Until the intervening night of April 22 and 23, when a PTI story on them got published everywhere, most people didn’t know about the Bahujan Azad Party (BAP), which is awaiting its approval from the Election Commission and plans to fight the 2020 Bihar elections. The party had organised meetings in around six districts of Bihar about Dalit-Bahujan rights until then, but had made little news.
A week later, the party was flooded with calls from different parts of the country. Many news organisations have interviewed them. This attention isn’t surprising. After all, they are a group of about 50 former IIT students, and the obsession in the country with everything IIT guarantees some of this early limelight.
But they aren’t just any group of IITians. They, definitely, aren’t the IIT-tribe of politicians such as Arvind Kejriwal, Manohar Parrikar, or Jairam Ramesh, who joined electoral politics much after their life at IIT. They are a much younger bunch. Their leader, Naveen Kumar, is only 26. And they are raising issues that – as cases such as that of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras have shown — aren’t given much space in IITs to grow. “There is some hostel politics, at the institute level, but there is no mainstream politics,” Kumar told YKA.
Despite this apparent lack of exposure to organised politics, why and how exactly did 50 IITians come together to form a political party with a mission considered ‘controversial’ in IITs? In the last week of April, Kumar sat down with YKA at an IIT Delhi canteen to explain.
Ask Naveen Kumar to describe his party’s motto and he will answer in one word: representation. Like most parties based on the idea of fighting casteim, the Bahujan Azad Party promises to provide reservation in promotion, courts, media, and the redistribution of land.
In their campaign however in the past two and a half months in Bihar and on social media, the party adds another promise — making the Bahujan society the ruling class of the nation.
Naveen Kumar says they don’t want to see celebrations if the Congress comes to power, as it is also ruled by upper-castes. “If BJP is in power, it will definitely decimate (the Bahujan society), but if social justice parties also join hands with these two parties…” he trails off.
Naveen Kumar was motivated to forma political party when he saw Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad — both old heavyweights of anti-caste politics in Bihar — fail in fulfilling their promises. In fact, it was campaigning or the ‘Grand Alliance’ in 2015 that was an eye-opener, he says.
“50-60 families were drinking water from two hand pumps, and when one stopped working, there was nobody to fix it,” Kumar explained. Even before the JD(U) joined hands with the BJP, he was disillusioned with both JD(U) and RJD, after working on the ground. “There was another incident. Women for protesting for land reform and the police beat them up. They were ruthlessly suppressed,” he says.
If anti-caste leaders of these parties have compromised on their ideals, Kumar and his party has the vantage point of youth and their distance from electoral politics until now, having worked largely in the field of education. They are still idealistic.
After the Bihar elections, Kumar spent some time at an NGO run by Akhilesh Sarkar, a former senior from IIT, before returning to Delhi to prepare for the civil services exams. The following year would see big anti-caste agitations, first due to Rohith Vemula’s death in January, then the Una incident in July.
In the library at IIT, Kumar asked his friends, “How can you concentrate? Don’t these incidents rile you up?” The response was the usual chalta hai and kuch nahi hoga. “But I believed although one person can’t change this, somebody has to come forward,” he says, “This was not acceptable for me.”
In the library, other civil services aspirants and seniors suggested that he join politics. With the Saharanpur caste-riots in 2017, he was prepared to take the plunge. By October, he had re-connected with his network of friends and seniors, and they responded “as if they were waiting for it”.
But why did 50 people come together? Kumar says the foundation of this party was laid long back when his seniors Vikrant Vatsal and Akhilesh Sarkar were coaching IIT aspirants from underprivileged backrounds.
This laid the foundation of a slightly political platform with the aim of providing education. “Here there were people who had a problem with why farmer suicides happen. Some thought that the primary issue is that our politicians just don’t want to do anything. Somewhere, everybody had a common goal,” Kumar explained.
When Vatsal graduated, he tried to run a coaching institute in his village in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar, but failed due to opposition from the dominant castes, who wouldn’t let him run a school. “They spread a rumour that he will get crores for a contract from the government and from abroad. So the villagers were misguided,” Kumar says.
Sarkar similarly faced discrimination at his job, where he was asked about his caste. “So he was like, ‘If you aren’t giving affirmative action, then why are you asking all this?’” Kumar told YKA. This made Sarkar resolute for ‘revolution’, and Kumar nudged him to find a ‘political solution’. “If Babasaheb has given the Constitution, then you will move forward with that only, right?” Kumar said.
There are questions of practical importance at this stage, of course. How will a group of relatively unknown politicians secure votes in a state that has not only options in the form of the two big national players, but also regional heavyweights?
Kumar guesses from the response they have been getting after news of the party broke that recognition won’t be a problem. Even in the meetings back home, he says, the crowd has increased. They say their idealistic vision of action on the promises of social-justice will at the very least improve the politics of the state.
“If you do Hindu-Muslim, it’s not going to work. If you talk about our rights, our health and education, or social justice, then you are going to win. Otherwise, (people will say) we have BAP,” he said.