Braving the slush on what was an apology of a ground in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati area – one provided by the authorities after days of haggling – thousands of Dalits on Sunday nudged and pushed to be seen at a massive gathering, and took a mass pledge not to carry away animal carcasses from the streets of Gujarat.
This was the first time that as many as 30 Dalit groups from across Gujarat came together to raise a plethora of issues that the community has faced for decades.
The groups have rallied under the banner of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti or the Una Dalit Fight against Atrocities Committee, with Jignesh Mevani, a young lawyer, as its convenor.
It was the incident in Una on July 12 – where cow protection vigilantes mercilessly beat four Dalits found skinning a dead cow – that triggered protests by Dalits in Gujarat.
Dalits comprise only 7% of the state’s population, and have seldom been heard. Sunday’s rally was, therefore, an opportunity to make demands and speak their minds.
They didn’t miss the opportunity. Mevani clearly enjoyed every word he uttered under an overcast sky.
“Tell the government to give us arms licenses, tell them to train us in martial arts,” Mevani said, the glee unmistakable in his voice even as he vented his anger. “We have had enough. We will break their hands and legs if the upper caste exploiters torture us anymore.”
Though a slightly older leader later tried to temper Mevani’s onslaught, saying that “we will do everything legally and peacefully,” few heard it. At least not the media.
Anchors on Gujarati television channels screamed statements like, “Decades of pent up Dalit anger shot out and reverberated across the state.”
That even after days of state-wide protests, demonstrations and suicide attempts by Dalits, the anger at the Una incident kept erupting at the rally indicates the extent to which Dalits have felt marginalised.
“We are happy that so many of them came from across the state and even from areas which were facing heavy rains,” said Mevani. “How many came is also not important. But this is still not the point.”
He added: “That they came, no-holds-barred with an unprecedented and unseen confidence. We spoke and spoke with freedom, with our heart. This has never happened, and this is the precursor of what’s in store.”
Several Muslims were seen in the crowd, and some of leaders of that community even occupied the stage.
The Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind had declared their support to the rally. “Dalit-Muslim ekta zindabad, fansiwad murdabad," shouted many in the crowd as members of the organisation walked in. Hail Dalit-Muslim unity, down with fascism.
“There is little choice but to join hands,” Nasir Ansari, a retired professor and general secretary of the Gujarat unit of the organisation,” told Scroll.in. “The Muslims and Dalits in Gujarat travel in the same boat, both socially and politically.”
He added: “I believe some leadership will also emerge from this. We are fed up with all the existing political parties.”
Attempt at sabotage?
Although the Acher State Transport Depot ground in Ahmedabad could accommodate only about 5,000 people, the venue was brimming by noon.
It took over 90 minutes for the rally to begin as the ground was dotted with puddles of rainwater. In fact, there was so much slush that the stage had to be shifted.
A woman Dalit corporator from the Bharatiya Janata Party, who attended the rally, was livid at the condition of the ground. She did not want to give her name but said that the ground was deliberately allotted to the protestors so that the rally would fail. Not only this, she claimed that "cops standing guard at the highways created hurdles and tried to prevent Dalits in trucks to enter Ahmedabad".
Besides the pledge not to clear carcasses from the streets as is already the case in Surendranagar, an announcement was made from the podium that Dalits would launch a padyatra through the state starting August 5 to raise issues.
A former IPS officer-turned-lawyer Rahul Sharma, a bitter foe of Narendra Modi, who attended the rally, said he would lead the padyatra.
The writer is editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad.