Ahmedabad: Rakesh Parmar used to run a street food cart or a ‘ladi’ at Vejalpur, Ahmedabad for the past 10 years until about two weeks back, when Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) officials shut down his food stall without prior notice.
That day, Parmar was attending a meeting called by Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani in another part of the city. He has been detained multiple times in the last two months for participating in various movements under the banner of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM). “Mujhe yaad nahi kitni bar, aath bar police ne uthaya hoga mujhe (I don’t remember how many times, I think I was detained eight times),” says Parmar. “Being detained after every protest we stage has become a routine now,” he adds.
In the wake of an upsurge in people’s movements that have swept Gujarat in the past two months, the misuse of police power to detain protestors has become the order of the day. As three separate movements – the protests by Dalits for land and dignity led by Jignesh Mevani, the sanitation workers of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) led by Hiten Makwana and the drivers and conductors of the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Services (AMTS) lead by Amrish Patel – gained momentum, the state government has tried everything in its power to stop them in their tracks.
On September 4, Rakesh Parmar had expressed his dissent at a program staged by local BJP leaders in his area. As a result, the programme that was to go on for three hours had to be wound up within half an hour. Coincidentally, on September 22, his food- cart was shut down by AMC officials for reasons that have not been told to him yet. Parmar is left with no means of livelihood now and is worried about how to feed his wife and two children. “I had invested my entire life’s savings into setting up the food cart,” says Parmar. But the setback has not deterred him from participating in the ongoing Dalit movement.
In the past two months, Gujarat has witnessed a massive Dalit agitation, protests by Ahmedabad Municipal Transport System (AMTS) and an organised movement by sanitation workers of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).
Parmar is not the only person who shares the experience of being detained multiple times in the past two months. Amongst the activists and leaders of the movement, many have been in and out of police detention.
Hiten Makwana has been detained six times, Amrish Patel five times, Nirjhari Sinha, member of civil rights organisation Jan Sangharsh Manch, was detained thrice, lawyer and activist Samshad Pathan six times, Asim Sheikh, a city-based activist, has been detained thrice, Pratik Sinha, a member of Jan Sangharsh Manch, has been detained twice and artist and activist Pravin Mishra was detained once. Jignesh Mewani has been detained three times. Mewani was detained twice in one week and then put under house arrest for 24 hours.
It is not just the leaders who are being detained. Most recently, on October 10, more than 600 AMTS workers were detained after a protest at Wadai bus stop.
“The state is using the police to curb democratic protests,” said Amrish Patel in a statement. “Most of the times, when we sought permission for holding a public meeting or a peaceful rally, the office of the police commissioner would not revert in time. In z last minute announcement, usually when we take the decision to go ahead with a programme, the police would inform us that the permission has been denied and detain the protestors.”
On September 2, the police detained workers and activists who are member of the Jan Sangharsh Manch from the private premises of the Maharana Pratap Complex, a building that holds the office of the organisation. “The workers were just gathered inside the premises of our own office. They were not even shouting slogans. Police cordoned off the building and detained all of us before we could start our programme,” said Nirjhari Sinha, a member of Jan Sangharsh Manch.
On September 17, the police detained 170 people, including a group of cultural artists from the National Peace Organisation. Mishra was supposed to paint live and a street play was to be staged in the Vastrapur area. “As soon as Pravin Mishra finished his live painting, police detained us all. The street play was later staged at police head quarters, Shahibaug while in detention,” said Pathan.
On September 18, the police withdrew permission to hold a meeting last minute and detained 20 Dalits and Muslims who had gathered to mark a protest against the lynching of Mohammed Ayyub. Another time, activists of RDAM were denied permission to hold a meeting at a location in Asarwa, stating that it was a “sensitive area”. Coincidentally, the location of the meeting is near the residence of a local BJP MLA. RDAM was also denied permission to hold a meeting at a location in the city where the RSS had held a meeting previously.
“Detaining protestors and workers multiple times is a tool of the state administration to break the movement, just as the aggression that the police has sought to handle protestors,” stated Pathan. “The police has used excessive force on the protestors all along. On the night when we were protesting against lynching of Md Ayyub at VS hospital, the cops pulled me by my neck and held my wrist so tight that it still hurts,” he added.
Reportedly, police also abused the protestors verbally and were apathetic when some women fell sick under detention. “On September 19, two female sanitation workers fainted and fell sick while in detention. The police watched for more than half an hour. They were having tea while these women who were vomiting were not even offered water. The emergency medical helpline – 108 – was called after Mewani raised a hue and cry. The police headquarters, where we were detained has a provision for a resident doctor yet the only medical help the workers got was from the paramedics of 108. The police did not even follow its own manual of providing basic food and water to detainees except for once,” states Pathan.
“As if detention were not enough, some of us have been under constant surveillance whenever we are out of police detention. When the rail roko was called by RDAM, a police car could always be spotted outside my residence. Besides, many of us have got calls from city police to add to the pressure,” added the lawyer.
After the rasta roko (road block) movement on September 27, police detained about 600 people and later filed FIR against 250 people including Mewani. After this, Bitgiving, a crowd-funding platform that RDAM had chosen to raise funds, closed down the campaign.
“The government is hitting at us in every possible way. The series of detentions, the surveillance or the economic set back now has not deterred us. The movement shall go on and intensify if demands are not met,” Mewani said.
A partial list of detentions over past two months
October 10 – More than 600 AMTS workers detained after a protest at Wadaj bus stop
September 27– After rasta roko movement by workers of AMC and AMRS, 600 workers were detained for 6 and half hours, a large number of them being women. One woman protestor was rendered unconscious after being heckled by cops
September 26 – After protest by AMC sanitation workers and protest by AMTS workers at another area of the city more than 1500 were people detained for 8 hours, a woman protestor was also injured due to rough handling of police
September 20 – Team of RDAM was detained after a protest at Saroda village and ferried all over in between Saroda and Ahmedabad for a day in police van. They were released after 24 hours.
September 19 – Four activists and one cultural activist detained for holding a meeting to oppose lynching of Md Ayyub from another meeting at Bapunagar in the evening
September 19 –200 people including Dalit women from Saroda village were detained and held at police HQ Shahibaug after a protest in front of Collector’s office in the morning
September 18 – Police detained about 20 dalits and muslims activists from a joint meeting after withdrawing the permission to hold meeting at the last moment
September 17 – About 80 including Dalits and Muslims detained for 8 hours for protesting against lynching of Md Ayyub by cow vigilantes from VS hospital in the evening. Brother of Md Ayyub, Md Arif was also detained. Jignesh Mewani was under house arrest.
Intervening night of 16 and 17 September– Many were detained all over the state including RDAM leader Mewani, Patidars and some AAP members ahead of Modi’s visit to his home town for his birthday.
September 12 – Cops detained 170 people at around 2 pm including cultural artists for organising a live painting session by artist Pravin Mishra and a street play. They were all released later same evening.
September 2 – Police cordoned off the building which holds the office of Jan Sangharsh Manch and detained workers from private complex during a nation-wide workers protest
August 31 – AMC sanitation workers were detained after a protest during their ongoing strike. Workers (mostly women) were released after 8 hours.
August 28 – About 20 sanitation workers were lathi charged and detained on the sixth day of the ongoing strike. They were detained for 8 hours.
*Data collected from police and activists combined