“I am the shining sword-arm of Bhim's thoughts,” sings Anjali Bharti, a Dalit singer from the lowest of Hindu castes. “Nagpurchi nagin, Bhimachi vaghin [Nagpur’s she-snake, Bhim's lioness,” she calls herself in one video, voice strident, eyes flashing. Her Marathi lyrics, like those of her counterparts singing in Punjabi, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati and every language of states with dominant Hindu populations, speak of confrontation, confidence and the adulation of one man, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Dalit writer of India's Constitution.
“For Bhim, I will sacrifice my life, I am crazy, crazy about Bhim…I don't want that dadagiri and Gandhigiri, I want the new age of Ambedkari, I will be his lioness,” sings Bharati, as she trots around on a white horse, sword unsheathed and sporting a hat.
This is the hybrid, vigorous and emerging culture that underpins the confidence of 70 marchers – often swelling to thousands, drawing from the 201 million Indians officially categorised as Scheduled Castes – as they trudge 355 km from the state capital, Ahmedabad, to the southern Gujarat town of Una. Crowds, pledges, songs and defiance course through what the marchers call the azadi kooch, or the march for freedom. They arrive at their destination on Independence Day.
In every village – women in colourful sarees drawn over their heads, men in drab bush-shirts and trousers, teenage girls in salwar kameez, boys in shorts and dusty shirts – India’s pariahs from Hinduism’s dark, depressing underbelly, flock to join the freedom marchers. They come to show solidarity, suddenly aware that the flogging of four of their own for skinning a dead cow, the latest in centuries of atrocities, should no longer be tolerated, that they should no longer be condemned to clean up India’s carrion. And to this they swear an oath, holding their right arms up in front of them, parallel to the ground: “Gai ki duum aap rakho, hamein hamari zamin do!" Keep the cow’s tail, give us our land.
That is the freedom march’s slogan, an allusion to a specific act of discrimination that illustrates how Dalits are treated by other Hindu castes and the government they vote for. The cow’s tail refers to one of the jobs forced on them by tradition – disposing of carcasses – for which they, along with Muslims, are now attacked by emboldened upper caste Hindu vigilantes.
The land the marchers refer to is 1.64 lakh acres of surplus government land, an area three times larger than Ahmedabad, that Gujarat has supposedly given to 37,000 landless Dalits under a state law.
Jignesh Mevani, lawyer, former journalist and the leader of the freedom march, frequently explains how a right-to-information request he filed revealed that less than half that number of Dalits got their land. On paper, the land has been transferred. But in reality much of it is controlled by upper caste squatters who do not allow Dalits to access the land.
Ambedkar on Gandhi
Across India, diverse Hindu cultures are united in the continued subjugation of Dalits. It is a subject as volatile today as it was when Ambedkar first gave voice to their misery. In doing so, he expressed contempt for the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, whom he accused of being a closet supporter of the caste system.
“He [Gandhi] was all the time double dealing,” Ambedkar told the BBC in a 1955 interview, a year before his death, alleging that the Mahatma expressed diverging views in the English and Gujarati papers he edited.
“If you read the two papers, you will see how Gandhi was deceiving the people of India,” said Ambedkar. “In the English paper, he posed himself as an opponent of the caste system and untouchability…but if you read [the] Gujarati magazine, you will see him [as the] most orthodox man. He has been supporting the caste system, the varnashram dharma [caste-driven divisions of Hindu society] and all the orthodox dogmas that has kept India down.”
Gandhi did not say all that Ambedkar accused him of, but after Ambedkar's deification, that is hard to contest.
