Forgotten in Gujarat politics, Dalits find an audience in Rahul Gandhi
In a move to consolidate the support of Dalits for his party, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has reached out to them promising eradication of untouchability from the minds of Indians when his party comes to power in Gujarat and in India.
This is the first occasion, at least in the last 25 years, that a Congress leader has reached out to Dalits in Gujarat. The dalits as a class have been politically ignored by the main political parties in the state because they constitute just seven per cent of the total electorate and are widely scattered. Rahul reaching out to them is of political significance because even if the dalits do not matter much in Gujarat, the message will resonate in other states.
Rahul addressed the community members at the Dalit Shakti Kendra in Sanand near Ahmedabad where he made a political statement by accepting the country’s largest national flag that the Dalits had presented to Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani in August this year asking him to declare at least one village in the state untouchability-free. The flag had been returned to them with the government telling them that it would receive the flag for keeping it when it had space for the same.
This hand-woven tricolour is 125 feet long, 83.3 feet wide and weighs 240 kg. It was made by 100 Dalit workers and trainees of the Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) and the Navsarjan Trust, whose foreign exchange license was canceled after its support to the Dalit Asmita Yatra last year that was organised to protest against the public flogging of Dalits in Una by cow vigilantes.
Sanand is an automobile hub where trained Dalits are able to get employment but continue to experience social ostracisation in various forms including not getting accommodation on rent.
Dalit activist Martin Macwan pointed out at the event, “In 90% of villages in Gujarat, Dalits are barred from entering temples. In 54% of the villages they experience discrimination in cooking and serving of mid day meals. In 64% of the villages the elected panches and sarpanches have to sit in separate chairs and have to drink water from separate tumblers.”
Pointing out that the political class has done nothing to address these issues, he posed an uncomfortable question to Rahul asking why the Congress is quiet on these issues. He also aired the dilemma of the Dalits regarding whether reservation or separate electorates would address their concerns because even 89 of Dalit MPs have failed to deliver anything for the community.
Referring to the Supreme Court judgment on compensation of Rs 10 lakh for manhole workers who have died while doing their jobs, he pointed that none of the 154 manhole workers in Gujarat have been paid any compensation till now.
Rahul played up to the gallery accepting the national flag and saying, “Even if I had just an inch of space and this flag was 15 km long and weighed 50,000 kg, I would have taken it. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister and prime minister (Vijay Rupani and Narendra Modi) have no space for the national flag, have no consideration for your blood and sweat. But they have all the space available for five to ten top industrialists of the country.”
He hit out at Modi’s Gujarat Model of Modi underlining successive BJP governments in the state have played into the hands of industrialists by privatising education and healthcare. “They are trying to replicate what they did here across India,” he said.
He further pointed, “When you ask me what the Congress has done for the Dalits, I was in Hyderabad when Rohith Vemula died and I was here when the Una episode happened. Gujarat is changing and Modi, Rupani and Amit Shah (BJP's national president) cannot stop it.”
He also raised the issue of Amit Shah's son Jay Shah having allegedly accumulated huge wealth when the traders were reeling under the impact of demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). He said the people of Gujarat wanted to know how this was done.
Further attacking Modi, Rahul said that the prime minister did not want the winter session of the Parliament till the Gujarat polls because he did not want issues like Jay Shah's wealth accumulation and the Rafale fighter planes deal being raised there.
Social activist Gagan Sethi had also raised the issue of Muslims feeling unsafe in the state at the event. Without naming the community, Rahul said that the Congress would ensure an atmosphere of peace and inclusive development when it came to power.
The Dalits have been up against the BJP over the last few years over the continuing atrocities against them in the state. However, their mobilisation had started with the protests against the Una flogging episode. But at the same time the Dalits continue to been divided among themselves. Perhaps this was the reason why Jignesh Mevani who has emerged as a Dalit youth leader was not visible at the programme in Sanand while the youth leader of Other Backward Castes (OBC) Alpesh Thakore had accompanied Rahul there. While Alpesh had recently joined the Congress, Jignesh has not. However, Jignesh has been saying that the Dalits will not vote for the BJP this time.