Dalits, Adivasis Demand Independence From Oppression, Exploitation, Corporate Plunder
15 August 2016 – India’s Independence Day - witnessed some unique and inspiring movements. The Dalits of Una and the adivasis of Bastar chose to mark Independence Day by highlighting the freedom and dignity denied to them. In this feature we carry reports from the yatras (marches) in Gujarat and Chhattisgarh and reflect on the political challenge presented to Brahmanism, communal fascism, and state terror by these movements.
Una Independence Yatra and Rally
“You keep the cow’s tail – just give us our land” – t.his slogan of the Una Independence March summed up a social revolution in Gujarat and India. In a slap on the face to the Sanghi goons who have been beating up, lynching, and killing Muslims and Dalits on the pretext of ‘cow protection’, the Dalits of Gujarat have risen up in thousands to declare their intention to give up the degrading work of disposing of animal carcasses and going down drains. They have instead demanded allocation of agricultural land and alternative livelihood. Significantly, they made common cause with the Muslim victims of the cow vigilantes, raising the slogan ‘Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai’ (Dalits and Muslims are brothers).
The Dalit Asmita Yatra traversed Saurshtra to culminate in the Azaadi Kooch (Independence Rally) at Una town. Participants in the yatra were mostly Dalit youth from south Gujarat’s rural areas, but also included activists from Gujarat as well as the rest of the country. The Yatra was led by the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti, whose leaders were mostly young Dalit activists including Jignesh Mevani and Subodh Parmar. Some of the democratic activists from Gujarat who supported the Dalit Asmita Yatra were Rahul Sharma, the police officer harassed by the Gujarat Government for protecting Muslims in Bhavnagar during the 2002 pogrom; Nirjhari Sinha and Pratik Sinha of Jan Sangharsh Manch that has fought legal and political battles of the victims of riots and fake encounters in Gujarat.
CPI(ML)’s MLA from Tarari (where Bathani Tola, site of the 1996 Ranveer Sena massacre is located) Sudama Prasad, former Darauli MLA Amarnath Yadav, as well RYA Bihar President Manoj Manzil, RYA’s UP State President Rakesh Singh, and CPI(ML) leaders Ravindra Yadav from Arwal as well as Comrade Jitendra Paswan and Sujit Kushwaha from Bihar, Comrades Laxmanbhai Varia from Valsad and Abhishek Parmar from Ahmedabad participated in the yatra.
On 15th August, Radhika Vemula hoisted the national flag at Una and cultural activists of Gujarat, Charul and Vinay, led the gathering in singing the national anthem. Radhika Vemula told the gathering that hoisting the flag was a way of reminding ourselves that the country does not belong to a dominant caste or a dominant religion – it belongs to every citizen. Balubhai Sarvaiya and his family members of Mota Samadhiya village (victims of the Gau Rakshak attack that sparked off the movement) were also felicitated on the stage. The stage had the slogan – ‘Dalits of the world unite’.
On 15th August, an AIPF team comprising CPI(ML) PB member Kavita Krishnan, as well as AIPF Campaign Committee member Dr Laxminarayana, Dr Rati Rao, Deepika from PUCL, Venkatesh from Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, Karnataka and Shivaprakash from Ambedkar Buddhist Society, Andhra Pradesh, and AISA National President Sucheta De, participated in the rally at Una.
Notes From the Dalit Asmita Yatra
Freelance journalist and photographer Javed Iqbal walked with the yatra. Some of his observations, accompanying his photographic documentation, are excerpted here from his Facebook wall:
The Asmita rally was mostly covered on foot, going village to village. There were no loudspeakers and sloganeering was done in groups, with loud calls of Jai Bhim, Azaadi and Halla Bol.
The children of Hemal, marched most of the way towards the village Timbi before the core protestors began to carry them. They shouted slogans throughout….
Dozens of people would be injured before and after the independence day rally when dominant caste villagers from Samter, attacked people attending the rally. The next day they would attack people leaving Una.
Babubhai from Thangadh was the quick to comment on how the police were so easy to open fire on them four years ago when three Dalit boys from their village were killed, and were much more circumspect when the Dalits were attacked on the way to the Una rally. Himatbhai Rathod from Thangadh, claimed that his attackers had even videographed him.
Profiling some of the other participants in the March and Rally, Javed Iqbal wrote:
Chandrika Solanki from Baroda is a teacher and an Ambedkarite activist who has been trying to get the government to further recognize Sayajibaug Garden, the park in Baroda where in 1918, Dr.Ambedkar had found himself and resolved to fight for Dalit rights, after being humiliated and evicted from a Parsi inn. ...
Sushila Prajapati, is a feminist activist from Ahmedabad who has worked for years on cultural practices and gender discrimination.
Jyoti Jagtap from cultural troupe Kabir Kala Manch was also a part of the march in Una. Three members from KKM have been in prison as undertrials for over three years now....
Ravindra Yadav from the CPI ML is from Arwal in Bihar, where the Laxmanpur-Bathe massacre had taken place in 1997, when the Ranveer Sena murdered 58 landless Dalits....
Rama Naga and Pradeep Narwal from JNU had given short rousing speeches to a cheering crowd. A large group of young boys behind me screamed in protest when the microphone was taken away from Rama Naga. ‘We will implement the Una Model all over India!’ he had said to rousing applause.
Javed Iqbal noted:
The effect of the month long agitation is sometimes easily visible on the roadside. This carcass was found on the way from Hemal to Thimbi and had been on the roadside for days. (see photo below)
Manoj Manzil, RYA Bihar President wrote about the Asmita Yatra:
We’ve seen the spark of awakening, revolt and resistance of the Dalits, the poor and oppressed challenge the feudal forces in Bihar, braving massacres and feudal reaction. Now we’re seeing that spark ignite a social revolution in the hostile terrain of Gujarat, where feudal oppression is compounded by communal-fascist political hegemony. The Dalit Asmita Yatra that moved from village to village in South Gujarat was a display of Dalit unity and assertion, of Muslim and Dalit unity – a resounding exposure of Modi’s much-touted ‘Gujarat model’ and a revolt in the RSS’ own Hindutva laboratory against Brahminism and the Sangh Parivar’s communal and casteist politics.
The slogan that hurts and challenges the communal and casteist forces, especially the Sangh Parivar, the most is ‘Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai, Milkar Chhedo Nayee Ladayee” (Dalits and Muslims are brothers, together let’s wage a new struggle).
From village to village, Dalits took the pledge not to dispose of cow or animal carcasses, not to enter gutters or dispose of human excreta – in short, never to do the demeaning work that the stinking Brahminical caste system has assigned to them.
When the yatra reached Hemal village in Amreli district and we were resting after our meal, I spoke to a young Dalit agricultural worker Ramesh Parmar. He said, “We have to take our own plates and glasses to the fields, because the dominant caste farmers won’t give us food or water in their vessels. Dalits are not allowed into temples in our village. Even in social functions in the village, the dominant castes are served food separately from us. We are made to feel as though we’re not human.”
The Yatra from Ahmedabad to Una covered 350 kilometres, crossing four districts of Ahmedabad, Botad, Amreli, and Gir-Somnath, stopping at many villages where the marchers were welcomed with flowers by young people, children, women and aged folk, who would then join the Yatra for a part of the journey. Activists from the yatra addressed public gatherings at many places. Wherever the RYA and CPI(ML) activists spoke, we told the gathering about the struggles for land, dignity and rights waged by the oppressed in Bihar, with red flags in their hands. We spoke of the need for unity between Left and Ambedkarite movements. Hailing the slogan of Gujarat’s Dalits “Lath lekar jayenge, zameen khaali karayenge”, we spoke about the struggles in Bihar where Dalits and other oppressed people freed ceiling surplus and gair mazarua land and redistributed it – defending it in the face of feudal guns. Dozens of villages like Charugram, Dr Nirmal Gram, and Sona Tola were settled in this manner, where Dalits today live and cultivate fields. Even now, the CPI(ML) MLA from Darauli (Siwan), Satyadev Ram, as well as the RYA National President Amarjit Kushwaha are in jail today because of one such struggle, where Dalits who freed land illegally grabbed by Brahmins and built their homes on it, defended themselves against goons who fired at them in presence of the police.
One question that all are asking is: the Gujarat Government is so eager to give lands to Ambani, Adani and Tata, why not to landless Dalits? Landless Dalits in Gujarat have officially been allotted 1,63,808 acres of land, and there are some 50,000 acres of bhoodan land also, but these are all mostly still under control of the dominant Patel or Darbar castes, and the landless Dalits are yet to get possession of them.
In Gujarat, the conviction rate in Prevention of Atrocity Act cases is six times lower than the national average. The NCRB data of 2014 shows that the national conviction rate is 28.8% - while the conviction rate in Gujarat is an even more pitiful 3.4%. This data shows the true face of the Gujarat model. Impunity is infectious: where crimes against Muslims enjoy open impunity and patronage, where power openly boasts of its crimes, can Dalits expect justice?
