It was a defiantly different Independence day for fifteen thousand Dalits in Gujarat, as they smashed fists in the August air swearing never to lift cow carcasses, never to listen to the diktat of the upper castes, and to free themselves of what they called the tyranny of the Hindu revivalist Modi government.
As Prime Minister Modi made his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, fifteen thousand Dalits in the dirty town of Una in South Gujarat were shouting, “Modi sarkar down down! Gujarat model down down.”
This was ground zero – the place where four Dalits were publicly skinned by upper caste cow vigilantes for carrying a cow carcass.
In response, an umbrella of Dalit and human rights groups, the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti, gave a clarion call for rebellion to Dalits to march towards Una from Ahmedabad for ten days. And then converge at ground zero to take a pledge of solidarity against atrocities on 15 August. In the morning, the atmosphere in Una was dank and pregnant with the fear of what was to come.
How many thousands would turn up? Will the blockades leading upto D day by Darbari upper castes lead to violence? All along the ten-day march Dalits were outnumbered by the police.
Now on the penultimate day of the ‘Mahasammelan,’ the town, flanked by a few thousand policemen, looked like it was ready for war. In the land that voted Narendra Modi to power thrice, that had showcased to the rest of India how the Gujarat model of Modi’s making needs to be copy-pasted everywhere, the most trampled upon, powerless set of people were kicking this image in its face.
On this crucial day, when it counted most, Gita Solanki who wanted so badly to be there, couldn’t make it.
70 kilometres from Una, in her village, Rajula, her smile stiffened as she pointed squarely at the guilty party – her husband.
“He ditched me at the last minute,” she said menacingly.
He dared not say a word. He had promised to take his feisty social worker wife to the Dalit rising. She had already walked part of the Dalit march in the run up to D day. And even made her first public speech. At the nth minute, in true Shakespearean fashion, the ominous clouds of caste violence hovered over the Dalit rising until it descended, full-throttle, just as Gita’s husband feared, as soon as the rally was over. The new rising star on the Dalit-scape who occupied centre stage – Jignesh Mevani had ended the rally with a further call to action and defiance.
“Are you ready to go to jail?” he asked an excited sea of faces. “Yes!” was the unanimous emotional outburst.
Well then, we have to move to the next step...we need land...this government is sitting on land that has historically been snatched from the Dalits...Now we will stop all trains from entering Gujarat as a way of building up the pressure against this upper caste government... Jai Bhim!Jignesh Mevani
Outside the venue, upper castes had blocked a part of the highway and had begun to pelt cars with Dalit icon Ambedkar on it with stones and sticks. By the evening, an online investigative portal, Narada News reported that the Una Civil hospital had 22 injured people from the rising; 10 were Dalits, 4 were policemen, beaten by upper caste Darbaris when they dared to clear the roads the Darbaris had blocked.
What was even more worrying for Gita was the fact that even as a tidal wave of Dalits had descended on Una town as a gigantic challenge to the upper castes, a baffling but familiar paralysis followed. She kept hearing of fellow Dalits being injured. But the Inspector General of Police Range for the district, Junagarh, Brijesh Jha said there was no such thing.
Only policemen and Darbaris have been injured. The media reports that Dalits are injured are biased. They’re behaving more like activists, less like journalists.Brijesh Jha, Inspector General of Police Range, Junagarh
What was fact, what was fiction? Everything disappeared into the evening air to re-enforce what Gita had experienced all her life.
It gave her a unique way of seeing and acting. It had allowed her to be one of only five people in her village to have confronted her fear of the upper castes head on and join the march when it first snaked its way through her village.
“I can’t do a whole lot, but I can at least do my bit here, by being there with all of you in solidarity,” she had said, in her first public address to a maidan full of strangers.
Face flushed once she got off the mike, the only Dalit woman to have spoken out, she quickly asked, “How was I? I’ve never spoken in public before.”
And then she regained her usual nonchalance, a practiced and calibrated stance. Unlike her emotionally over-powered and awestruck friend, Jaya who said the Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani is her new god, Gita had been there, done that.
“I am waiting and watching this space. I think he’s quite a character, this Jignesh,” she said grinning because of the effect she knew this nonchalance would have.
She didn’t want to be overawed by anyone, to be saved from her plight. She had already grown up saving herself from everything. From the time she was a little girl and told to get out of the temple (“you untouchable”), to a month ago when people cleaning her street stopped by her house for a drink of water.
They were non-Dalits, two were even upper caste and so I said to them, sorry, this is the house of a Dalit and I will not allow you to pollute yourself so I will not give you water.Gita Solanki
She had fought with her husband to do a Masters’ in social work after her marriage and two children, leaving him and her mother to care for the kids whilst she was out taking exams and gathering field reports for her thesis.
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I don’t need to give up my religion to be a good Dalit. I joined the rally for solidarity but if I had gone to the Mahasammelan, I would not have taken the mass pledge to give up skinning cows. Trading in cowskin is a professional calling some Dalits have and no one can take that right away. If Jignesh Mevani wants us to take a pledge he should first see to it that we get the five acres of land he wants us to agitate for. I’m not making any pledges till I see that land first.Gita Solanki
It’s a sophisticated point that Gita was making. Away from the rousing applause from the maidan, she instinctively peeled back layers that Dalit activist Martin Macwan also identified, sitting quietly, but in qualified solidarity at the maidan.
He fought long and hard to get Dalits 6,000 acres of common land in the 1980s. It was a bitter, violent struggle in which four of his colleagues were killed in a gunfight.
I believe that to raise consciousness, you have to have a very slow process of consensus building. Right now people are angry, so they will gather. But when the emotions subside, the question is, which land (is this movement going to demand of the government) under what law? I think it’s very positive to capture the anger, but how do you channelize that -for instance I don’t agree with the call to stop trains.Martin Macwan, Dalit activist
What does this rising mean for Dalits in Gujarat, in India? The answer is a spectrum that is not just Ambedkar blue. Even a cursory glance at the mass of people that turned up in Una shows a happy technicolour of contradictions.
Some present were Bahujan Samaj Party loyalists from Punjab, some were supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party. Some had affiliations with groups in Telengana. Others were from Bihar. Some said they had no political convictions at all. Gita summed it up in her own characteristic way.
I will not say whether I am with or against Modi. And I won’t say who I will vote for next either. Whoever delivers something substantial for the Dalits will get my vote. It could be any party; for me that’s not what this rising was about. I think it was simply a call for solidarity.Gita Solanki
And that in the Dalit country is by no means a straight line to walk on.
(The writer is an independent journalist and film-maker, currently based out of Gujarat. She can be reached on her twitter handle @revatilaul .)