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Walking for change

The Dalit padayatra in Gujarat holds hope for the future. It is a step forward in changing the oppression of centuries, writes MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA.

Following in Ambedkar's footsteps ... campaigning for Dalit rights.

AFTER a long time, an upbeat piece of news from Gujarat. On the eve of Republic Day, this year dalits from 40-odd talukas of Gujarat gathered to start a concerted fight against untouchability. January 25 is martyrs' day for Gujarati dalits in honour four of young men slain at Golana, 80 kilometres from Ahmedabad, 17 years ago by feudal Rajput landlords because they had begun fighting for their peoples' basic rights. The issues at stake were as basic as minimum wages, and refusing to accept the insults, humiliation and atrocities, which their parent's generation accepted.

This year, however, it was more than just memories and sadness. Golana witnessed the solidarity and a show of strength by dalits and their supporters from all over Gujarat, and from the farthest corners of India. They walked in the blazing noonday sun with a new purposeful stride. To eliminate untouchability from within. The message of the dalit padayatra was simple, yet moving.

The Navsarjan trust, the organising group has worked in Gujarat for over 20 years. Martin Macwan, its founder director and recipient of the prestigious Robert Kennedy award, reflected that despite the human rights work over two decades, no village was free from the scourge of untouchability even after Independence.

Macwan decided that people needed to change from within. "We can't change others' attitudes. But we can change ourselves. So we've gone from village to village telling people. Don't accept untouchability. And don't practice it on others. Don't accept leftovers and unwanted food. Don't drink tea given to you as though you are lesser humans. Keep your own dignity. But also don't practice untouchability towards castes considered lower than you.

The slogan of the anti-untouchability campaign is "Rampatar Chhodo, Bhimpatra Apnavo" — roughly translated "Reject Rampatar, Accept Bhimpatar". Ironically, though typically, religion has been subverted. In Gujarat, local hospitality demands that guests are offered water and tea almost as soon as they arrive. Rampatar, (The vessel of Ram) is a dirty, often cracked, chipped saucer or small dirty earthen pot "reserved" for dalits. Also, dalits of higher sub-castes do the same with lower sub-castes.

At rally after rally, Macwan repeats, "Nobody can claim dalithood just by being born to a particular caste. Changing one's religion cannot erase the social stigma of being a dalit. Dalits converting to Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity or Islam have found that simple seeming short cuts don't help in achieving equality. As caste based discrimination is man-made, the solution also lies in the hands of humans. More laws are of no use, if people and individuals are not willing to shed their own demeaning beliefs."

In keeping with the "Help yourself, change things ourselves" motto, Navsarjan's future plans include starting schools for dalit children. The first school is scheduled to start next year. Macwan asked for contributions of Rs. 11 per month from each family for the education of Dalit children. "Everyone can afford this, it's just one day's liquor and beedi expenses," Macwan pointed out. "If a Baarmu (the 12th day ceremony when a relative dies) is observed without huge dinners and religious ceremonies, the money saved can be used to educate around 300 children." And the money poured in. Old women handed over notes knotted into the ends of saris. Children came forward; shy but proud, to contribute their mite. Definitely not millions of rupees, but it did matter. For the first time, it was not charity or government grants. It was their hard earmed money. And it made people grow in self-esteem and stature, perceptibly.

With raised hands, and solemn voices, people promised support for the campaign as they repeated the pledge. People danced and sang "Bhim Dayaro'' (the songs of Bhim, i.e. Dr. Ambedkar), while enrolment for the cause went on.

As the movement spread from village to village, there was a feeling of hope, of optimism and of something powerful for the future. The task ahead is not easy. After the euphoria of the padayatra, people will have to go back to their villages and face the same hardships, humiliation and atrocities. But it's a step forward in changing the oppression of centuries.

And for the children who sat there absorbing every word of the powerful speeches, the memories will sustain them. They dream for the first time not of brooms and buckets but of books and knowledge. They've been told it is their right. And nothing and no one can take that away from them. The padayatra continues.

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