Pravinbhai Rathod is a 50-year-old landless labourer from a village in Junagadh district in Gujarat. It is August 15, and he has ridden his two-wheeler to Una, more than 140 km from his village, to attend the Dalit Pride March. Dressed in a worn-out pair of grey trousers and an off-white shirt, Rathod looks elated at seeing thousands of his community members gathered in a school compound to celebrate Independence Day and to seek independence from the atrocities and discrimination that Dalits are subjected to.
Dalits constitute around seven per cent of the State’s population, and a crowd of around 10,000 people, mostly Dalits but also some Muslims, are gathered here today. Some have even come from outside Gujarat, joining the 10-day march that was launched in Ahmedabad on August 4. They are waiting for the speeches to begin. On the podium are several local community leaders, the organisers, and special guests such as Radhika Vemula, Kanhaiya Kumar, and Jignesh Mevani, all sitting around a tall bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar.
In the crowd,Rathod and thousands of others are cheering the leaders on the stage, waving their hands amidst a constant chanting of ‘Jay Bhim’ and ‘Babasaheb Amar Raho’ slogans, holding aloft placards and garlanded photos of Dr. Ambedkar. “It is a big moment and a big thing for us. I never imagined I would be attending such a march and such a gathering of Dalits in this area ever,” says Rathod, as he clicks a picture on his mobile phone.
“We saw a video of how those boys were mercilessly thrashed as if they had committed murder. These gau rakshaks have no mercy for poor boys who are just doing their job… of skinning a dead animal, be it cow, buffalo or bullock,” he says, referring to the public flogging of seven Dalit boys by local vigilantes in a village near Una on July 11. The incident was recorded on a mobile phone and posted on social media, and soon went viral.
It triggered massive statewide protests in which two dozen Dalits attempted suicide, over a hundred vehicles were torched, and dozens of highways were blocked by angry mobs demanding justice for the victims and stringent action against the gau rakshaks who are alleged to often take the law into their own hands to attack Muslims and Dalits who work with cow hides.
In the school, the national flag has just been unfurled jointly by Radhika Vemula, whose son’s suicide at Hyderabad University was one of the earliest triggers this year of Dalit unrest. Balubhai Sarvaiya, whose son was among those flogged, joins her. The sabha begins with thunderous applause.
Suddenly, a great cheergoes up. Jignesh Mevani, who has become the face and poster boy of Dalit protests in Gujarat, has stood up to deliver his speech. “Do you still want to continue skinning dead cows and disposing of dead animals,” he asks the crowd. They respond loudly: “No, No.” He then asks the crowd to repeat after him, “We will take a pledge today. We will not skin dead animals or do manual scavenging any more.” The crowd loudly repeats his words.
Battling fever and a bad throat after giving speeches in dozens of villages en route to Una, the 35-year-old Mevani has caught the imagination of the Dalits, who urgently need a charismatic leader to articulate and voice their concerns.
Rooted in social activism before he did a brief stint in journalism and academics, Mevani worked closely with the late human rights lawyer Mukul Sinha, who founded the Jan Sangharsh Manch to fight for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat communal riots and for rights to marginalised groups. Sinha’s wife and son are on the stage with Mevani today.
Former IPS officer Rahul Sharma is also there; it was his idea, mooted during a Dalit Maha Sammelan in Ahmedabad on July 31, to launch the Dalit Pride March.
Setting out from Ahmedabad, the marchers were greeted in every village en route to Una by hundreds of Dalits. Mevani addressed them, asking them to demand five acres of land from the government and to give up their traditional occupations of skinning dead animals and manual scavenging. Today is the finale. “Do you want to live with respect and dignity,” he asks. “Yes!” shouts back the crowd. He urges them to pursue alternative livelihoods like farming.
The Una incident, the subsequent protests, and the Dalit Pride March have awakened a community that might not be electorally significant in Gujarat but whose voice is bound to impact politics not just in the State but across India. Mevani concludes his 15-minute speech with these words: “Your strong protest has forced the Prime Minister to speak. In 2012, when three Dalits were killed in police firing in Than, Surendranagar district, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat did not utter even a single word. Now, he has to speak because we have started fighting, which we will continue.”
The speeches wind down, and the crowd starts to disperse. Rathod, walking towards the exit, says, “We need more people like him to speak for us, fight for us. We can support him.” Mevani may not yet be a leader of Dalits in Gujarat because leaders are not made overnight, but he has certainly emerged as a powerful voice who can express the suppressed emotions of a community that remains oppressed even 70 years after independence.