POLITICS
27/04/2018 8:59 AM IST | Updated 27/04/2018 10:55 AM IST

How These IIT Graduates Are Trying To Change Caste Politics In Bihar

"For long we have not been satisfied with the pace of Dalit uprising. Now there is momentum."

Indrani Basu
From L-R: Sarkar Akhilesh, Sher Bahadur, Naveen Kumar, Singh Ajit Kumar, Vikrant Vatsal, Jagvir Dinda are all members of the core team of Bahujan Azad Party.

Four men in their late twenties sat hunched over a laptop in the headquarters of the Bahujan Azad Party (BAP): a small sparse room, with mattresses lining the floor, not far from the Delhi campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, the alma mater of the founding members of India's newest political movement.

In the corridor outside, a neighbour loudly admonished her child; inside, the room was abuzz with thoughts of revolution.

"Politics decide our present and future," said Sarkar Akhilesh, a 28-year-old IIT Kharagpur graduate who left his job as a production manager at a Uttarakhand-based multinational food processing corporation to help form BAP. "The many injustices we see in our country motivated us to form our own party."

What started out as an idea discussed by a dozen IIT graduates has blown into a full-sized movement, with volunteers signing up from different parts of the country. The Election Commission is yet to register the political party, but at least 2,000 people have pledged to become part of the organisation in the past few days, one of its leaders, 28-year-old Vikrant Vatsal, told HuffPost India.

The party, as the name suggests, will empower Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC) communities. At the core of their agenda is inclusion of marginalised groups like historically oppressed castes in India, as well as minority communities and women, said Vikrant.

Disenchantment With Mainstream Political Parties

Naveen Kumar was 23 years old when he travelled back to his home state of Bihar and help the Rashtriya Janata Dal's Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Mahagathbandhan campaign for the state elections in 2015. As he travelled to village after village in the state, he saw some people with over 2,200 acres of land while others — mostly SCs, STs, and OBCs — completely landless.

"These things haunt me," Naveen said, sitting on the solitary chair in the small room in Delhi. After Nitish Kumar, Janata Dal (United) chief and leader of the Mahagathbandhan came to power that year, he did "nothing", according to Naveen, who had missed his own convocation to help campaign for the coalition.

"At that time, I felt cheated."

Indrani Basu
Naveen Kumar, 26, is leading the Bahujan Azad Party.

In Delhi, he visited the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) office, hoping to help change some of the inequalities he had witnessed in Bihar. However, he was told to come back after a month as some of the party leaders were on vacation, he said. "I felt they were deceiving me in some way," Naveen said, describing how the party members seemed unenthusiastic about their work. "I could tell they wouldn't be able to channelise energy in any way."

"These things haunt me."

Major political parties like the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) weren't even a consideration for Naveen and his friends. "They just want to keep their monopoly," Naveen said, describing parties in power. "There is no political equality," he added, describing how few members of oppressed castes take part in political processes — beyond casting a vote — and how this was deepening India's economic and social inequality.

"It is not the failure of the government but conspiracy of the government to keep them away," he said.

From Social To Political Change

Two organisations, the MAUKA Foundation and Friends Of Bihar & Jharkhand started by students of IIT Kharagpur and IIT Delhi, had been teaching underprivileged children and coaching some of them for almost a decade. Some of these children had even managed to crack the IIT. Naveen, Vikrant, Akhilesh, and many others were involved in these efforts to help those from marginalised communities to realise their potential. Naveen himself had been coached by a cousin in his village who decided to take him under his wing and help him crack the IIT entrance exam.

Indrani Basu
Members of the party hold up a poster they just printed and brought from Bihar.

Though Vikrant had told Naveen many times that he should expand his efforts by entering political life, Naveen had resisted, believing that helping others like him through education was more prudent. However, as atrocities against Dalits rose, and stories like Rohith Vemula's death and the violence in Saharanpur made headlines, something inside Naveen snapped.

"I promised myself that the next generation was not going to know about caste discrimination," he said.

