “I am a citizen of independent India, I follow this nation’s Constitution … I have not done anything that is against the law.” He continued, “From tomorrow, we will teach people the Constitution, teach them their fundamental duties. This will be a historical protest and no one will be able to withstand it.”

Shahid Tantray: You have just been released from jail. How are you feeling?
Chandra Shekhar Aazad: I have been released from jail under the court’s orders. The fight that was left incomplete will be completed now. Our Constitutional fight will go on. It will keep going on till this black law is not rolled back by the government. This is good, we will keep the struggle going.

ST: It was being said that you were also assaulted in the jail and that you were also sick and denied treatment. Were you attacked? Why were you denied medicines?
CA: The government can tell you why I was denied medicines, or the jail authorities can. When I went there [to jail], I had informed them that I have polycythaemia. The last time, when the Sant Guru Ravidas Temple [in Delhi] was demolished, while protesting against it, I went to jail. At that time, I was given treatment. But they neglected it right now—only they can tell you why. 

When I felt that these people were not going to give me medicines or allow me to get treatment, I asked my lawyer to go the court—when the authorities or the government insist on keeping us in jail, we can only turn to the court. Only when the court gave a strict directive, they [jail authorities] sent me to AIIMS [the All India Institute of Medical Sciences] where I underwent a few medical tests. 

A large number of our people are in jail—Dalits, backward Muslims and other religious minorities. A large part of the Bahujan population is in jail. The conditions in jail are abysmal. Not just me, everyone there is humiliated and abused. Until someone is proven guilty, you cannot take away their rights like this.

ST: For how long were you denied medicines?
CA: They kept me without medicine for twelve to thirteen days.

ST: How were you treated in jail otherwise?
CA: I don’t want to speak about the treatment that was meted out to me yet. They say it is a place for reform, but no reform is taking place there. There is no law that is followed to bring about change.

Jail is not a good place to be. But we have had to raise our voice against the wrongs that are being done to us, the laws that are made, and the conversation around them, and we are rewarded by being sent to jail every time we protest. This is the government’s policy: they think that if they send the face of the protest to jail, they will weaken the movement. But it is not like that at all. The whole country stands against this act, this law [referring to the CAA]. The movement is going on, at a large scale.

In the history of the protests in UP [Uttar Pradesh], it has never happened that more than twenty people have been killed by the police. The UP CM [referring to the chief minister Adityanath, of the Bharatiya Janata Party] outrightly threatened that he will take revenge. [In mid December, Adityanath told the media that the UP government will seize the properties of those who were found to be responsible for the loss of public property during protests.] What sort of language are they speaking? The entirety of UP’s people—of any caste, religion—come under his government. But the government that is in power there doesn’t exercise patience. It is the sort of the government that, when its people come out to protest, its officials shoot at them without restraint. This is not a democratic setup. I condemn it and hope that it will not happen again because human lives are valuable.

It is our fundamental right to protest. We are exercising it. This was the power that the Constitution gave every citizen: if one’s rights are being snatched away from them, if immoral laws are imposed, they can protest against it. Each of our protests has been peaceful. Police put me behind bars, but they were not able to present a single piece of evidence against me, in court or anywhere else. [At Jama Masjid,] I had read the preamble of the Constitution. If reading out preamble is the same as giving a provocative speech, then that is something I do everyday. I read the preamble, I make the people of this country understand the Constitution. 

They claim that lies are being spread. But the BJP’s people are themselves telling us the type of fraud they are doing with [the CAA] and the NRC [the National Register of Citizens] and what they want to implement. The way that they want to divide this country, on the basis of religion, will not happen. This land is infused with the blood of everyone who lives here. Everyone gave sacrifices for the freedom of this nation. The Constitution does not allow us to segregate people based on caste and religion. If the people of this country don’t want a partition, then who are you to do it? In a true democracy, the people are supreme. But it is not so here in India. Here, the government is implementing a law to please the RSS [the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], to help its agenda. 

ST: Many—the troll armies on the internet, for instance—do not believe what you say, or that you were mistreated in jail. 
CA: I will give a press conference on [my experience in jail] very soon and explain it in detail. But today, the basic issue is not the jail. The main issue is the NRC, the CAA and the NPR [National Population Register], as well as the way that constitutional protests are being criminalised and being lathicharged, the way institutions are being finished, like in Jamia, DU, AMU, JNU [referring to Jamia Milia Islamia University, Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University]. The environment that is being created, to silence the people who are raising their voice, is wrong. I want the judiciary to take suo-moto congnisance of this and stop this law. Why is a law that people don’t want being thrust upon them? The government wants to implement its secret agenda. For that it is disrupting peace in the country. People are dying, people are on roads. They can’t see that. I hope that in the coming time, there is a big enough protest that the government has to back down and take back this black law.

The plot against me is a plot against society, and it has been going on for a very long time. They want us [Bahujans] to stand at the back of the line. They do not accept our leadership. But we will work to unite the Bahujan community—the poor, Dalits, backward classes, Adivasis, Muslims, other religious minorities—into one large, united community and prepare the ground for its rule. That will fulfill Babasaheb [Ambedkar]’s dream, that the twenty-first century will be ours, that India will be a strong nation.

ST: Charges have been filed against you under various sections, and the court granted you bail on the condition that you have to remain out of Delhi for a month. What is your response?
CA: There is no question of reacting here. The charges against me are false. They couldn’t prove these and that’s why they sent me to court. The government has created an environment through which it is saying that the government is the nation. If you speak against the government, there will immediately be an investigation against you. The Delhi police and the public prosecutor who argued for them misled the court by giving it false indications. They said Chandrashekhar is a criminal, but couldn’t show any criminal record. They said Chandrashekhar will disturb the environment if he is released, so the court has put restrictions on me.

I am not happy with these restrictions but I respect the courts. We will challenge this, we will put forward the truth and we will get justice. I have faith that the courts will hear my version and give me justice, that these restrictions will be lifted soon. 

I am a citizen of independent India, I follow this nation’s Constitution. I consider Babasaheb Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram my idols. I am against violence and follow the path of non-violence. I know my rights. I am well-read, I have studied the law. I have not done anything that is against the law.

ST: In these protests, we have seen various people, including women, children, and school students come forward. How do you feel about this?
CA: It makes me happy. The people of the country are waking up. The most important among these are the young people—who everyone said did not care. The well-read, the scholars, PhDs, the engineers, the doctors are waking up. The women are coming forward—Babasaheb always supported women and stood for them. That’s why [in 1951] he resigned from his post of law minister, in protest against the stalling of the Hindu Code Bill. [The bill aimed to codify practices within the Hindu community, such as the definition of a Hindu, and the approaches to issues such as land ownership and marriage.] Babasaheb’s dream is coming true. The way that the women of this country are leading protests like Shaheenbagh is very good for us. We want that every person in this country should have this awareness. From tomorrow, we will teach people the Constitution, teach them their fundamental duties. This will be a historical protest and no one will be able to withstand it.

The interview has been edited and condensed.