One year has passed by rapidly with one lynching after another shocking the nation, mostly of Dalits and Muslims. Even as the Kisan Mukti Yatra, in memory of the protesting farmers shot dead recently, in a rural India in serious distress, has started from Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh amid prohibitory orders, detentions and police clampdown, there is another epic march being planned on July 11 in Gujarat.
Gujarat, which is a holy cow for the media, if not a white elephant, is in turmoil anyway; not only the Patels, but traders, small-scale enterprises, dairy farmers, diamond merchants and petrol pump owners are fighting a pitched battle with the BJP government on the new GST regime.
Last week, traders in Surat were brutally lathi-charged by the police, as was widely shared on social media. The mainstream media, by and large, and predictably, does not really want to spoil the comfort zone of the “Gujarat model”, the backyard of the prime minister, despite the glaring contradictions, the simmering unrest and the fake promises.
This July 11 epic march next week is a reminder of an equally momentous struggle last year which started from Una, on July 11, 2016, when four Dalits - Vashram Sarvaiya, his brother Ramesh, and their cousins Ashok and Bechar - were relentlessly and brutally lynched in front of a police station by “gau rakshaks”, who not only filmed this public spectacle of barbarism, but proudly uploaded it on social media for the whole world to see. It raised a storm, especially among Dalits, across the country and in Gujarat.
What became a milestone in Dalit politics in post-Independence India followed the lynching of the four men because they were only following their inherited occupation of skinning the carcasses of dead cows. It also reminded the nation of the gory details of the lynching to death of five Dalits in October 2002 in Jhajjar, Haryana, because they were carrying the hides of a dead cow.
One top leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad then famously remarked that cows are more valuable than Dalits. One year later, as the matter continued to be debated inside and outside Parliament, the 32 accused of the Jhajjar lynchings were out on bail.
And, yet, the Jhajjar incident yet again reopened the simmering and gaping wounds of Dalit angst and anger, and the ritualistic and routine oppression, brutalisation and humiliation they suffer at the hands of upper castes and the police/bureaucracy in an entrenched caste society, despite legislations to protect them.
After the Una lynchings last year, nevertheless, the uprising broke all the dominant thresholds of the oppressive paradigm with a spontaneous rebellion unparalleled in the annals of Dalit protests in India.
In a unique show of disgust and aggression, Dalits scattered cow carcasses en masse outside the district magistrate’s office in Surendra Nagar in Gujarat. More than 20,000 Dalits vowed never to work on a cow carcass even if they die of hunger and joblessness; on July 31, they took a pledge in front of a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar that they will not touch a cow carcass in this lifetime, and thereby they rejected their occupation of skinning dead cows.
They demanded that justice be given to them, that cow vigilantes be punished, that it is high time the government breaks this caste system which reduces them into slave labour, lowest of the low in the economic and social hierarchy, and all Dalits, mostly landless, should be given five acres of land.
Then followed the long march, peaceful, unarmed, as radical and militant as it could be. Thousands of Dalits marched from Ahmedabad to Una, crossing police barricades and umpteen barriers and violent blockades by the upper castes.
Significantly, despite the promises by the then BJP regime in Gujarat, not one of their demands have been fulfilled, the Dalits allege. Now, the family of those who have been lynched and others have threatened to reject Hinduism’s varna vyavastha and instead adopt Buddhism as their religion.
Hence, the July 11 March, next week, marks another milestone, led by young iconic Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, who led the march last year.
His appeal is direct and he is clearly working for a democratic, non-sectarian rainbow coalition, as it was last year: “With this objective we are calling upon all Dalits, Muslims, workers and the unemployed youth of this country to join us in a march - Azaadi Koonch (Freedom March) - from Mahsana district of North Gujarat to Banaskhada district to fight against not just the casteist forces and gau rakshaks, but also the institutionalised murder of workers and farmers and the destitution of thousands of unemployed youth… At this juncture we would also like to remind one and all about the broken promises made by then chief minister Anandiben Patel last year on her visit to Mota Samadhiyala village after the lynching of Dalits.
In fact, the casteist Gujarat government did not even bother to challenge the interim bail granted to the accused. The drama-king, Narendra Modi, who also hails from Gujarat, on the one hand, calls himself an "Ambedkar bhakt", and, on the other hand, inspires his puppet government in Gujarat to adopt the Nagpur model of granting life imprisonment for cattle slaughter. Is this the lesson that he has chosen to learn from Una, Saharanpur or Rohith Vemula’s murder?”
The language of Dalit politics is marking a significant shift in both mainstream and marginal politics in India. Photo: PTI
The march will reach Banaskantha and Rapar tehsil where landless Dalits have apparently received redistributed land, but, reportedly, only on paper, even as the dominant castes hold proprietorship of the land.
“So the government basically wants to keep the Dalits landless and thereby force them to continue with manual scavenging, sweeping and cleaning. When corporates are given land, the possession is ensured overnight, if required by force. But, when it comes to the Dalits and the landless, then we see that more than a lakh of hectares of redistributed land still remain on paper since the last 40 years with no actual possession in the hands of the Dalits. The Azaadi Koonch shall end with taking possession over this land where the tricolour shall be unfurled. This is what we mean by our real azadi,” writes Mevani, in his appeal.
Last week, Dalits were arrested in Jhansi as they were trying to reach Lucknow with a huge bar of soap for UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath. He had earlier been accused of distributing soap and a satchet of shampoo to Dalits before visiting their village. A press conference in Lucknow hosted by eminent civil society personalities was blocked and they were arrested. Undoubtedly, the powers that be, despite their arrogance, are in a panic mode.
Clearly, with the Bhim Army’s young leader Chandrashekhar Azad imprisoned on “cooked up charges” by the BJP government in UP, after the houses of Dalits were burnt in Saharanpur, and with his mother and sister now leading a resurgent Dalit upsurge in UP, the language of Dalit politics is marking a significant shift in both mainstream and marginal politics in India.
With Mayawati’s graph sinking, and with Dalit politicians like Ram Vilas Paswan, Udit Raj and Ramdas Athawale wallowing in the bowels of petty power and crass opportunism, despite the atrocities being inflicted on their community by the same forces with whom they have aligned, a new radical subaltern discourse is emerging from the ground below the feet.
It is at once an angry and aggressive generation, and it has no time for a submissive, passive or “charity” agenda. This is a volatile and pulsating generation, mostly young, riding high as much on aspiration, as it is sick and tired of the clichés and stereotypes of a prejudiced caste society in infinite bad faith, refusing to change.
They are at once rejecting the status quo, and demanding a parallel and alternative narrative of equality, dignity and hope. They have no patience anymore for either opportunism or fake promises of “good times”.
Certainly, as the song goes, the times they are “a-changing”.