After the rally, CPI(ML) PB member Kavita Krishnan and I joined Tushar Parmar and Abhishek Parmar to visit the families of the three Dalit youth of Thangadh village - Pankaj Sumra, 17, Mehul Rathod, 16, and Prakash Parmar, 27 - who had been shot dead by police in 2012. The Dalits of Thangadh had been resisting an attack by the dominant Darbars – but the police fired on the Dalit victims not the aggressors, killing them in cold blood. The post mortem showed bullets to the chest – clearly firing wasn't intended to disperse the crowd but to kill for daring to challenge casteist violence. The families of the victims were on dharna and hunger strike at Gandhinagar, protesting against the closure report filed by the police in the case, and demanding that the report of a one-man enquiry commission, that had been submitted in 2013, be made public immediately.
But Una has truly given the country another ‘Gujarat model’ – a model of Dalit awakening and struggle, of Dalit-Muslim unity, of giving up demeaning work and struggling for land and dignified livelihood instead. This spark is becoming a wildfire, spreading across the country, delivering a body blow to communal fascism.
Jignesh Mevani's Speech At Una
Below are excerpts from Jignesh Mevani’s speech at the Una Azaadi Rally:
Friends, Modi did not open his mouth just like that. When the power of the oppressed and the poor came in full force on to the streets of Ahmedabad and Gujarat, they feared that the same cow-mother’s tail might become a noose for the BJP. So Modi said “if you have to shower bullets, shower them on me, spare the Dalits!” We want to ask Modi — When in Thangadh village of Surendranagar district of Gujarat, in 2012, police gunned down 3 young dalit boys with AK-47s, like terrorists, did you then say “Don’t shower bullets on them, shower bullets on me” at that time ? We will not fall for Hindutva tricks and deceptions any more. That is why we are saying, “Modi, keep the cow’s tail for yourself, give us our land).” Give us land, give us the start-ups you keep talking about – because we won’t do dirty jobs any more.
Many years ago, Babasaheb had asked us to stop removal of dead carcass or cleaning sewers as occupations. Today, this is a struggle for self-respect and dignity. Stand up with me to take the vow:
We, the people from the Dalit community of Gujarat, from the grounds of Una vow, that after today, never in our lives, will not dispose of dead carcasses, will not work in manual scavenging; and instead, place the following demands in front of the government– that every Dalit family in Gujarat be alloted 5-acres of agricultural land each.
If within 30 days – by September 15th - the Gujarat government does not start the process of allotment of agricultural land, then we will start Rail Roko Andolan.
Wherever we have marched, our muslim comrades have welcomed and encouraged us wholeheartedly. Let us give a hand for them!
Friends, it has been a great weakness of the Dalit resistance movement that we did not take along and fight for the Valmiki community when we fought for our liberation. So, in whichever village we went as part of the march, I have been saying that if I had two sisters, I would have been very happy if I one of them could be married to a Valmiki and the other to a Muslim.
Dalits of the world unite! Workers of the world unite! Women of the world unite!
One of the 10 demands we have placed in front of the government is that the 1,20,000 cases under Forest Rights Acts filed by our Adivasi brothers and sisters be resolved.
I have also just learned that the Gujarat government has removed the Consent Clause from the new Land Bill. Which means, agricultural land can now be snatched away from farmers without their consent. Is this acceptable to us? (the gathering responded with a unanimous ‘No!’)
Social Impact Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment requirements have also been removed. The Dalit movement, workers’ and farmers’ movements will join hands in our call for Rail Roko.
Friends if we do Rail Roko, do understand that you might be jailed. Are you ready? (the gathering responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’).
We will fight till we win. Jai Bhim! Inquilab Zindabad!
Oppression of Dalits in Gujarat
In an attempt to understand the roots of Dalit oppression and resistance in Gujarat, the AIPF team interacted with activists of the Navsarjan Trust that been documenting such oppression and raising issues of Dalits for long. The AIPF team also spoke with well-known sociologist Ghanshyam Shah, activist and intellectual Achyut Yagnik, as well as Shalini Randeria, a social anthropologist now based in Vienna, who has extensively researched Dalit communities in Gujarat.
We reproduce some pertinent observations here.
A study by the Navsarjan Trust, titled “Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages”, conducted in Gujarat between 2007-2010, had painstakingly documented evidence of widespread untouchability, tacitly approved and encouraged by the Government, in 98% of the villages. These included untouchability in public health centres, public water facilities, mid-day meals, sitting arrangement in government schools and panchayat offices. Navsarjan activists say that these findings were submitted by them to the government – but the Gujarat Government remained in denial mode. To counter the Navsarjan findings, the Gujarat sponsored a report by the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology University which claimed, based on a study of five villages, that untouchability was no longer an issue in Gujarat!
