The surge in Dalit protests and the Dalit Asmita Yatra in Gujarat (which concluded in Una on August 15) may have taken many by surprise but the reservoir of resentment that fuelled the 10-day march has been filling up for years.
“What happened in Una [the flogging of Dalit men by cow vigilantes on July 11] wasn’t a one-off incident. Such atrocities have been happening for a long time. But finally the community has realised that they have been treated as slaves by caste-Hindus and some sensitisation has happened,” YS Alone, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a strong Dalit voice, told HT. “The public beating of Dalit men in Una was a reminder to the community that they are second-class citizens of the Republic”.
Former bureaucrat and now a social activist Harsh Mander concurs with Alone. In ‘Looking Away’, he writes: “The benefits of social development and economic growth — employment, education, nutrition, health care, clean water, sanitation, housing and social protection — have reached far fewer numbers of historically disadvantaged groups like women, tribal people, Dalits and Muslims than the rest of the population”.
It is not surprising then that the young leader of the Dalit Asmita Yatra, Jignesh Mevani, has been speaking of forging an alliance of the marginalised groups such as Dalits, Muslims, women and tribals.
The 2011 India Human Development Report shows, for instance, that despite the overall decline in India’s poverty rate, the incidence of poverty among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes is higher than the national average by 8.5 percentage points.
It is not just lack of economic well-being that has dogged the marginalised communities: Gujarat’s record of atrocities against Dalits is shameful.
According to a 2010 study by Navsarjan, a non-profit, around 5% of such cases result in acquittal against the national average of 28%. The study covered more than 1,500 villages of Gujarat and recorded various forms of discrimination practised against Dalits.
A demand for land reforms
The Dalit Asmita Yatra was not just a movement for human rights but also a demand for their share of natural resources that can help the community to leave, as Mevani said, the “cow’s tail” and improve their economic fortunes.
“The Gujarat Land Ceilings Act and the Government’s agricultural policy have provisions to apportion 5 acres each of land to Dalit families. This must be done. Immediately... This is a social revolution for Dalit’s economic upliftment [sic],” Mewani told reporters recently.
Agrees Alone: “There has been only cosmetic land reforms in Gujarat. This has pushed the Dalits to menial jobs such as scavenging. Gandhi, Modi have written against scavenging but no one has provided alternate means of employment to them. The idea of all-round transformation of society has just remained an idea; it has always been a political power game”.
Of India’s 200 million Dalits, 2.3% live in Gujarat and make around 7% of the state’s population. More than 80% of the Dalits in Gujarat are daily labourers, the majority of whom work in the agricultural sector. Half of the Scheduled Caste population is landless or owns less than one acre of land.
“One good thing about the movement is that it has forged an alliance between Dalits and tribals,” said activist Ashok Chaudhury. “The government’s plan to link Narmada and Ganga will submerge at least 50,000 tribal villages… the tribals are concerned and angry about this... unsurprisingly they have joined the Dalit movement”. Then there is the issue of Forests Rights Act; its dilution is also upsetting the tribal communities across India.
Last but not the least, what does the movement say about the Gujarat development model?
“It had a very limited agenda from the beginning... now the yatra has exposed Gujarat’s best kept secret,” added Chaudhury.