For years, his seniors at IIT had told him that preparing for the civil service exams would mean he would have to "run the system, not change it". He finally abandoned his plans to become a district magistrate one day, and told his parents that he wanted to join politics.

They were distraught. "They asked me why would an educated person enter politics?" Naveen recalled, adding how his parents believed that only criminals and illiterate people joined the "dirty" world of politics. "To them, I was turning away from a respectable job towards an uncertain future."

"They were also worried for my safety."

However, Naveen was able to convince his family, who supported him as he dove into building Bahujan Azad Party (BAP).

On an October evening last year, Naveen asked to meet Vikrant, who he calls his "political guru", at the IIT Delhi campus and told him he was ready.

"To them, I was turning away from a respectable job towards an uncertain future."

"I had always seen that spark in Naveen but I wanted to test him," said Vikrant, adding how he asked Naveen to go to Bihar for a few months and listen to people's problems. Vikrant had a successful coaching institute in Rohini, which he had built since 2014. The son of a handkerchief salesman in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Vikrant worked incredibly hard to make to IIT Delhi. His father had died in a road accident last year, and his mother had taken up work at Bihar to keep up family income. Meanwhile, he had helped his younger brother crack the IIT entrance too, and things were looking up for the family. He didn't want to give up on the business he had built unless he could be sure that Naveen was committed to his vision.

A few months later, satisfied that Naveen was indeed serious, Vikrant handed over his business to his younger brother and travelled to Bihar to help organise the 'Bharat bandh' (shutdown) on April 2 in light of rising atrocities against Dalits and what activists were calling the dilution of the SC/ST Act.

"For long we have not been satisfied with the pace of Dalit uprising," said Vikrant. "But now there is a momentum."

A Party Of One's Own

Naveen was shocked when at least nine Dalit activists died in the protests in April. He and his friends decided they couldn't wait any longer. It was time to start their own party.

They approached the Election Commission earlier this month, and expect BAP to be registered soon. Their website will be up by the end of the week, they said. Since word got out of their political ambitions, they have been getting hundreds of calls and messages from students of premier institutions in India and abroad offering their help, said Akhilesh.

"I think we found an emotional connect when we decided to focus on the injustices done to marginalised groups," he said, adding that the idea of spearheading a kind of social reform is exciting to young Indians. "Students and young Indians from AIIMS, JNU, and even those living abroad like Switzerland, US, and UK have reached out to us offering to help."

"It boils down to hope."

The primary agenda of the party will be to help get marginalised voices heard, they said. They would fight for 33% reservation for women participation across sectors, reservation in educational institutes and jobs for oppressed groups in proportion to the population, land reform, and choosing a scientific temperament over relying on religious teachings while leading the country.

Indrani Basu
Akhilesh and Vikrant huddle over a laptop as they create the party's website.

While their party has already drawn attention — partly because these graduates from India's top technical university have given up their lucrative jobs — its members have come under scrutiny almost immediately.

The party has links with the BJP and the extreme right-wing ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), it has been claimed. Others have been linked with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), 'Brahminical" groups like the Akhil Bhartiya Bhumihar Brahmin Samaj, etc. When asked about the members' political links, Vikrant readily agreed that he had met members of several political parties over the course of the years over different issues, but had never been formally part of any outfit.

"If you want to beat someone you have to understand them," said Vikrant. "I am anti-RSS."

He added that though BAP would be an ally to any party that fought for the same issues that formed their core agenda, they would steer clear of the BJP and Congress.

Meanwhile Naveen said that other members of the party, including him, had taken part in the 2011 anti-corruption campaign led by Anna Hazare but he had never worked with the political party that came out of the movement — AAP.

Their aim now is to contest in the 2020 Bihar state elections. In the small one-bedroom house in Katwaria Sarai, eight of the party members are conducting meetings, building their website, and fielding the incessant media calls. At night, the rolled up mattresses will become their beds.

"We don't care if we get votes or not," said Vikrant, "as long as political parties are forced to focus on these issues we bring up."

"I didn't study for a comfortable life in USA, but to fight for our rights."