A New Dalit Movement in Gujarat Emerges After Caste Violence in Distant Saharanpur

A new grouping of Dalits is conducting a yatra in Gujarat to meet the state's elected representatives and ask them what they are doing for the community.

Ahmedabad: Memories of the Una incident that rocked the state in July 2016 are still seething in the minds of Gujarat’s Dalits. Less than a year later, the caste-based violence in Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh has further angered the state’s Dalits and prompted them to start a new movement.

About 50 Dalit activists of Gujarat have come together to form a committee, called the Ambedkar Vechan Pratiband Samiti, that has embarked upon a statewide rally from June 3. The idea of the committee emerged after Dalit activists who had travelled to Saharanpur to extend solidarity came back to with stories of  how the name and legacy of Dr Ambedkar was being misused by mainstream politicians.

“Following the violence against the Dalits in Saharanpur, Raghav Lakhanpal Sharma, the BJP MP in Saharanpur took out a rally which he called an ‘Ambedkar Shobha Yatra’ with his party workers carrying a photograph of Babasaheb. Ironically, there were no Dalit participants in the rally that went through the Muslim dominated areas of the district with participants shouting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Yogi Yogi’ all along,” said Manjibhai Jadav, a veteran activist who is the convenor of the Samiti.

The Dalits in Gujarat have also reacted strongly to the Kushinagar incident where people of the Musahar community were given soap and shampoo by Uttar Pradesh government to get cleaned before chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit. The women of  Gujarat’s Valmiki community recently announced they would send a 4-foot-high soap weighing 125 kilograms, with an image of Gautam Buddha carved on it, to Yogi Adityanath. The Valmikis are considered the ‘lowest’ sub-caste amongst the Dalits.

“Over the years, mainstream politicians of every party have misused the name and legacy of Babasaheb Ambedkar for their electoral politics. Dalits have been pitted against Muslims. Our yatra aims to question these actions of our elected representatives, Jadav added.

The yatra that commenced on June 3 from Zanzarka in Dhandhuka, about 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad will end in Vadodara on June 16 this year. Along the way, Dalits from each village will join to meet nine of the 13 MLAs from the reserved seats and two Members of Parliament and put forward a list of questions to them, seeking their answers.

The activists have already met Shambhunath Tundiya, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP at Zanzarka, his hometown on June 3. Tundiya, a Dalit MP, is also considered a dharmaguru (religious leader) in the community; he had declared after the Una incident that it was ‘last straw’ and that Dalits would not tolerate oppression anymore in Gujarat. He is reported to have told the Samiti activists that he has come ‘under pressure’ after that statement.

The yatra is distributing leaflets with its questions, such as what steps have been taken by the elected representatives to ensure some kind of ban on cow vigilantes, what alternative sources of livelihood apart from manual scavenging are being created for Dalits and why Gujarat’s MLAs are silent on the Saharanpur violence The six-page long leaflet also states that Dalits are perturbed at the Uttar Pradesh government’s efforts to find links between the Bhim Army and Naxalites.

The team of the activists also aim to meet about one lakh Dalits in every district they travel. “There are many problems we have to confront, including the heat and even getting permissions for holding rallies in each district. Yet the response has been very good, including from women,” said Jadav.