Koth (Gujarat): Ever since the communal riots of 2002, the factor of religion has camouflaged caste and class conflict and their issues in Gujarat. It was not till the Parmars, Vaghelas and Mewanis woke up to find their names in FIRs along with the Muslims, that they cried betrayal.
However, the Dalit-Muslim unity that has come to the fore through the recent Dalit Asmita Yatra was not forged in a day. The leaders behind the on-going Dalit movement have a story to tell.
In the aftermath of the riots, the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport System (AMTS) fired 3,000 bus drivers and conductors. Musabhai Abdulbhai Khatumbara was one of them.
Musabhai is today the man responsible for Gujarat’s Muslim community joining the movement in support of the Dalits.
“My brother was a victim of the riots” the 40-year-old Mushabhai recalls. “A foreman in a garage, his life changed the night the police along with some vigilantes picked him from our residence in Sarkhej. Ever since, he has been arrested many times and criminal cases were filed against him.”
“Later they were released on bail only to be slammed with an exile order,” he narrates.
So the memories of the riots are still fresh. But doesn’t the fact that many Dalits were the foot soldiers of 2002 still rankle with Muslims? “Woh Muslims ko murda gay ke naam pe marte aur Dalits ko zinda gay ke naam pe marte hain,” he responds after a pause. (They kill Muslims in the name of dead cows and Dalits in the name of live cows).
“The BJP in the state has pitted the Dalits against the Muslims, while the higher caste people have been orchestrating such a strategy. The truth is both the communities are marginalised and exploited,” he adds.
Musabhai, who is self employed now, has fought many battles. He admits that the Dalit Asmita Yatra was not the first time he has raised the slogan “Dalit- Muslim bhai bhai”.
In 2014, Musabhai had led 10,000 safai karmacharis who were Dalits. The workers of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) were demanding minimum wage.
“The workers who had given 20 years of service to AMC used to woke up and resolved the issue,” he said.
“That was the first time we raised slogans of Dalit- Muslim (unity)”, he remembers.
But would this facet of a mass movement make a difference in the polemics of Gujarat?
Shamshad Pathan, an advocate and an activist who has been part of the march since its inception answers, “We are not aiming for a political change as much as social. The rift that the post-riot Gujarat society witnessed must fill now. Both the communities have equally been oppressed over time,”
“Elections are one and half years away, if we had political agenda, we would organise the mass movement ahead of it,” the young advocate says.
“Most Muslims in Ahmedabad I know of would either not vote or vote for Congress as there is no option. But nobody is happy. Patidars protested, Dalits and Muslims are protesting now. This state has failed its people,” he explains.
Even though the assembly election is more than a year away, the show of solidarity of the Muslims after the incident of Una where Dalit youths were flogged by cow vigilantes, marks a change in the political terrain of the BJP-ruled state.
On the day of the Mahasammelan on July 31, members of Jamita Ulema-e-Hind shared the stage with the organisers of the march – Jignesh Mewani, the Dalit leader of the movement, Nirjhari Sinha, an activist and Rahul Sharma, an ex-IPS officer.
Later, a group of 47 Muslims submitted a memorandum to the Ahmedabad district collector marking their protest against the Una incident.
The organisers of the ‘Azaadi Koonch’ have, however, made it clear that the movement shall remain apolitical. On day two of the rally, some local Congress leaders of Dholka approached the Muslim participants of the rally. They were sent away.
“This time, the solidarity of the Muslims is not a political gimmick of the Congress nor a stick to threaten the BJP. We want social change,” says Rahul Sharma, the brainchild behind rally.
He adds, however, that “the impact of the movement is bound to affect the voting pattern of the Dalits, both in rural and urban areas.”
In the wake of the movement, the Muslims who have supported the cause and walked along with the Dalits in the march, have not so far demanded that a ‘Muslim leader’ voice their issues through the platform.
“Jignesh woh sathi hai jisne hamare sath Muslims ke issues ko bhi uthaya hai. Usne mere sath Ishrat Jehan ka case me sath diya hai. Wo sirf Daliton ka leader nai hai,” Shamshad tells me. (Jignesh is a comrade who has raised the issues of the Muslims in the past. He has supported me in fighting the case of Ishrat Jehan. He is not just the leader of Dalits).
So how are the Dalits responding to Muslims joining the movement?
Jignesh Mewani, the young and fiery leader of the movement puts it dramatically: “Agar mere do behne hoti, mein ek Muslim ke ghar aur ek Valmiki ke ghar deta!” (If I had two sisters, I would get one of them married to a Muslim and the other to the house of a Valmiki.)
What Mewani has been advocating from the stage of the ‘Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti’ is not lost on the participants of the rally.
“Dalits were never untouchables for Muslims. It is the people of the Hindu upper caste who have tortured us,” states Jivraj Solanki, a participant of the rally.
“What has being Hindu ever got us?” he questions.
Do you vote? Who do you vote for?
“No I don’t vote. Why should I vote? No party cares about my life or his,” he retorts, pointing towards his brother who is also participating in the rally.
Do you believe this movement shall change your plight?
“I don’t know. But at least someone is speaking about us now,” Solanki says.
His brother who had been listening to us all along speaks up. “I want a better life, you know.”
The scars are many, both on Dalits and the Muslims. Yet this movement has seen unprecedented participation of Dalits and Muslims. They are walking together for a common cause and that is the spirit of the movement, Nirjhari Sinha says as the rally stops for the day at Koth.