On Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid homage to the revered Gujarat godman Pramukh Swami Maharaj at a temple in Sarangpur, around the same time an unprecedented Dalit rally in Una served a month-long ultimatum to his home state. The ultimatum stated to either fulfill community’s demands or face an intense rail blockade protest in the state.
State highways crisscrossing the region saw thousands of people in buses, ‘chhakdas’, auto-rickshaws, many walking towards the temple where Pramukh Swami’s body has been kept for the last darshan. About the same time, spirited Dalit crowd marched towards Una where the self-proclaimed cow vigilantes had flogged four Dalit youths for allegedly skinning a dead cow on 11 July.
During this chaos, Gujarat government’s official Independence Day event in Morbi, which falls in the same Saurashtra region, was held so peacefully that it almost went unnoticed.
Not less than 20,000 Dalits cheered Jignesh Mevani, convener of the Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (Una Dalit Committee to Fight Atrocity), who at a public gathering said that the BJP and Sangh Parivar should stop testing the patience of Dalits and agree to their 10-point demand, including grant of 5 acres of land to each Dalit family in the state.
The protest march, or the Dalit padayatra that had begun from Ahmedabad on 5 August, concluded on Monday after snaking through scores of villages and towns en route receiving major response. “Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi yatra began with 76 people and more people joined in, we started with 70. The same spirit has arisen now with hundreds of people coming out in support,” Mevani told Firstpost.
He was not wrong. This is for the first time in its history that Gujarat is witnessing such Dalit uprising and that too not mobilised by any political party. Jagdish Dulare from Alampura in Ranpur, who had taken a local bus to reach Una said, “This agitation will not get over here. This fight will continue from here.”
“Your TV channels are more interested in that Pramukh Swami who died and that Modi who came to see him. We were shown in just in bits. Not a problem, we have seen such behavior since ages,” Dulare added.
Dinesh Gaikwad, from RPI (Secular) Mumbai, said: “Gujarat is witnessing such kind of an uprising for the first time, and we are here to express our solidarity.” Echoing the same emotion Prashant Dilve added, “Everyone believes Gujarat treats its Dalits well. See what happened to the four youths, hence the massive protest.”
The padyatra covered a mind-boggling 350-km journey. People from several other states, like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh participated in it.
“We give a 30-day ultimatum to the government to meet our demands. This is elaan-e-jung (battle cry). If they fail to do so, we will block rail routes. If a Patidar leader (Hardik Patel) can go to jail for nine months over demands of his community, I am ready to go for 27 months. When people from across the country will come out to support us they will say that they haven’t seen such a miserable model of development,” said Mevani.
The crowd cheered Mevani’s call for a “jail bharo” andolan (to court arrest in protest).
Mevani criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi and said that while the PM spoke on the Dalit issue, he has been silent on the Thangadh issue in 2012 when three Dalit youths were killed in police firing.
Radhika Vemula, whose son Rohith studying in Hyderabad University committed suicide over discrimination in education, and the father of one of the victims of the Una incident unfurled the national flag amid a crowd of 10,000 people. Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar, documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, Dalit activist Martin Mackwan and ex-IPS officer Rahul Sharma were also present at the event.
Mevani, a journalist-turned-human rights activist, while taking a dig at the new land bill of the state government – which does away with the consent clause for farmers – said that they will also involve farmers in their fight for land rights.
Other key demands include alternative livelihood options, better policy and legal frameworks for protection against atrocities and prosecution of those involved in the Una incident.
In the towns and villages where the Dalit yatra reached, the leaders took a pledge from Dalits not to continue with the hierarchical occupation of disposing of dead cattle, a job carried out by a Dalit sub-caste.
While Vemula said that she is still awaiting justice for her son’s death, Kanhaiya Kumar compared the Dalit yatra with BJP patriarch LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990, saying that while the former is to bring together various sections of the society, the latter divided the nation.