Land Question Returns

Dalit Uprising and After

Subhash Gatade

There are moments in the trajectory of any authoritarian / fascist / rightwing project where one of its closely guarded secrets suddenly tumbles out in the open and then it becomes difficult for it to fix it. The Hindulva brigade today finds itself in a similar situation—thanks to the dalit upsurge in Gujarat which is still unfolding.

The historic march to Una town of Saurashtra region—under the banner of Una Atyachar Ladat Samiti might be over; thousands and thousands of dalits who had gathered there from different parts of the state and outside might have returned home but their resolve not to undertake the despicable caste practice of manual scavenging and disposing of cattle carcasses still reverberates all over the state. And their demand before the state government that—by 15th of September—it starts distributing fixed acres of land to each rural dalit family for rehabilitation is reaching far and wide and gathering fresh support.

None from the Hindutva fraternity had ever imagined that in their so-called 'model state" itself, they would be faced with such a challenge which would put their carefully crafted pan Hindu social coalition to test. It was beyond their comprehension that dalits—the most downtrodden section in the Varna hierarchy—who had been slowly roped in down the years in the Hindutva politics and a section amongst them had also become a party to the anti-minority violence in 2002, would one fine morning turn their backs on them and would readily join hands with the 'other' demanding a life of human dignity and putting in jeopardy the very raison detre of the project.

And as can be expected in such a situation, they literally floundered when they were asked to react to this uprising. The multiple voices which emerged from the broader 'Parivar' were an indication of their confusion.

No doubt talking in multiple tongues has always been part of their overall strategy but this time it also demonstrated disorientation in their own ranks. The moot question became whether to uphold the perpetrators—who were following the script—or support the victims. And thus one found the Prime Minister exposing majority of the cow vigilantes as being anti-social elements and asking the home department to prepare a dossier about them and another significant leader of the same 'family' denouncing such characterisation as being 'anti-Hindu'. The confusion was understandable. In fact, it was for the first time in recent times that Hindutva Supremacists are discovering that the more they push one of their key agenda centering around cow politics—which has served them well till date—the more there is possibility that their dream of Hindu Unity would see further fissures. Apart from Dalits, who have come under increasing attack at the hands of overzealous 'cow protectors' and are slowly turning against the 'Parivar' itself, large section of peasant population is peeved over the fact that politics around cow has made their life miserable as they are not able to do away with cattles who have become old or have stopped producing milk.

Everybody knows that there was nothing 'unusual'—as far as deprada-tions unleashed by Hindutva fanatics under the name of cow protection were concerned—about what happened to dalits from Mota Samadhiyala village when they were skinning a dead cow.

One can recollect that such attacks were common even in those days when BJP did not have majority of its own at the centre. A classic example has been killing of five dalits in Dulina (Jhajjar)—hardly fifty kilometre away from the national capital—who were similarly skinning dead cows, by a cow vigilante mob (2003) before Dulina police station itself with leading officers of the police and administration remaining mute witnesses. A leading Hindutva leader (dead sometime back) even 'justified' the killings by citing reference to ancient Hindu sciptures claiming that in 'Puranas cows were more valued than human beings'. The killings definitely led to an outrage, there were few symbolic arrests as well but the commotion died down soon and in fact the perpetrators of this massacre were decorated as 'cow protectors'.

In fact, most such earlier attacks in recent times had been rather more brutal. To name a few, lynching of two young men near Latehar after their brutal torture near Latehar, Jharkhand by cow vigilantes; killing an adolescent near Udhampur who was sleeping in truck by throwing petrol bomb under the suspicion that the truck was carrying beef ; near riot like situation which emerged in Palwal, Haryana because of cow vigilantes attack on a truck carrying meat or the way two transporters were fed cow dung laced with urine when they were found transporting cattles, for sale near Gurgaon. Scan the internet to watch the 'valour' of these fanatics and you will find scores of such criminal attacks on innocents. Videos after videos are available which show how these self proclaimed cow protectors brutalised people for carrying cows from one place to other or because of suspicion that they were carrying beef and how there has been no action against them from the law and order people.

But thrashing of Dalits from Mota Samadhiyala village by cow vigilantes, uploading the video of their 'valour' on social media has proved to be a turning point.

Anybody can see that the Dalit Uprising which the Una incident has triggered has inadvertently or so unearthed the 'well guarded secret' behind this exclucivist project—where it is clear even to a layperson now that for Hindutva, dalits or other marginalised are lesser human beings or the 'other', whatever might be its claims about the great samrasta it uphold? There is a growing realisation that the formal posturing of Hindutva politics, where it is presented / understood in the form of religious imaginaries where minorities- may be Muslim or Christian—are portrayed as the 'other' is one thing but essentially the whole idea of Hindu Rashtra is an attempt to further legitimise the Brahminical project of hegemonising and homogenising of Indian society where secondary position of Dalits has received religious sanction also. An inkling of how they view Dalits and the backwards—when they are talking among themselves—can be had from the recent comments by PM Modi when he spoke at length at a meeting which was attended by 400 top leaders of the BJP, at the end of the 15 day patriotism drive. Newspaper reports narrate that he called on his party to continue playing Nationalism card which is 'central to the BJP's ideology'. Perhaps the most telling comment made by him was the following : "Rashtra vadi tho humare saat hhain, humein Dalit aur pichehde ko saath lana hai". [The nationalists are with us, we need to bring Dalits and backward groups.]

