The point of the protest was to give fundamentalists a serious message – that Dalit women will not stay silent about caste atrocities any longer.
On October 4, the Chalo Udupi rally, which brought together Dalit and minority activists, began from Freedom Park in Bangalore. Over almost a week, people participating in the rally travelled to Udupi, where Praveen Poojary, who belonged to a backward caste, had been beaten and murdered in August by Hindu activists who alleged that he had been transporting cows to a slaughter house. According to Chalo Udupi’s Facebook page, “Saffron Udupi turned blue” – over 5,000 people gathered there on October 9 in protest. The rally comes soon after the Chalo Una march, or the Azaadi Kooch, that took place in August this year protesting the attacks on Dalit men in Una by gau rakshaks (cow protectors) in July, followed by the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra which took place in Rajasthan from September 18th to 28th.
The idea for Chalo Udupi, modelled on the Chalo Una protest, which many of the organisers call an inspiration, came from the unprecedented number of participants at a meeting organised in Freedom Park on the growing number of attacks on Dalit families in Karnataka by Hindu activists and members of the Bajrang Dal. In July this year, men belonging to a local unit of the Bajrang Dal beat up a Dalit family in Chikmagalur, who they claimed had stolen and slaughtered a cow.
Like in Una, these attacks triggered the Chalo Udupi protest. Gowri, a member of the Karnataka Janashakthi, an organisation that works with women, pourakarmikas and other workers for basic rights, and one of the three women on the core-committee organising Chalo Udupi, says that the point of the protest was to give fundamentalists a serious message – that they will not stay silent about such caste atrocities any longer. Akhila, an advocate who is also a part of the Samajwadi Jana Parishad, or the political party Socialist People’s Council, and was also one of the women on the core-committee organising Chalo Udupi, says that people cannot live in fear of being prosecuted for being ‘anti-national’, since anyone who says anything about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the central government, or the Bajrang Dal are threatened. What happened in Una and Dadri had seriously angered them and then the same kind of attacks started in Karnataka – “All of this was built up, and someone said we should do something, so we did,” Gowri says.
The main demands of Chalo Udupi are demands that were also made at Una. They demanded the right to a minimum of five acres of land for all Dalit families, the right to eat the food they choose (including beef), and pressuring the government to take action against all those who’ve committed crimes against Dalits, Adivasis, and minorities.
From Bangalore, the protesters went on to Nelamangala, Kunigal, Channarayapatna, Hassan, Belur and Chikmagalur. “We would stop in all these places and have talks and cultural performances,” says Gowri. Mahila Munnade, a group of women from Mandya, had a Nagari performance, in Belur they sang Kannada folk songs, and Samudaya theatre group also performed a street play. Gowri says that the huge crowds were mostly of young male students who came out in support of the movement –“Women, on the other hand, started coming out only when they saw women leaders being a part of these protests.”
What was it like to be a woman leader in this protest? Gowri laughs when you ask her this, before she says that it was tough to even get three women on the core organising committee (which had around 10 members). Akhila says more insistently that like anywhere else, women aren’t recognised as people who can be in positions of authority. “It’s the same condition here too – people are not ready to accept women in leadership roles, not even co-leadership.” Manjula Pradeep, the Executive Director of Navsarjan Trust, one of the largest Dalit organisations in Gujarat, said in an interview, “When I became the head of Navsarjan in 2004, I felt like I had to prove myself more, that I had to do double of what men did.” Gowri, who is in a leadership role herself, says, “As women we have to fight to be heard, we have to yell louder in comparison to men.”
Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, a Dalit activist and leader who had taken part in the Una yatra had said about being at Una – “Barely any other Dalit women [other than Radhika Vemula] were allowed to speak [on stage]. At the end, Manisha Mashaal [another activist and leader from Haryana] tried to step up to the mic, but one of the men on stage actually grabbed her hand and tried to pull her back. She had to physically pull herself free to be able to go up and speak.” Akhila says that in Chalo Udupi too, the situation was similar – “Everywhere, the centre-stage was always occupied by men. We wanted a Dalit woman who had worked in organising this protest equally from the beginning, who was strong in her ideologies, like Gowri, to be on stage too. Very often, this wouldn’t happen because the men from the group were not willing to accept it.”
The Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra, organised by the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch this September, started from the home of Delta Meghwal, a young Dalit student who was raped and murdered in March this year. It attempted to engage in understanding problems faced particularly by Dalit women. Even in previous years, the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra has protested about caste-based sexual violence and focussed on women’s issues in a way that Chalo Udupi and Chalo Una didn’t. It’s no wonder, then, that Akhila adds that in the future they also want land to be given in women’s names, or jointly –“Men would not dare to simply throw women out of their houses if women also had the land in their names,” she says. However, Akhila says that this demand will prove difficult to add. Despite this, Gowri says that they will continue to push for their rights and make sure that as Dalit women, their voices are heard too.
This article originally appeared in The Ladies Finger.