The death of Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar, who immolated himself in front of the Patan District Collector’s office in Gujarat, has shaken up the State government as Dalits have taken to the streets across the state and are demanding justice.
The Gujarat government is hard-pressed for a solution to the Dalit issue as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be visiting the city on Monday, 19 February, and no security lapses can be tolerated on account of the Dalit activist’s suicide.
The Activist Who Died for a Cause
Bhanubhai Vankar, a retired revenue clerk, an active Dalit leader, and a member of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (RDAM), reportedly ran from pillar to post to secure the land for Dalits of Dudhka village in Sami Taluka, Patan. Vankar helped them with the documentation process, and even visited Gandhinagar regularly to ensure that their demands are met with at the state capital.
He finally submitted a letter to CM Rupani on 17 January 2018, stating that he, along with Hema Vankar and Rama Chamar, would perform agnisnan (fire bath) if the land is not allotted to Dalits at Dudhka village. Dalits in the village have been demanding for allotment of land for the past three years under a government scheme, and some had even deposited money with the government.
On Friday, the Patan police also filed an FIR against ‘unidentified persons’ in the case. The FIR was filed after Congress MLAs Alpesh Thakor, Shailesh Parmar, Naushad Solanki, Chandansinh Thakor, and Kirit Patel had a meeting with the collector and the SP of Patan.
Declaring it as ‘murder by the government’, members of the RDAM, in a press release on Friday, warned the authorities that if those involved in the ‘murder’ of Vankar were not identified by 4 pm on Saturday, they will ‘block’ the Ahmedabad-Mehsana highway.
Vankar’s family issues a list of demands
After Vankar’s demise on Friday night, his body was moved to Gandhinagar Civil Hospital for a postmortem, where the activist’s family sat in protest outside the hospital and refused to accept his body. Vankar’s family have issued a list of demands to the state government:
· In accordance with the revenue laws across the state, formulate laws under Bhanubhai Vankar Sarkari Padtar Jamin Fadavni Yojana to accord land rights to Dalit families
· Measure each land piece that has been allocated by the government on paper. Remove the illegal encroachment on the land pieces. Land ownership and possession should be actual, and done within a month
· SIT must probe government officials as to why they did not pay heed to Bhanubhai Vankar's threat of self-immolation from 5-15 February, which eventually led to his death. Action must be taken against the people responsible, and appoint an IPS officer to ensure fair probe
· Central government should award Bhanubhai Vankar for his bravery and his fight for Dalit rights. Governor of Gujarat should take necessary steps for this.
· Vankar's brother, who is a school teacher, must get a transfer at a location of his choice so that he can take care of his mother
Dalits Anger Runs Amok in State
After the news of Bhanubhai Vankar’s death broke, Dalits across Gujarat took to the streets to protest against the government apathy. Protestors blocked off the Palanpur highway, Ahmedabad Kutch Highway. Protests were held in Morbi, Mehsana, Patan, and Unjha. The mob took to the streets in Mehsana, blocked the highway to Ahmedabad and torched State Transport buses. Dalits also gathered outside Gandhinagar Civil Hospital where Vankar’s body was brought for a postmortem.
Patidar leader Hardik Patel, Congress MLA Alpesh Thakor, and independent MLA from Vadgam Jignesh Mewani met with Vankar’s family and then spoke to media.
Hardik Patel said, “Today it’s a Dalit, tomorrow it will be a Thakor or a Patidar. The people in power do not care about the woes of the poor. The family of Vankar has clearly stated that till justice is not served, they will not take the body to perform the final rites. I am not here as a Patel supporting Jignesh Mewani and the Dalits for publicity. A man died fighting for the rights of others.”
Alapesh Thakor said, “This is a shameful incident for the entire nation. On the one hand, we have the government handing out land to business tycoons and industrialists, but the poor of the country cannot avail land that is their own. We demand that the government accept the demands made by the family of Bhanubhai Vankar.”
Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani said, “Why are Dalits of Gujarat cornered to such an extent? Here in Gujarat, all that we hear is good governance and development, but where is it? We are here in support of the Vankar family, and would like to see their demands met by the government. I have always been asking this one question since the time of the Una incident – why do Dalits only get land on paper?”
Government Takes a Stand
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani has ordered a probe into the case. The CMO issued a statement on Friday, stating that the government will ensure that once the details of the investigations are out, steps will be taken against those responsible for such an event.
Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel has declared that the government will cover the hospital expenses and that a retired HC judge will be appointed to investigate the matter. The government has also announced Rs 8 lakh ex-gratia to the deceased Vankar’s family.