A Dalit Uprising in Modi’s Gujarat

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It seems Una has once again given the Dalits a chance to rise and take a renewed pledge for freedom. In a country where Dalit oppression is not hidden, atleast at this moment, the Una Chalo Asmita March has brought Dalits from all quarters at one platform.

After cow skinning was seen as an evil by one strata of society and led to violence against four Dalits, not just the torchbearers of Dalit community but even politicians have now said that actions from the highest echelons of power is the call of the day.

Be it Rohith Vemula’s mother Radhika Vemula or Kanhaiya Kumar many turned up at the Una event. Radhika unfurled the national flag at the grounds of a large state-run school in Una. The small town turned into a national focal point after four young Dalits were tied to a car, stripped and flogged after being wrongly accused of killing a cow last month.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort on I Day underscored the importance of social harmony. He also said his government believed in upholding rights of weaker sections of society.

While the nation heard this, for the thousands who gathered at Una these sort of promises had little meaning. Dalits now have pledged they will not remove dead cows or skin them nor will they clean gutters and sweep streets. In any case it is a tough and poorly-paid task forced on the lowest castes.

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Those part of the Asmita rally marched nearly 400 kilometres to Una from Ahmedabad where the demonstration began 10 days ago. Protesters blocked their way and pelted many of the demonstrators with stones as the Asmita rally chugged along.  The idea is to have a delivery of basic rights to Dalits – like land that was allocated but never handed over to Dalit farmers.

The movement picked steam when cow skinners in Surendranagar district made their first move to fan the protest. Dalits have been blocking roads and attacked buses in Ahmedabad. Nearly 16 Dalit men attempted suicide, of which two lost their lives. Meanwhile even Anandiben Patel’s exit as chief minister is beng seen as a fallout of the Una episode.

In a speech that has been widely recorded, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently criticised cow vigilantes stating most use religion as a cover for crimes that have nothing to do with protecting the cow.

The Una Dalit Fight against Atrocities Committee has given a 30 days ultimatum to the Centre to fulfil demands. The forum’s convenor Jignesh Mevani has said dire consequences can be expected if demands are not met.

Members of the Dalit community will launch agitations like rail roko (blockading rail routes) and jail bharo (packing the jails), in which leaders from various States will participate.

Interestingly even Muslims have joined their Dalit brothers to raise their voice.

The Ambedkar Association of North America has extended support to the Dalit agitation, apart from human rights groups in Canada, France, Germany, the UK and Portugal.

Una remains tense after the police arrested 26 people for rioting, attempt to murder and conspiracy in the state of Gujarat. Locals allegedly attacked Dalits and clashed with police, leaving many injured.

There has been no fresh violence, but the town remains tense. Community members live in fear and security troops are deployed in 15 villages to keep the peace.

Dalit groups plan to follow up the Asmita Yatra with a 500-km bike rally from Una to Gandhinagar. The rally would kick off on August 29 and pass through Samter village, the scene of Monday’s violence where 19 have been injured.

Dalits – a particular term to describe Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – make up nearly 25 per cent of India’s population.

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70 years after Independence, more than three-fourths of India’s SCs live in rural areas and 84 per cent of them have an average monthly income of less than Rs 5,000.

While Dalits are important to influence electoral fortunes, in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, every political party routinely professes its love for them as soon as elections near. This time is no different.

More than 60 per cent of the Dalit population does not participate in any economic activity.

Gujarat has only 2.3% of India’s 200 million Dalits – 14th most populous state for the community – yet it ranks high in terms of atrocities against them, with over 1,000 cases of “crimes” against Dalits in 2015.

Between 1990 and 2015, 536 Dalits were murdered in Gujarat and 750 Dalit women raped.

Critics say self-styled “cow protection” vigilantes are running extortion rackets and running amok.

The agitation in Gujarat may not hurt the BJP in polls much – a third of Dalit voters have voted for the Congress party in the recent past. Experts aver a BJP impact is likely in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, two states with large Dalit populations and which go to the polls early next year.

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