The Dalit Fightback at Una is India’s Rosa Parks Moment

The incident in Una, has, for the first time, united all 32 Dalit sub-castes, and at the Dalit Asmita Yatra they are demanding an end to the discrimination against them.

 Dalit community members shout slogans at a protest rally in Ahmadabad. Credit: PTI

Dalit community members shout slogans at a protest rally in Ahmadabad. Credit: PTI

The Dalits of Gujarat propose to celebrate this Independence Day with a bang. On August 15, 2016, groups of Dalits from every corner of the state will descend upon Una, where a Dalit family was publicly beaten by gau rakshaks for skinning a dead cow – an occupation that has been ‘reserved’ for their particular sub-caste for centuries.

A protest march organised by a collective of Dalit groups began from Ahmedabad in August. In their journey they are plastering towns and villages with posters that tell exactly what independence has meant for India’s Dalits, and for the other oppressed groups of the country. For them, the celebration of freedom is a joke. The poster depicts the boys, who were thrashed in Una, in chains and it has already gone viral among Dalits, according to Manjula Pradeep, the director of Navsarjan Trust, an organisation that has worked on Dalit issues for over 30 years and its founder Martin Macwan.

Poster - English

Credit: Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Atrocities against Dalits are common in some part of the country and are reported by our newspapers every single day, then why did the Una incident create this unprecedented anger among the community? Why did this particular atrocity galvanise Dalits in Gujarat?

Macwan replied, “Stories and photographs never had any impact, but the videos that the gloating gau rakshaks uploaded via social media went viral. Every Dalit village, not just in Gujarat but [also] all over India, could see these young boys being brutally thrashed. People said, ‘the mob is using police dandas in broad daylight in an open place. The cops were standing around laughing, giving their lathis to be used. The men used vile, filthy abuse. It was sickening to watch.’ Our people have had enough. The youth especially is livid. They are filled with violent anger.

[Since] Kashmir has been on everyone’s TV; it makes the boys wonder, ‘Why do we stay quiet and cowed down always.’ Others fight back. Politicians, VIPs, everyone was rushing to the spot except our chief minister. As for Modi, he tweets and gives sermons everyday. But on this issue he remained silent for 25 days.”

“The silence spoke volumes apparently. I’ve said publicly on NDTV, on the behalf of the Dalit people, our message to the PM is ‘We Dalits cannot trust you. We are sick of hearing about vibrant Gujarat. I say, go to Una, see the state of the roads, hospitals, etc. in Dalit or Adivasi villages.’”

Pradeep, who is a fiery Dalit leader, said, “I’ve worked on Dalit rights for over 20 years. [I] have trained activists, both in Gujarat and other parts of India, [but] I have never seen such anger among our people. The lead has been taken by the young folk. Earlier leadership was in the hands of old men who always feared the backlash because they’ve been at the receiving end for centuries.”

“Navsarjan has worked on fighting against injustice, so, we have support and a solid base in most villages. We started over 30 years ago, training men and women to fight untouchability and violence. This is paying off. The younger generation is not afraid any longer. They are angry. Unemployment and untouchability are bad enough, but the terrible cruelty shown to those young boys was unbearable. I think each and every Dalit who saw that video felt the pain of the kids as though the blows were being inflicted on us, on our own brothers and fathers. Everywhere people are saying, ‘Enough, we will fight back even if they kill us.’”

“We have to spread the truth. There are more than 200 gau rakshak groups in Gujarat. What we want to do is get the list of all these places, and then target all their offices. Our activists have done this in one place. They got 25-30 dead cows, loaded them into a pickup truck and threw them in front of the collector’s office. This is the first time everyone, all 32 Dalit sub-castes have come together [and] united to fight the injustice. That includes Valmikis, weavers, leather workers and those who clean toilets. We are not just fighting for the leather workers. We are fighting for all Dalits and all oppressed people”.

In the thick of all of it is Nathubhai Parmar, who has worked with Navsarjan since 1997.

Parmar belongs to the leather workers’ caste that has been infuriated by the sheer injustice of the attacks. Parmar has been helping his community to fight for their rights for nearly 20 years. I have interviewed him once before when he was working on rights of sanitation workers. The anger behind his welcoming smile is intense.

Adrenalin is racing in most Dalit circles and there is electricity in the air. Parmar has brought a group of leather workers to the Navsarjan office. This is a big battle for everyone in the room, and a deeply personal one too.

Hirabhai, who has worked with animal carcasses all his life, says he knows no other trade. He recalls two separate incidents when he was beaten up, his vehicle stopped and overturned. “They smashed my windshield [and] deflated the tyres. [They] pushed me [and] slapped me around. When any animal dies they call us. We are chamars. We cannot refuse to pick up carcasses when summoned. Now they want to call us cow-killers. I have never killed a cow in my life. We go at their bidding. Jains, Rajputs, Durbars or Muslims, they all have cows and all phone us when their animals die. It’s what we have done for hundreds of years.”

Parmar’s eyes are filled with laughter. “We were fed up. They call the cow their mother, so we decided: Let them look after their mothers.” Manjibhai, Mahesh, Hirabhai and Parmar, all together got this highly unusual, but extremely effective plan going.

“We put 20-30 dead cows into a truck and unloaded them in front of the collectors office. ‘Here, take your mother and bury her.’ All over Gujarat, the community has vowed to stop cleaning up the carrion [and] it is having an enormous impact, far more than a million protest marches or hunger strikes ever could. The stink of rotting carcasses has brought home the enormity of the role Dalits have played in keeping India clean for centuries.

Gagan Sethi, a veteran community organiser, has trained thousands of activists all over the country. He has a different theory about the attacks. “Its all about economics,” he said. “In the 2002 riots, Muslim livelihoods were wiped out. They were all taken over by powerful Hindus, often [their] neighbours. It’s the jealousy factor. Now, there’s big money in disposing off bovine carcasses, it runs into crores. [It is] an industry.”

“Young Dalit boys are tech savvy. With shiny new smartphones, they can ring up Kanpur or Kohlapur to find out the highest rates for leather or bone meal. It makes the dominant caste men incandescent with rage [to see] Dalit boys racing around on bikes [and] buying pickup trucks. This is what is behind the brutal attacks. It’s a power game they are playing out. Determined to subjugate the young Dalits, whom they perceive as upstarts getting too big for their boots.”

So the old order changed, but they will not give place to the new.

It’s India’s 70th independence day. By giving the Dalit community a public apology for centuries of abuse and oppression, can it also become a defining moment for India as a country?

Never before have the Dalits risen and protested as spontaneously, or so effectively, as they have in the past weeks. Gujarat is however not the worst state for caste-based atrocities. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan all vie for that honour. The Una incident should not be politicised, because even though every political party will jump on the bandwagon of the Dalit cause, historically, no party has ever fought for Dalits when they were in power.

This is our Rosa Parks moment. That single incident on December 1,1955 caused African Americans to join together and protest against racism in the US. Millions of white Americans took that as a sign to stand up and be heard, to say “enough” and to shout “we are not the oppressor, we stand with the civil rights movement.”

Lakhs of students and non Dalit Indians have voiced their anger and have stood in solidarity with the Dalit boys of Gujarat. The struggle must continue. Dalits, Adivasis and other oppressed groups want real freedom.

We stand at a crossroad. Thousands of Dalits and their supporters will demand justice on August 15 when their Asmita Yatra ends in Una. It’s a convergence of the Dalits of Gujarat and of NGO’s, sympathetic and opportunistic politicians and representatives from across the country. Will their voices be heard in the corridors of power?