This denial has practical consequences. Ghanshyam Shah points out that Gujarat ranks fourth in the country in Dalit atrocities – yet the Gujarat government has violated the law that requires a dedicated court to hear atrocity cases; and investigation of such cases by a DSP-level or higher police official; and mandatory twice-a-year meetings of the high-power vigilance and monitoring committee for the implementation of the Act.
Ghanshyam Shah noted that in the Una atrocity, the ‘cow-protectors’ forced a Muslim boy to join them in thrashing the Dalits - to prove that Muslims are anti-beef. It is in this context that the ‘Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai’ slogan raised by the Dalit uprising in Gujarat has such an important resonance. Shah pointed out that in his book ‘Social Harmony’ (Samajik Samrasta), Narendra Modi specifically argued against the ‘Dalit-Muslim Bhai Bhai’ slogan.
Shah observed that while the Patidars (Patels) are landed, the Darbars (descendants of feudal Kshatriya landlords) no longer have that much control over land. But the Darbars’ sense of feudal pride rests on a display of aggression and violence against Dalits.
Shah says that the Patidars have a history of anti-Dalit reaction – which came to the fore in the anti-reservation protests of 1981 and 1985. In 1981, the Patidars began the anti-quota agitation in a medical college. Note far from Ahmedabad, a Dalit who demanded land and wages was hanged in a panchayat office. In 1985 the Patidars’ anti-quota agitation against targeted Dalits. But even in the 1980s, there had been attempts to communalise and incite Dalits – who were resisting the anti-quota stir - against Muslims.
Shah points out that 10-12% of Dalits in Gujarat have a college education – but the model of jobless growth means that there are no jobs for these youth. The latest round of Patidar agitation that emerged as a demand for reservation (a re-articulation of the earlier openly anti-quota position) also took root in the climate of jobless growth in Gujarat.
Achyut Yagnik said it was especially significant that the Dalit protests and the mass of Dalit participation in the protests had come from rural South Gujarat, especially Saurashtra – fortress of the worst kind of feudalism. Also, that these protests had spread to North Gujarat and even to Modi’s home town.
Yagnik points out that Dalits who are a mere 7% in Gujarat, do not command any political clout. In neighbouring Maharashtra, Dalit poetry had heralded Dalit Panthers. In Gujarat, the Dalit Panthers was formed, and later there were some attempts to publish Dalit writing.
The Patels who were tenant farmers, were the main beneficiaries of land reform in Saurashtra, and emerged as landowners, becoming economically powerful by cultivating cash crops like groundnut and cotton. They later set up SMEs (small and medium industries) on the land. That is why Patidars are resentful not only of jobless growth but also of the Gujarat Government’s wooing of big capital at the cost of SMEs.
The Patidars used to be part of the Congress votebank. When the Congress adopted the KHAM formula – Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim – in 1985 the Patidars were ‘left out’ and this politically influential community supported the BJP.
Yagnik said that the Dalit middle class in Gujarat, till now, had largely aimed at assimilation not assertion. To assert their identity they would join a Hindu sect – the Swaminarayana Sect or the Asaram sect for instance – and this was usually the first step towards assimilation in Hindutva politics. At various places, Dalits had been foot soldiers of the RSS in the communal mobs that attacked Muslims in 2002.
Yagnik said that the ‘division of labourers’ that Ambedkar spoke of is visible even amongst Dalits. Dalits in Gujarat are stratified into seven communities – the unity of these communities in the present movement is most significant. Among Dalits, the ‘Garo’ community are the ones who perform the Brahmins’ tasks within the
Dalit community – such as presiding over weddings. Vankars (weavers) comprise 48% of the Dalits in Gujarat, while Chamars (tanners) comprise 24%, and the remaining 25-27% comprise Bhangis (Valmikis).
Yagnik points out that weavers in several other states are not Dalits – in Gujarat they are counted among Dalits. One possible explanation of this could lie in the fact that the weavers in Gujarat eat the meat of the dead cow. (See Liberation, August 2016 for excerpts from Ambedkar’s treatise ‘The Untouchables - Who Were They And Why They Became Untouchables ?’, on the connections between the dead cow and being Dalit).
Shalini Randeria told us that during her research in rural Gujarat, she found that the weavers and Chamars would drag the carcass of the dead cow, a task that required strength and also skill (to keep the hide undamaged). The skinning would be done by the Chamars. The meat would be divided amongst Dalits in an hierarchy that mirrored or mimicked the varnashrama classification: i.e the top parts of the cow would go to the top-most among Dalits; the lowest parts to the lowest among Dalits, etc. Carcasses of horned and hoofed animals would be disposed of by the Vankars and Chamars, while Valmikis could only dispose of the bodies of lower/lesser animals – dogs, cats etc. In the jajmani system, the Dalit families had feudal ties with the families of the upper castes. The ultimate pollution was reserved for those who dealt with the human dead body. But the younger generation had already begun to give up these traditional occupations due to stigma.
