For the Dalits of Gujarat, Vikas Holds No Meaning
Dalits in Gujarat see hope this elections, with Jignesh Mewani becoming the new voice of the oppressed.
The Quint DAILY
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“We will go with the panja (hand) just as we did every time. Saffron doesn’t stand a chance here,” said 70-year-old Santubhai Vaghela from Anadej village, when asked about who he would vote for in the upcoming Gujarat Assembly elections.
For close to 30 years, Anadej, which falls under the Sanand constituency in the outskirts of Ahmedabad, has voted for the Congress. Anadej is one of the few villages in Gujarat where Dalits comprise the majority of the population and enjoy relatively better living conditions.
It’s not just Dalits from Aandej, most Dalits in the state are in favour of the Congress this time around. The tipping point, as some would say, was last year’s incident in Una when four Dalit youths were publicly flogged for skinning dead cows.
However, unlike the Patidars and the OBCs, the Dalit community has not agitated boisterously and come to the fore demanding their rights. In fact, the last time the Dalits of Gujarat united, they marched to Una under the ‘Chalo Una’ movement.
The Quint assessed the caste dynamics in Gujarat and analysed whether the votes of Dalits’ would make a difference in the electoral outcome.
Divided Dalit Voices
The Dalit community accounts for 7 percent of the population of Gujarat. Nowhere do the Dalits form a majority, even in the 13 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes. In all, there are 31 Dalit sub-castes in Gujarat, and they have never stood united.
“The younger generation of Dalits are unaware of the atrocities that the community faced during the 1980s. We have seen the anti-reservation riots. I even lost close friends in the ensuing violence. For the youth though, the Una incident was a major tipping point,” said Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust, which is based out of Dalit Shakti Kendra in Sanand on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
Macwan has been the voice of Dalits in Gujarat for over 30 years, and around 3,000 villages come under the scope of the Navsarjan Trust. According to him, the Dalits supported the leaders from their own sub-castes, which made it easier for larger parties to divide them.
“I remember this one instance when I joined a Dalit candidate’s election campaign during the Zilla Parishad polls. We visited an upper caste family’s home, where the owner of the house offered us chairs to sit and water to drink. In walks the Dalit candidate from the Opposition party. When he was offered a chair, he humbly refused and sat on the floor. Then he said, ‘Even after I get elected I will sit on the floor where I belong, in your presence. Not like this candidate who thinks he is an equal and can sit on a chair in front of you.’”
Crimes Against Dalits
Macwan has compiled data on the atrocity cases filed by Dalits from 1988 to 2017, and the figures clearly indicate why they are not leaning towards the BJP. Of the 115 crimes committed against Dalits in Gujarat, against which police complaints were filed, 100 cases were filed under the BJP’s rule. Of this, 85 were filed when Narendra Modi was the chief minister.
In fact, 14 cases were filed for two years in a row between 2008-09 and 2009-10.
“After the Una incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an emotional appeal to the Gau Rakshaks not to attack Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection,” Macwan told The Quint at the Dalit Shakti Kendra in Sanand.
“In fact, Modi had said that the government will prepare a dossier of all Gau Rakshaks across the country. But that never saw the light of the day and even the Dalits forgot about it. However, I recently read in a newspaper that some members of the ruling party have written to the PM to withdraw the Gau Rakshak dossier altogether. This means that they remember what the Dalits forgot,” he added.
Equations Change After Una
According to Macwan, the silver lining to the Una flogging incident was that it united the Dalit sub-castes. “The Una incident went viral in a big way, thanks to social media. It also coincided with the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student, in Hyderabad. His death became a huge rallying point for Dalits across India. And then, for the first time, the Dalits of Gujarat congregated in such huge numbers. But eventually, it too fizzled out due to lack of leadership.”
Martin believes that Jignesh is the new voice of Dalits and the political support Mewani has garnered can make a difference. However, in an interview to a local TV channel Mewani said that he is not the only leader of the Dalit movement. even as he contests for the Vadgam seat in Banaskantha district as an independent with Congress support.
Saffron Has Failed Dalits
The sarpanch of Anadej village, Kesabhai Parmar, too voiced the same opinion. “Most of the residents of this village are Dalits and Muslims, and we live amicably. Even during the 2002 riots, none of the Muslims from our village were harmed. Yes, we have our differences, but they are sorted out. We have also witnessed upper castes forcing their power on us, but never on the scale of what happened in Una.”
Lakshmanbhai Makwana, the sarpanch of the neighbouring Chekla village, said, “The sitting MLA (Karamsibhai Virjibhai Patel) was from the Congress and recently moved to the BJP as he was seeking a ticket for his son. Be that as it may, our vote will still go to the Congress. We have always voted for the Congress. And this time, we have Jignesh Mewani who is standing for the Dalit cause. Things are finally changing.”
A BJP candidate will come to your door and say ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ and repeat the same old promises, but will deliver on none once they are in power. They have been in charge for 22 years. But our people are still economically downtrodden and are forced to undertake sanitation jobs because of our caste. Even if someone from the community goes and works in factories, those jobs are temporary and soon we have to find new ways to feed our families.Lakshmanbhai Makwana, sarpanch of Chekla village
Mewani: A New Hope for Dalits?
The Una movement saw the emergence of a new Dalit leader in Gujarat, Jignesh Mewani.
Mewani was instrumental in calling all Dalits to unite after the 2016 incident. With elections around the corner, Mewani is contesting as an Independent candidate from Vadgam constituency, and is wholly supported by the Congress party. He has even received funding from noted author Arundhati Roy.
When The Quint asked Mewani why Dalits are not as organised as the Patidars, he said, “Patidars are socially and economically a well-knit unit and this helps them organise protests and come on the streets regularly. Dalits, on the other hand, are either factory workers or landless labourers struggling for survival, which curtails their freedom to protest.”
After Una, however, many protests have been organised by Dalits, Mevani said. “For example, the protests for land reforms and improving working condition of sanitation workers. And these movements are not being called by one leader, instead by many leaders. As long as the voices of Dalits are reaching the administration, it doesn’t matter who leads Dalits. We are working on synchronising these movements.”
When asked how he plans to represent the community that comprises only seven percent of the population of the state, Mewani said, “I am here to raise the right kind of questions in the Assembly. Even though Dalits only comprise seven percent, the Dalits’ movement must cut across class lines in society. I will collaborate with the working class, Muslims, and the tribal community, and work for their development as well. The elections to me are an exercise to create a space for myself and the voices I represent in the Assembly. I will soon float a political party.”
Although the PAAS, OBC Ekta Manch, and Jignesh Mewani stand together, there is every chance that the caste issue could sour the alliance when it’s raised in the Assembly.
“Yes, there are difference in opinions when it comes to the reservation equation between Dalits and OBCs, OBCs and Patels, and Patels and Dalits. But today, these three movements and its leaders are here to give the fascist BJP regime a fitting response – that the vikas model that BJP has been harping on about has never helped anyone here. I am openly agreeing to the fact that there are differences in opinions when it comes to addressing the reservation issue, but at the same time, I know for a fact that these differences will be resolved through meaningful dialogue. Our priority is to end the saffron regime that has brought the economically backward communities of Gujarat to its knees,” Mevani said.
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