The march that reached Una on August 15 marked the most significant Independence Day I have ever witnessed. Mainstream media, barring exceptions, paid scant heed, focusing instead on the prime minister’s usual sabre-rattling. Headlines gleefully reported that Narendra Modi had laid down the gauntlet against Pakistan. You mess with Kashmir and we will mess with Balochistan, he declared, tacitly admitting a democratic failure in both countries.
What transpired at Una was dramatically different. The trigger was last month’s public parading and flogging of Dalit youth who had been skinning a dead cow. The “cow protectors” recorded and circulated their feat on social media. As the clip went viral, Dalits were shocked into action.
Gujarat has often seen anti-Dalit atrocities with the police displaying its upper caste bias. By 2002, a new right-wing strategy emerged. Dalits were recruited as foot-soldiers to attack Muslims. In the next decade, as the RSS aspired to capture national power, Ambedkar began to appear on BJP banners and an alliance with Dalits appeared possible. But while Ambedkar’s icon was desirable, not so his egalitarian vision and deep distaste for misogynist Hindu shastras. Predictably, caste violence increased in proportion to Dalit assertion. In 2012 at Thangadh, the police used AK 47s to kill three unarmed Dalit protesters. With Modi as PM, cow vigilantes and Hindutva militants were further emboldened.
With seven per cent Dalits in Gujarat, mass mobilisation has never been easy. Valiant leaders like Valjibhai Patel are in their 80s, while sops and inertia have robbed the community of effective elders. It is in this vacuum that a young Dalit like Jignesh Mevani emerged. He and other youth leaders like the Parmars, Suresh Aadya and Advocate Shamshad Pathan have given shape to the spontaneous uprising after Una. This potent mix of young Dalits and Muslims also has the invaluable support of people like Rahul Sharma, one of the bravest IPS police officers who tried to stem the Gujarat riots of 2002, only to face innumerable obstacles ever since.
Support poured in from across the country. The ambitious route covered 400 kilometers in 10 days, partly on foot and partly in assorted vehicles, stopping before every town so people could proceed on foot to be greeted by a welcoming party from the approaching town. Fed and refreshed they set off, again on foot towards the next town, accompanied for a part of the journey by their recent hosts.
The support base kept growing until the caravan reached the outskirts of Una on August 14. Here, they faced the first signs of upper caste resistance. Near Samter, where the Dalit youth had first been assaulted, the OBC Durbar community staged a road block. The marchers avoided confrontation and took a detour to reach Una by the 14th afternoon. The previous night, Grishma of Dalit Camera had gone to Samter village after hearing about their aggression. She barely managed to get back with her equipment intact. The next day she went again with a young reporter to interview Durbar men when they suddenly went on the offensive. As the reporters were escaping on a motorbike, a car deliberately chased and knocked them down and then sped off. Both suffered injuries, but bandaged and bleeding, were back on the job that very night.
On the 15th, Una rang with cries of “Jai Bhim” as people arrived in droves. We stopped at an Ambedkar statue where, under a tent, a large family was sitting on a hunger strike. We heard the heartrending tale of the Sarvaiyya family. They were the only Dalits in a Koli (OBC) village and owned 15 acres of irrigated land. Four years ago, young Lalji Sarvaiyya was burnt alive in his hut by a mob that suspected he had eloped with a Koli girl. The Sarvaiyyas are now jobless and homeless as promises to grant them an alternate plot have not materialised.
By now, despite roadblocks and stone pelting, 20,000 had reached Una. Apart from local Dalits, there were Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother, Dontha Prashanth of Ambedkar Students Association and many more from all castes and creeds representing various shades of the politics of reason. Speeches from the stage were limited as getting home safely was a priority that could be ensured only if the meeting concluded early.
On August 15, as the tricolour unfurled in the presence of Radhika Vemula and other affected Dalit families, the Jana Gana Mana was sung by thousands of voices that this country has rarely been interested in hearing. Jignesh called out: “You can keep the cow’s tail. But give us our land!” An oath was administered: “We vow not to enter your sewers and not to skin your dead cattle.”
The government was given 30 days to grant every Dalit family five acres of land, failing which a rail roko would be launched. Jignesh’s speech was followed by JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar who had come to Una despite running a high fever (later diagnosed as malaria). His speech was short and ended with the now famous chant demanding azadi from Brahminism, casteism, capitalism, and fascism.
Babu Sarvaiiya, father of the boys beaten at Una, spoke about the terror being unleashed in the countryside. Radhika Vemula spoke of how after Rohith’s death, her new family consists of oppressed Dalits everywhere.
The meeting concluded at noon but the day had not ended. A backlash was underway. On the Samter side of the bridge leading out of Una, Durbar youth were stopping vehicles and beating up presumed Dalits. Ambulances screamed up and down the road. On the Una side, Dalit supporters began creating their own roadblock. The police concentrated on persuading Dalits not to indulge in violence. The situation was volatile. As tempers soared, organisers reminded people that Ambedkar had never resorted to violence.
The Gir Somnath police chief ingenuously assured us that arrests of Durbars would be done as soon as law and order was restored. Jignesh’s presence meant that Dalits would keep gathering around him so it was decided that he should return to Ahmedabad through alternate routes. We stayed back with cameras to keep the pressure on the police to ensure the safety of the protesters. We visited a government hospital in Una where four injured Dalit boys had been brought in. Their motorcycles were destroyed. One had a brother missing. They recognised their Durbar attackers. A Dalit was brought in with a bullet injury in his leg. We went back to the police station to ask them to file FIRs. Again we were assured that this would be done “once law and order was restored”.
The police finally cleared the road to Samter, resorting to firing in the air. We left town that night and heard of no further major incidents.
The positive impact has been huge but criticism exists that local Dalits bore the brunt. Yet when we talked to the injured in Una, they were very proud to have helped end the silence. Landless Dalits forever forced to do jobs no one else would do have demanded both respect and land.
Dead cows now litter many villages of Gujarat — a lesson for the whole country.