Was it just slip of tongue or an admission of the truth that for Hindutva non-backwards, non-dalits i.e. upper castes have sole claim over nation and dalits as well as backwards to be outside its purview who need to be brought closer.

Perhaps a marker of their continuing indifference or disdain towards the plight of the dalits (forget those bollywood type dialogues where it was declared that 'Shoot Me but Do Not Shoot My Dalit Brothers') could also be gauged from the fact that when the Dalit Upsurge was at its peak in the state, the provocative statement by one of their own MLAs from Telangana who 'justified' the beatings and uploaded a video on facebook did not prompt them to take any action.

Recently Jignesh Mewani, convener of the 'Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti' which is spearheading this upsurge was in the capital to communicate the message of the movement to a broader audience and also garner support for the Rail Roko programme organised by the front from 15th September. He underlined the resolve of the dalits that they are firm in their decision not to clean up other people's dirt, nor to lift carcasses of dead cattles. He told the audience how twenty thousand dalits had gathered in their rally in Ahmedabad and have taken a oath not to undertake any such profession which they have been condemned to do because of Varna hierarchy and are further stigmatised because of that.

Jignesh—who is an advocate and an activist—was referring to Karmayog, a collection of Modi's speeches to trainee IAS officers, brought out by a Gujarat PSU, in which he had said that scavenging was an "experience in spirituality" for the Valmikis (a sub-caste of Dalits).

Explaining the genesis of the movement and why the flogging incident of Dalits by self-proclaimed cow vigilantes affiliated to a Hindutva organisation triggered the uprising he shared details of the lives of deprivation and discrimination and atrocities faced by Dalits under the much talked about Gujarat Model. According to him,
—   there are yearly thousands of cases of atrocities against Dalits every year,
—   atrocities continued in rise during Mr Modi's chief rninistership which lasted for 13 years,
—   there are more than 55,000 dalits who are still engaged in the work of scavenging,
—   one lakh sanitation workers who are still not getting minimum wages,
—   dalit in 119 villages in Gujarat are living under police protection,
—   rate of conviction in cases of Dalit atrocities is merely three percent.

According to him glaring example of denial of justice to Dalits has been the killing of three Dalits by the police with 'AK 47 rifles as if they were terrorists’ in Thangarh in Gujarat in the year 2012 and despite the fact that more than a lakh Dalits demonstrated against these killings there was no action by the government against the accused police personel. Of late Gujarat government has announced an SIT to look into the killings and has also raised compensation for affected families.

When someone in the audience posed a question about availability of land in the state, Jignesh shared figures about availability of land under various schemes and how dominant castes/classes have been in actual possession of such land meant for the exploited and the marginalised. According to him thousands of acres of land with the state which it got during Bhudana andolon has also not been distributed. He also shared lesser known provision about SC-ST sub plan which talks about 'purchase of land for its distribution to the landless' in case of its unavailability. His simple poser which struck a deep chord with the audience was that 'if under the name of Development the state can allocate thousands of acres of land at throwaway prices to the Ambanis, Adanis and the Tatas why dalits should be denied their rightful due'. He also explained how the recent changes undertaken by the state government under the land acquisition act have many 'draconian' provisions inherent in it where the 'consent' clause has been deleted—means if the government wishes to hand over land to the corporates for 'development' work, then it can simply take over the peasant's land supposedly for 'public goods', offer some symbolic compensation and need not seek her/his consent.

To the poser that if Dalits leave their 'traditional profession' which grants them some sort of 'economic security' he quoted Ambedkar who had asked his followers during the historic Mahad Satyagrah (1927) that they should get ready to 'die of hunger' to live a life of dignity but should never undertake such stigmatised professions.

Dalit Uprising in Gujarat and the manner in which it has rattled the state government and has severly impacted the BJP's well laid out plans to consolidate its support base among Dalits has been a whiff of fresh air for every peace and justice loving person in this part of Asia.

What has caught imagination of the people is the key slogan of the movement which says 'Keep Cow's Tail With You, And Give Us Our Land'. It is a single slogan which encapsulates question of caste discrimination as well as communalism and puts forward a positive demand to fight material deprivation which has been an integral part of the sanctified hierarchy of caste.

The emphasis of the movement that Dalits leave the 'stigmatised professions'—which has condemned them to be the lowest position on Varna/Caste hierarchy—and wholehearted participation of thousands and thousands of Dalits in it, the militancy it has added to the Dalit movement has broken a new ground in the dalit movement.

No doubt that there was lot of spontaneity in the movement but the way it moved ahead and has added new edge to dalit assertion could not have been imagined without the young leadership which took charge. Their inclusive approach also helped them rope in activists of other organisations or attract many such people who are opposed to or uncomfortable with Hindutva politics on a common agenda. Inclusiveness of the movement was also evident in the fact that Muslims—who have been put in very miserable condition post 2002 carnage—also joined the Azaadi Kooch to Una. Many welcomed it on the way in large numbers and also travelled to Una in their hundreds for the 15th August independence day rally held there.

A less discussed aspect of this upsurge is the fact that dalits are merely seven per cent of the state's population and have not had a long history of militant movement but despite these limitations the impact of the movement has been phenomenal. Not only it compelled the BJP to change its Chief Minister for mishandling the movement but it also disturbed its dalits outreach plans elsewhere.

Vol. 49, No.12, Sep 25 - Oct 1, 2016