The landed Patidars in Gujarat are seeking a quota for education and jobs; the Dalits who have quota, are seeking land from the Gujarat government. The demands of the two communities have left the progressive Gujarat model at the crossroads with the potential to explode into a divide just before the elections if both caste groups to take their agitations to their logical conclusions.
The Patidar agitation has stood on much firmer ground given that it had the tacit support of certain influential business leaders from the community. The Dalit agitation has no such support. Although it was quickly appropriated by sections of civil society and political interest groups, it continues to lack a clear purpose and leadership.
Differences had started to surface on July 31 when the ‘sammellan’ was held in Ahmedabad and the Dalit Asmita kooch for Una was announced, in protest of the flogging of skinners at Una on July 11.
Various NGOs who have been working for Dalit rights in Gujarat for years, felt “left out” of the sammellan where the speakers included former IPS officer Rahul Sharma who has been hounded by the Gujarat government for his testimony on the 2002 riots, and Nirjhari Sinha, wife of the late lawyer Mukul Sinha who founded the Jan Sangharsh Manch and fought for victims of the 2002 riots.
As the rally led by Sharma, Sinha and others progressed and spread on social media, many others joined it, like CPI-ML MLA Sudama Prasad. At the finale on Monday Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika and JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar were also present.
Much could have been achieved over the 350 kilometres that the rally covered, given the experience of the people who participated. However, it became a war of egos and there was animosity against Jignesh Mevani, the 35-year old who was fast becoming the face of the agitation and who had given a call for `rail roko’ if Dalit families did not receive five acres of land each in a month’s time. His affiliations with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) were also held against his leadership of the Dalit uprising.
To meet the ultimatum, the government would have to spare at least 42 lakh acres of land given the 7.1 per cent Dalit population of the state. That is not all: it would have to ensure that what is reaped on that land is accepted by the savarnas (the upper castes and OBCs). Dalits in certain parts of Gujarat assume surnames which do not reveal their caste just to get on with businesses. To this day, if a Dalit opens a hotel or even a wayside tea stall, the upper castes are reluctant to be his clients.
The Patidars don’t have to deal with such untouchability. They did not need a leader to exhort them to come out on the streets, clanking rolling pins on steel plates to drive away netas from political meetings. Many withdrew bank deposits in support of the agitation without a whisper. The feeling of anger in the community was all pervasive.
Contrarily, an activist from Haryana – Manisha Mashaal, who spoke at the Dalit Asmita yatra — questioned the leadership of the yatra by the upper caste, a meaningless debate when the ultimate aim of the fight for Dalit rights is to do away with untouchability and walk shoulder to shoulder with others.
The BJP knows that the Dalits are not as united as the Patidars, and neither are they large enough to be counted as a vote bank in Gujarat. Therefore, its new government has focused on appeasing Patidars and OBCs, a community large enough to swing votes, when assigning ministries.
If the July 31 call for giving up carcass disposal and cleaning of sewers had been followed by every Dalit, Gandhinagar would have been shaken, by Independence Day. As it is, the Dalit uprising is still a work in progress