Dalits hoist flag at Una, but their battle for freedom has just begun
It was a flag hoisting with a difference at the hitherto unknown small town of Una in the southern tip of Saurashtra region of Gujarat, for long flaunted as a 'model' state.
The tricolour here was unfurled this morning by Radhika Vemula, mother of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide in Hyderabad Central University earlier this year following intense mental harassment and intimidation.
This flag hoisting was the culmination of a 10 day long, 350 km march by hundreds of Dalits in protest against the 11 July flogging of a family of four by Hindu Shiv Sena activists who took objection to their skinning of a dead cow.
Since 1947, hoisting of the tricolour had always been accompanied by slogans like Jai Hind and Vande Mataram but on Monday morning Una reverberated with chants of 'Jai Bhim', a slogan used by Dalits in remembrance of Dr B.R. Ambedkar.
Though Vemula's mother did not say anything startling, her composure and determination sent a loud and clear message to the 10,000 strong crowd which gathered to salute the tricolour. However, they weren't celebrating political freedom, rather their battle cry was to seek freedom from caste-based oppression that they are subjected to in Gujarat and elsewhere.
Young lawyer Jignesh Mevani, 35, who led the ten-day long Dalit Asmita Yatra from Ahmedabad under the banner of newly formed Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (UDALS), virtually issued an ultimatum of one month to the government. "Distribute cultivable land to Dalits who would give up the job of lifting dead animals and skinning them," Mevani demanded at the rally amidst chants of "Jai Bhim".
Earlier, during the 350 km march from Ahmedabad to Una that began on 5 August, many Dalits had offered their support to the uprising by pledging to give up the skinning cows and cleaning the sewerage pipelines - jobs they had been forced to do because of the caste-based system and sheer poverty.
Speaking to Catch while leaving Una after the Independence Day celebrations, Jignesh Mevani said that five acres of land should be given to each Dalit family so that they can start an alternative livelihood.
He announced that if the Dalits' demands are not met by 15 September, a new agitation 'Rail Roko, Jail Bharo' would be launched.
It is too early to predict whether the Dalit uprising actually leads to the blocking of rail tracks and filling up jails, but young Jignesh already has the foresight to broaden the agitation to include in its ambit the farmers likely to the affected by the newly amended land acquisition legislation which recently received the President's nod.
Removal of the clauses concerning the consent of farmers and the social impact would affect many farmers, said Jignesh, adding that the Dalits's agitation sparked off by the Una flogging incident would soon link up with the cause of the farmers to be affected by the new land acquisition law.
Yet another takeaway from the ten-day march is the reforging of the unity between Dalits and Muslims, a poverty-generated bonhomie that was systematically ruptured by the Sangh Parivar's manoeuvres in the run-up to the 2002 riots.
"Re-emergence of the Dalit-Muslim unity in Gujarat is one of the major achievements of the 350-kilometre march during which hundreds of Muslims joined en route", said lawyer-activist Samshad Pathan of Jan Sangharsh Manch who also joined the march.
But even as the marchers are dispersing after their historic rally through different routes, the Dalits are fearing attacks from upper caste groups - cow vigilantes or otherwise.
At a time when President Pranab Mukherjee appealed for compassion towards weaker sections in his address to the nation, the Dalit marchers could not even exercise their freedom to protest against the atrocities they had suffered.
A crowd of 300-400 crowd put up road blocks at Samter village in the route of the Dalit Asmita Yatra. This was because some young men from there were arrested for the 11 July flogging of the Dalit family.
To give the devil its due, the police didn't connive with vigilantes, rather they escorted the Dalit rallyists through an alternate route towards Una where they stayed for the night.
Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the patriarch of the tormented Dalit family, Balu Sarvaiya also addressed the gathering under heavy security.
Late evening, there were reports of stone pelting on the dispersing participants of the Dalit Asmita Yatra.
Some vehicles of the Dalit marchers returning from Una were damaged and three people were admitted to a hospital with injuries, a yatra participant Mujhid Nafees informed.