Dalits in Gujarat Find New Voice as Yatra Wends Its Way to Una

The recent assault on Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una has opened the floodgates of memory, narration and protest.

Dhanduka (Gujarat): On the evening of the first day of the Dalit Asmita Yatra at Dholka, a group of cultural activists staged a street play. It had a female household worker being sexually abused by an upper caste man. The husband is physically attacked when he comes to protect his wife.

The manifestation of the issue the play raised has much deeper roots in Gujarat than one can fathom. The recent assault on Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una has opened the floodgates of memory, narration and protest. It is not just the video taped flogging that is bringing Dalits on the streets across the state but the experience of tens of thousands of incidents, big and small, that have been part of their daily life for decades and more.

In another village, Beghva, the Dalits shared in a public meeting how the upper castes still practice untouchability. “They will not allow us in temples or in their houses. We keep the society clean but what do we get in exchange? The upper caste men ask us to keep money on the floor when we go to buy things in their shops, lest they happen to touch us,” said one Dalit villager.

The leader of the movement while delivering a speech at Beghva village. This is where the Dalits in the meeting tell the organizers and leaders of the movement how untouchability is still practiced. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

The leader of the movement while delivering a speech at Beghva village. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

For a marginalised community seething with age-old resentment, the Una incident – when Dalits were attacked for skinning the carcass of a dead cow – was the last straw. And they are keen to build something durable out of their resistance.

“This movement shall not be caught between slogans against Manuwad and Brahminwad. The development of the Dalits is not possible without land reforms and we demand that Dalits are allotted their due land,” says Jignesh Mewani, a rising leader of the community in Gujarat.

“Gay ki puch tum rakho, hame hamari zameen do” – you keep the tail of your cows, give us our land –  is a slogan that has never been heard before in a movement by the Dalits in Gujarat. But then never has the state witnessed such an uprising by the community.

The rally moves on, next destination is Koth village, the location for the night halt on second day. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

The rally moves on, next destination is Koth village, the location for the night halt on second day. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

While most of the Dalit movements in the past lost their way in rhetoric before being coopted or fizzling out, Mewani is demanding alternative economic opportunities for Dalits. The movement he leads advocates Dalit-Muslim unity and urges Dalits to stop discriminating between their sub-castes.

“Why is this movement important in the politics of Gujarat?” Mewani smiles as he answers: “A revolution is in the making. This is historic. The movement has got spontaneous support and an overwhelming reception. Never before have the Dalits been connected

Jignesh Melwani. Credit: sabrangindia.in

Jignesh Melwani. Credit: sabrangindia.in

and united under one banner which is apolitical.”

At every village the rally passes through, the Dalits take an oath – to never pick up a carcass again. Mewani, the face of the movement, has been urging Dalits at every stop they make, to seek alternative means of livelihood.

En route to Dhanduka on day three, amid a huge reception at Javaraj village, Mewani, speaking to the Valmiki community, a Dalit sub-caste, urges them to maintain unity among the Dalits.

“We shall not repeat the clichéd slogans, for the same reason we know that the movement cannot be successful by just meeting the victims and giving them monetary compensation,” he says .

“At the end of the day, social justice issues are fought on the street. Which is what the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti led by Dalit activists from Gujarat is trying to do,” he says..

The “Dalit Asmita Yatra – Azadi Kooch” was flagged off by Mewani, Nirjhari Sinha and Rahul Sharma, from Vejalpur, Ahmedabad on August 5.

The team that left from Ahmedabad will cover 350 kilometres to converge at Una in Gir Somnath district. En route, the team of 70 keeps growing in number as it passes from one village to the next.

The rally was announced by Sharma, a former Indian Police Service officer who built his reputation for upholding the law in 2002 and protecting Muslims under attack at a time when many officers in the state stood by and allowed the violence to carry on unchecked. Now a lawyer and activist, Sharma floated the idea of a march on July 31 from the stage of the “mahasammelan” called to protest the Una, and his ‘comrades in arms’, Sinha and Mewani immediately agreed to announce it.

“Has the movement been up to expectation so far?” “It has been better”, says Sharma.

“After the announcement, the next four days were a frenzy arranging the logistics. This movement would not have seen such a response if not for volunteers who drove to Una prior to the foot march and announced the rally at the villages that we are passing through,” he says.

“The conviction rate for atrocity cases in Gujarat is just 5%. In such a scenario, the Una incident saw arrests of more than 30. But this is not a mere incident. This is a mindset and that is why the foot march is gaining in number at each village,” he tells me.

At every stop the march makes, villagers are waiting with garlands. “They might not have two square meals each day, but they are happy to contribute whatever they can for the arrangement of tea and water for the people who are marching for our rights,” Mamtaben, a local anganwadi worker of Bhegwa village says, pointing to an enthusiastic crowd of boys who were serving tea to the people in the public meeting.

“The support and reception at every village has been overwhelming. The strength of people marching to Una keeps growing with every passing village,” Sinha, a social activist and one of the organisers of the march says.

Huge gathering at the public meeting in Koth. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

Huge gathering at the public meeting in Koth. Credit: Damayantee Dhar

“It’s a movement managed and organised at ground level by so many local youths who have taken charge at their respective villages. The people have marched in a very organised and peaceful manner,” she adds.

“Gujarat has not seen this kind of mass movement since 2002,” she tells me and marches ahead.

The movement is not only gaining strength in Gujarat but activists from other states like Rajasthan and Bihar have also joined in. Eleven activists from the CPI(ML) in Bihar, including an MLA, have been with the core group since day one.

But what happens after the march reaches Una and hoists the national flag? What will the next move be? Mewani is determined not to let the mood of the uprising fade away.

“As I have been saying in my speeches, if our demands are not met by Gujarat government, we shall take recourse to a rail roko (stop the railways) movement. We shall also make a list of 5000 Dalits who shall be ready to go to prison if the movement take such a course,” he tells.

“We are expecting more than 20,000 people at Una. As a leader of the movement, one cannot let such a movement fail or fade,” says Melwani as we walk towards Dhanduka, the next destination on day three.

“Jigneshbhai tum agey bado, hum tumhare sath hai,” (Brother Jignesh go ahead, we are with you, the crowd cheers. He stops and says, “Hum sab sath me agey badenge sathiyo” (we will all move ahead together, comrades).

Slogans of ‘Jai Bhim! Jai Bhim!’ reverberate as the Dalit march moves on.