Protests Erupt in Gujarat as Dalit Activist Self-Immolates; Two MLAs, 200 Others Detained

Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar immolated himself on February 15, following which Congress MLA Naushad Solanki, independent MLA Jignesh Mevani and other protestors were detained.

Protesters burn a car at Vadaj, Ahmedabad on February 18. Credit: Twitter

 Ahmedabad: Protests and unrest rocked multiple districts of Gujarat on Sunday, on the eve of the state’s budget session and ahead of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to the state. Congress MLA from Dasada Naushad Solanki and independent MLA Jignesh Mevani were detained along with about 200 other protestors, including women.

This came a day after Mevani had called for bandh in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar following the death of Bhanubhai Vankar. Vankar, a 62-year-old Dalit activist, immolated himself in front of the office of the collector of Patan district on February 15, following which he was rushed to the Mehsana civil hospital and later shifted to Apollo hospital in Ahmedabad. However, Vankar, who had suffered grievous burn injuries, succumbed to his injuries late on the night of February 15.

Bhanubhai Vankar as he immolated himself. Credit: Twitter

Vankar, a retired talati or a panchayat-level revenue officer, and a resident of Unjha taluka of Mehsana, was helping a Dalit woman, Hemaben, and her family to get possession of their land in Dudhka village, Sami taluka of Patan district. Reportedly, in a letter to the collector on February 7, Hemaben had threatened self-immolation along with her family if her demands were not met. The letter was signed by Vankar as a supporter.

As per the letter, Hemaben’s request for regularising the land allocated to her family was forwarded by the collector of Patan to the revenue department on September 25, 2015, following which she was asked to pay Rs 22,236 as fee for the transfer of land rights. However, after the incident, she kept running between offices and visited the collector’s office many times, but in vain.

On February 15, the local police, fire brigade and ambulance were kept on stand-by in front of the office of the collector, anticipating the realisation of Hemaben’s threat to immolate herself. While Hemaben and her family were detained, Vankar surprised the officials by coming out of district panchayat’s office and setting himself on fire.

On February 16, chief minister Vijay Rupani commissioned a probe led by J.N. Singh, the chief secretary of Gujarat, even as Vankar was battling for his life in Apollo hospital.

On the same day, Mevani said in a statement to media, “Rupani Sir, Dalits don’t want the treatment cost of Apollo hospital. They want their five acres of land to live with dignity.”

Bhanubhai Vankar. Credit: Special arrangement

Vankar’s act stirred a protest in Patan on February 16, as the district faced a shut-down and incidents of state buses being vandalised were reported. State bus services were affected and the Rapid Action Force had to be deployed. Things further heated up after the family refused to accept Vankar’s body on February 17 after the post-mortem, in protest against their demands not beingmet. Following this, Mevani, on February 17, called for a bandh in Ahmedabad, and in Gandhinagar on February 18.

Incidentally, as Mevani was en route to Sarangpur, Ahmedabad, where a protest rally was to be held, personnel of the Detection of Crime Branch (DCB) Ahmedabad stopped his car on Kalupur bridge of the city. Thereafter, a video of Mevani being detained went viral on social media.

The video shows plain-clothed police personnel stopping his car and asking him to accompany them. At one point Mevani is seen shouting at his driver to keep driving. Next he shouts at the personnel asking, “Call your inspector first”. At this point, another personnel seems to approach Mevani’s driver and the driver can be heard shouting in alarm that the car key has been broken. Mevani  is then seen reaching out to the police personnel who is standing on the side of the driver’s window and shouting “Tara baap ni gadi che (is it your father’s car)?”. Next he shouts “What is buckle number” and “dadagiri kareche Gujarat ni police (Gujarat police is acting like goons)”.

At this point, two police personnel come to Mevani’s window and ask him to calm down. They say they would reveal both the name and buckle number of the personnel concerned and confirm that he is a sub inspector in rank. Following this, Mevani is heard shouting, “Tara baap nu Gujarat che (Gujarat belongs to your father)?”.  Later in the video, a visibly agitated Mevani is seen being pushed by the police into their car as he is detained.

Rakesh Maheria, co-convenor of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, an organisation floated by Mevani, corroborated that the MLA was detained by DCB personnel from Ahmedabad at the Kalupur bridge while on his way to Sarangpur, Ahmedabad.

“Some police personnel stopped Mevani and asked him to accompany them. Mevani told his driver to keep driving. While Bharat Shah, his driver, attempted to do so, a second personnel tried taking the key and broke it in the process. This agitated Mevani shouted asking for the personnel’s buckle number. Later ,Mevani was pushed into the police car and was detained,” said Maheria.

Subsequently, other protestors were detained from different parts of the city and kept at the police headquarter in Shahibaug. Mevani, who was thought to be taken to an undisclosed location, was released later on February 18 from the office of Special Operation Group, Ahmedabad, in Juhapura.

Joint press conference. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

However, as Mevani and about 200 other protestors were detained through the day, Vankar’s wife said, “Let my husband’s body lie here at the hospital for the next days. We will not accept the body till they release Mevani.”

As Jignesh was being detained, a few activists claimed that he was ‘abducted’ by the police. However, J.K. Bhatt, the Joint Commissioner of Police of DCB, Ahmedabad, refuted such claims. Talking to The Wire, Bhatt said, “How can he be abducted if he gave statements to the electronic media even as he was being detained?”

“Mevani was detained as an anticipatory measure to maintain law and order in the city,” he added.

Earlier in the day, in a press conference jointly addressed by Sector-1 JCP K.L.N. Rao, JCP of DCB Bhatt and Sector-2 JCP Ashok Yadav, Bhatt stated, “The police had made ample arrangements in anticipation of the bandh call. However, we believe it is an MLA’s duty to cooperate with the police to maintain law and order. This was not the case and Mevani acted in a manner not befitting an MLA. We will be making a representation to the Speaker of the House and seek action against him.”

Meanwhile, late on Sunday night, the chief secretary reportedly agreed to some of the demands ‘in principle’. However, the government seems reluctant to agree to the demands in writing, the prominent ones being construction of a memorial statue of Vankar in the Patan Collectorate compound, suspending all officials involved, including the collector of Patan, and registering a case against them under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.