To be sure, the misery caused by those dogmas is not as encompassing as it once was: Dalit literacy has bounded along from 21% in 1981 to 37% in 1991 to 66% in 2011. But the “hardened crust of separatism which has grown for centuries” – as Ambedkar called it 61 years ago – endures. The inside pages of newspapers abound with acts of medieval discrimination, from upper caste Gujarati children refusing to eat from utensils washed by a Dalit to upper castes stopping Dalits from entering temples, whether in Uttarakhand, Karnataka or Haryana. Violence and death are common, particularly in the countryside, and national crime data records a 40% spike in violence against Dalits over five years ending 2014. The bustle and rush of city life dissipates or masks discrimination in urban India, but even here a marriage between a Dalit and upper caste is the stuff of scandal and strife.
With education – and the instantaneous awareness of events, ideas and culture engendered by the mobile phone – a distinct Dalit culture has come into being.
Its quiet existence in the lives of Dalits spurs them to meet, greet and merge with the freedom marchers whenever they pass through villages and towns, unafraid of upper caste hostility. It is a culture built around Ambedkar, exchanging the caste Hindu “Jai Shri Ram” for “Jai Bhim”. The culture of Bhim has filtered into the Dalit street, home and mind. In its – often militant – assertiveness, it proclaims, “Our time is coming.” It explains the spontaneous nationwide Dalit rallying around the cow skinners of Una, and it reveals how Dalit society is developing.
In Punjab, where one in three people is Dalit – the largest proportion of any Indian state – Sikhism's failure to transcend Hindu caste is obvious as Sikh Dalit singers gain widespread popularity, their songs proliferating on social media.
There's Rajni Thakkerwal, whose songs of Ambedkar and whose videos proliferate with strong Chamars (tanners or leather workers, those who work with cowhide), twirling moustaches and brandishing swords.
One of the most popular is Ginni Mahi (her real name is Gurkanwal Bharati), a teenager who frequently uses her caste name, Chamar, to discomfit society, as she does here in Danger 2.
The themes encompass every evidence of oppression, from the Manusmriti – an ancient Hindu text that gives sanction to the caste system – to the suicide of Hyderbad Central University Phd scholar Rohith Vemula.
“Rohith gela, Dalit mela, mar rahi hai lokshahi,” sings Sheetal Sathe, a folk singer from Pune, in a mix of Marathi and Hindi. Rohith is gone, the Dalit is dead, democracy is dying.
Speaking up, speaking out
Vemula's thoughts, just published, offer an insight into the conflict and anger within young Dalits. “In a violent system, it is a crime to be a moderate,” Vemula writes in #Caste is Not a Rumour: The online diary of Rohith Vemula. “Malcolm X said that. Ambedkar cried it. And Dalit Panther movements established it. Only when you risk your lives will your next generations live in freedom.”
In Gujarat, poet Umesh Solanki has had a poem translated to the language of Dalit aspiration, English. The heavy accent and stilted verses do not obscure the message of The Modern Untouchability:
“It was blatant and blunt
now it is subdued and subtle
moved down to the core to remain invisible
stuck solid at the bottom of heart (sic)
caramel and honey
the innocent words loaded with scorn and hate.
When I flip through their books
my fingers got pierced
I am on my way and maybe it is my way
I don't get stumbled by their strike
but neither do I get to reach anywhere
my pain has reached beyond."
In Maharashtra, Anand Shinde's song A for Ambedkar echoes Dalit culture and aspiration: "A for Ambedkar, B for Bhimrao (or Buddhist, which many Dalits have become), C for caste, D for doctor, E for English, F for foreign (where Ambedkar went to study)..."
So it is from abroad that the new Dalit leader, Mevani, looks for support for the freedom march. This week, he released a letter of support from the Ambedkar Association of North America, Ambedkar International Mission and the Boston Study Group.
The statement said:
“Jai Bhim, Ambedkarites all over the USA and Canada now decided to have a protest in support of our Gujarat Dalit march for freedom ...publish all over social media's (sic)...as most mainstream has become a gutter media, with ABC (astrolog, Bollywood, cricket) + ads from fake babas, vastu, numerology, feng shui or of pure Hindutva promoting soaps.
"It is do or die now for our kids and grand kids to live a life without caste warfare. Enough is enough."