At 3.30 pm on August 14, after travelling 350 km over ten days, the marchers of the Dalit Asmita Yatra finally arrived at ground zero in Una, the town in south Gujarat where cow vigilantes brutally assaulted four Dalit youths for skinning a dead cow last month.
The marchers, who began the rally in Ahmedabad on August 5, faced unexpected backlash during the last leg of the yatra, as a mob of alleged gau rakshaks blocked the highway leading to Una. The yatra was forced to take a longer route and enter Una in police-escorted vehicles instead of marching in on foot.
But none of these obstacles took away from the significance of this “azaadi kooch” or freedom march. The Una attack had sparked an unprecedented Dalit uprising in Gujarat and the march has brought together almost all Dalit rights groups across the state under a single umbrella, the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti. The yatra will conclude on the morning of Independence Day with a flag hoisting ceremony in Una and a declaration of Dalit pride and unity in front of the town’s Ambedkar statue.
While the yatra had a core contingent of 60-70 activists who marched on all ten days, it was sustained by hundreds of ordinary Dalits from towns and villages en route, who joined in along the way for varying lengths of time. “We stopped at five or six places every day to spread awareness among locals along the route,” said Jayesh Solanki, one of the co-conveners of the yatra. “There is a lot of anger among Dalit youth, who have shown up at our small rallies in large numbers. People in this belt of Gujarat did not have much awareness of Ambedkarite ideology earler, but now they are finally interested.”
On August 14, the group of marchers that finally made it to Una included social workers, filmmakers, independent activists and students from around the country, along with 30-40 Dalits from across Gujarat. Each had their own reasons for participating in the march. Here are some who shared their stories with Scroll.in.
Pravin Nakum: ‘The BJP practices untouchability’
Pravin Nakum has spent 29 years of his life as a worker of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ahmedabad. For two of those years, he was also a member of the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But on July 31, Nakum decided to throw in his resignation, leave the BJP for good and work independently for the cause closest to his heart – Dalit rights.
“The BJP practices so much untouchability in its ranks – I don’t know why I took so long to finally quit,” said Nakum, 51, who had been serving as a ward-level leader of the party’s Anusuchit Jati Vibhag, or backward castes wing, when he resigned. “For years I had been asking my seniors to give me work beyond Dalit affairs, but they never agreed.”
The son of a peon in the state transport department, Nakum grew up in a Dalit neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, but claims he never once used the Scheduled Caste quota for his education. After a year of studying commerce in college, he pursued politics and set up a business in selling construction material. “I have experienced a fair bit of discrimination because of my caste. I have seen upper caste clients turn away from my shop when they see a photo of Ambedkar on the wall,” said Nakum. “But nothing has been as insulting as my experience in BJP.”
On Diwali and other festivals, says Nakum, Dalit party workers would not be allowed to serve food to higher caste seniors. Upper caste election candidates in Ahmedabad would visit Dalit neighbourhoods only to ask for votes once in five years, but still never ate in their homes. Nakum claims he has been to party events where Dalit members were given accommodation separate from the others. “When I started speaking out against this in the past few years, they stopped calling me for meetings,” he said.
Nakum had contemplated quitting the party for the past five years, but the unprecedented Dalit uprising after the Una incident of July 11 finally pushed him to take the step. He joined the Dalit Asmita Yatra from the first day itself, and claims he has found a “messiah” in Jignesh Mevani, one of the chief organisers of the march. “I feel liberated now.”
Hansaben, Nathiben and Shobhnaben: ‘We are here to educate the women’
Hansaben, Nathiben and Shobhnaben could not make it for all ten days of the Ahmedabad-Una march, but on the morning of August 14, they arrived in Una with more fiestiness than their wrinkled faces betrayed.
“We have come all the way from Junagadh for the last two days of this rally, and we are here to bring an awakening among the Dalit women of Una,” said Hansaben Chavda, a 64-year-old “housewife and social worker”. Nathiben Chavda, her aunt, is 85 and Shobhnaben Kaba, her neighbour, is 60. All three women are practicing Buddhists and members of the Ramabai Ambedkar Mahila Mandal, a Dalit women’s organisation in Junagadh.
For the past three decades, the women have spent their time travelling around Junagadh district educating Dalit women about the inherent casteism in Hinduism. “We have convinced many women to give up Hindu rituals and turn towards Ambedkar instead,” said Nathiben. “Women tend to be more religious and superstitious than men, so it is very important to educate them first.”
Like the four brutalised Dalits of Una, the three women from Junagadh also belong to the caste of traditional cow skinners and leather tanners. “But thanks to Ambedkar’s teachings, our families left that work nearly 80 years ago,” said Hansaben, who has studied just up to Class 4 in a Gujarati school but can read basic English. “Today I have one son who is a school teacher and another who is a doctor.”
This is the kind of example that the women are hoping to set for their counterparts in Una. “There has not been much Dalit awakening in this part of the region, but we want to tell the people of Una that they should completely stop tanning and carcass skinning work,” said Shobhanaben. “Instead, they should ask the government for their rightful share of land and look for other kinds of occupation.”
Jivanbhai Parmar: ‘Food is still served separately in temples’
At 63, Jivanbhai Parmar walks a little slower than the younger marchers around him. But his yatra to Una, he proudly proclaims, began a good 150 km before the official starting point in Ahmedabad. Parmar is a farmer from Visnagar, a town in north Gujarat’s Mehsana district. When he first heard of the thrashing of Dalits in Una, he was angered but not surprised – there was nothing new about yet another atrocity towards those of his caste.
“But when all the andolans [protests] began across the state, and kept getting stronger and stronger, I realised there was something different going on,” said Parmar. “So the moment I heard about the yatra from Ahmedabad to Una, I knew I had to be a part of every minute of it.”
Parmar’s memories of caste discrimination date right back to his school days when Dalit seats were segregated, but he doesn’t remember a time when he was not outspoken against it. In his village, young Parmar was notorious for confronting upper caste men if they beat up Dalit boys for breaking unspoken norms of segregation. “All through my youth, we were never allowed in the local temples,” said Parmar. “So I would ask them why their temples used so many holy objects made by us Shudras. Ten years ago, they finally opened the temples up to us, but food is still served separately for all caste groups.”
Parmar is not affiliated to any political or civil society organisation, but is ready to take the lead in mobilising more Dalits into action if the demands of the Dalit Asmita Yatra marchers are not met. “I am marching for justice and that march will have to continue even after we reach Una.”