Ranberia said that during her research she was intrigued to come across a large number of words used only by Dalits – words that did not find mention in the Gujarati dictionary at all. These words related to instruments of skinning or tanning, terms to describe specific forms of kinship peculiar to Dalits, and so on.
Socio-Economic Emancipation Vs Modi-RSS 'Social Harmony'
Modi’s book ‘Social Harmony’ – Samajik Samrasta – is an elaboration of the RSS notion of ‘harmony’. In that book, Modi says “Samar nahin, samrasta” – that is, “not war but harmony”. He says, don’t talk of breaking society, talk of reforming distortions in Hindu society and uniting Hindu society. In harnessing Ambedkar to this agenda, he maliciously suppresses Ambedkar’s call to annihilate caste, misrepresenting Ambedkar’s agenda as one of uniting Hindu society.
In this book, one passage is especially relevant in the context of the Una-inspired movement of Dalits that is demanding land. Modi approvingly narrates the story of ‘Vir Meghmaya’ (a Dalit saint of Gujarat, who sacrificed his life to bring water to a cursed stepwell and a parched kingdom. In return, he is said to have demanded that his community of Dalits be allowed to live within the villages rather than in segregated hamlets.) Modi, speaking of Meghmaya’s demands made of the king in exchange for his life, writes, “He demanded the facility of worshipping the Tulsi and the Pipal tree…. We may think of asking for a two-acre plot of land so that our children may be prosperous. Vir Meghmaya did not raise any demand for his personal or material benefit. In fact, he thought about the happiness of the entire society. …it was his thought to integrate the entire Hindu community… The very thought that my community should not get detached from the cultural mainstream which came to Dr Ambedkar in the 20th century, in fact first came to mind of Vir Meghmaya nearly a thousand years ago.”
So Modi is specifically telling Dalits here – you should demand the right to worship what Hindus worship, not demand land and other material benefits! The Dalits of Gujarat don’t seem to be listening, however.
This is a familiar theme with Modi: at the 6th convocation of the Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in January, he praised Ambedkar for suffering humiliation without complaint.
To compare Ambedkar the radical with a Dalit figure who is said to have died to benefit his oppressors, and who bartered his life for his community’s integration with Hindu society, is a travesty. But Modi has no qualms about committing this travesty with Ambedkar’s ideas.
Modi’s book is full of slurs against Muslims: he is telling Dalits to remain within the Hindu fold, not convert to Islam, and he is blaming Islamic ‘invasions’ for the worst of the caste system!
What are Modi’s thoughts on inter-caste marriage? In a speech given in Rajkot in 2004, reproduced in the book ‘Social Harmony’, Modi expounds the rationale for inter-caste marriages in terms that rationalise the caste-based division of labour: “In the past, there used to be the consideration of economics behind sticking to marriages within the same caste. Suppose the daughter of a potter marries a potter, she doesn’t need to learn how to knead the clay.” Why should the potter’s family have had to do the work of making pots down the generations? Why should this occupation be based on birth at all? Why should the daughter of a potter – or the daughter of the priest - not decide who she would like to marry? Modi, rather than asking these questions, gives a spurious economic rationale for the social oppressions of caste and gender. Modi continues, “Things have changed now… It was fine to think about marriages only within the community about 15-20 years ago. But the situation is different today and we must accept the change wholesomely, wholeheartedly.”
Ambedkar advocated inter-caste marriages in his own day, even before India became independent, as did various other groups who were his contemporaries. Yet here we have someone who is today India’s PM, saying that in his opinion, inter-caste marriage was not justified till the 1980s! Needless to say, Modi is silent on inter-faith marriage: in his book on ‘social harmony’, Muslims figure only as enemies and rapists of Hindus. Muslims or Christians are not included in the embrace of ‘social harmony’ as defined by the man who is today India’s PM: for Modi, ‘society’ is Hindu society, India is Hindu India, ‘we’ are always Hindus, ‘they’ are always Muslims.
The ‘we’ in the book also stands for savarna Hindus. It repeatedly exhorts ‘us’ to speak kindly to those who perform menial tasks for us, those who clean ‘our’ homes. There is never a breath to suggest that the Dalits require emancipation from these occupations and equality, not condescension!
The ongoing uprising in Gujarat that is spreading all over India is a slap in the face of this social vision of communal hatred and caste hierarchy masquerading as ‘harmony’.