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Dalits vs BJP: Meet the men who made Gujarat's Una march possible

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:47 IST

The march

  • The Dalit march from Ahmedabad to Una has rattled the BJP govt in Gujarat
  • The brain behind the march is former cop Rahul Sharma
  • However, the face being projected is that of young Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani

More in the story

  • How Sharma acted as a whistle-blower
  • Who is Jignesh Mevani?

The Dalit Asmita March from Ahmedabad to Una that is giving sleepless nights to the Hindutva forces, is also leading to emergence of new leaders. While Jignesh Mevani has emerged as the youthful face of the movement, there are others who have been the fulcrum of the initiative.

Former Indian Police Service officer-turned-lawyer Rahul Sharma floated the idea of taking out a march from Ahmedabad to Una in Gir Somnath district. It was the Samadhiyala village of this district that witnessed the shameful act of cow vigilantes flogging Dalit youths who were skinning a dead cow.

Also read: My pain is nothing compared to that of the 2002 riot victims: Former Guj cop Rahul Sharma

Sharma had come up with the proposal of the march at the massive Dalit protest in Ahmedabad on 31 July and said that he would be the first one to register for the event. His proposal was implemented with Mevani as its face, given the fact that the latter has been working tirelessly over the last five years on the issue of Dalit rights.

Sharma made damning revelations about the 2002 riots because of which he was hounded by Modi govt

Sharma had come up with damning revelations about the 2002 Gujarat riots, following which he was targeted by the establishment. In his deposition before the GT Nanavati and KG Shah Commission probing the Godhra train burning and the subsequent communal violence, he had talked about the attack on a Madarsa in Bhavnagar by Hindu rioters where he was posted as the Superintendent of Police. In the subsequent police action, five people were killed. He revealed how over the telephone then home minister Gordhan Zadaphia while appreciating his timely initiative, had said that the ratio of Hindus and Muslims killed in the police action was not appropriate as the number of Hindus killed was more.

He had also handed over the CDs containing the call records of various BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders at the time of the Naroda Patiya and Gulberg Society massacres both to the Commission as well as the one member UC Banerjee committee that had probed the Godhra train burning.

Also read: Marching ahead: Dalits threaten to expose Modi's much promoted Gujarat model

Thereafter he was 'harassed' by the state administration and he eventually quit the Gujarat police in 2014 and started practicing in the Gujarat High Court fighting for the cause of the marginalised. He shot into prominence after he filed a PIL on behalf of former Gujarat DGP Julio Riberio challenging the appointment of PP Pandey as the state DGP as he was an accused in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case. The PIL was recently dismissed by the Gujarat High Court.

Sharma is now among those leading the Dalit march to Una. When asked what gave him the idea of the march, he told Catch, "What will have a greater impact, a rally or a march? The march has a wider reach. We are now going from door to door. Villagers won't have the resources to come and attend a rally away from their homes. A march helps us connect with the people, understand what India is and to understand the state of the people. There is no substitute for it".

He says that the ongoing march is a landmark event in the sense that a beginning has been made to address the concerns of the Dalits who are last in the line when it comes to dispensing justice and social equality. "Change will not come over night but yes a beginning is there. A common man does not understand the terminology of social justice and economic reforms. It is through the demands being made that he understands these things," he underlined.

He said that while the whole movement is being carried out by collective leadership, Mevani is being projected as the leader.

Meet Jignesh Mevani

The youthful Mevani who is in his thirties has become the rallying point. A journalist turned lawyer turned social activist Mevani lives in the Meghaninagar area of Ahmedabad that became infamous for the Gulberg massacre in 2002 in the Chamanpura locality. He has seen communalism and casteism from very close quarters. Over the last five years he has worked relentlessly on causes such as Dalit land rights, filing hundreds of applications under the Right to Information Act (RTI) and carrying out ground level studies.

"He has a good understanding of Karl Marx and Jyotirao Phule. His greatest strength is that he has been groomed by late Mukul Sinha, the activist lawyer who took on Narendra Modi led government on the 2002 Gujarat carnage. It is Mevani's legal battles on Dalit land rights that have compelled the state government to accept its failures before the courts," says social and political observer Sanjay Bhave.

He further said that Mevani also spent some time with the late Gandhian Chunibhai Vaidya which helped him understand the complexities of Dalit issues. He has also fought legal battles against the exploitation of personnel employed with Gujarat Industrial Security Force, sanitation workers and the pension rights of widows.

Also read: When the sants came marchin' in: RSS deploys 70 seers to appease Gujarat Dalits

Mevani's detractors are pointing to his association with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) while this is being contested by his supporters.

"Nowhere has he even mentioned the name of AAP. Throughout the march he has just been talking about Dalit rights," said Sharma.

"There is so much interest in this young man leading the march and delivering excellent speeches that women and children in the villages are coming out just to have a glimpse of him and interact with him," said a media person who accompanied the marchers for two days.

"One of his other great assets is his secular approach which is helpful in associating the Muslims with the Dalits during this march. His deep understanding of issues and oratory is a great asset," said a senior political observer from Ahmedabad.

The marchers have listed five main demands that they raise in every village they halt. The most prominent is giving land to the Dalits so that they can come out of the misery of undertaking vocations like manual scavenging and skinning of dead animals. The second main demand is about justice for the victims of Una flogging.

Besides Una flogging, Dalits are also demanding justice for the 3 men killed in Thanagadh in 2012

The Dalits are also demanding justice in Thangadh incident of 2012 where three youths were killed in police firing. Pankaj Sumra, 16, Mehul Rathod, 17, and Prakash Parmar, 26 were killed in Thangadh town of Surendranagar district in September 2012 when the cops had opened fire, ostensibly to control a clash between two communities. The inquiry report of the home department in this matter is yet to be tabled in the state assembly. It is only after the pressure mounted by the Dalits after the Una incident that the government is reportedly scurrying to give land to the families of the victims.

Another demand being raised by Dalits is the regularisation of sanitation workers in local civic bodies and giving them sixth pay commission benefits.

The last demand being made is about rehabilitation of Dalits in urban localities areas under the Smart City project.

Mevani has particularly been playing up the land rights issue. "Land translates into power. Till when will the Dalits be compelled to do inhuman tasks like skinning of dead animals, cleaning manholes and carrying out manual scavenging," he told Catch.

In the shadows of Mevani is another youth Subodh Parmar who has been making immense efforts in the management of this march. This young boy from Linch village in Mehsana has completed his Masters in Pharmacy and is pursuing a degree in law. "Jignesh is a dynamic leader with lots of experience. He has my complete support," he says.

Also read: Una effect: Dalit rage forces Modi to take Gau Rakshaks by their horns

First published: 10 August 2016, 10:31 IST