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If Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar believes that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi will build a statue of his grandfather taller than the one he proposes to build that of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, he might have to reconsider.
BR Ambedkar, the icon of Dalits not just in Maharashtra but all over the country, ultimately found refuge in Buddhism as the only religion that offers equality and dignity to its practitioners. In Gujarat, however, if a Dalit wishes for better prospects by converting to Buddhism that decision is considered to be taken due to allurement and he is confined and condemned to a miserable existence of discrimination and exploitation all his life.
And, I recall, Ramdas Athawale, years ago, in the wake of an anti-cow slaughter movement in Maharashtra, telling me some home truths about vegetarianism. “Vegetarianism is a rich man’s pursuit. A kilo of daal costs more than Rs. 50. And you have to consume the daal in one go. Beef, on the other hand, is just about Rs. 20 per kilo. You get nourishment from the meat and a kilo of beef lasts at least four days for a family of five. The poor cannot afford to be vegetarian.”
Now for all that I have been shouting from the rooftops about things really not being rosy in Gujarat — I have always insisted the state helps the rich and the super rich at that more than it does the moderately rich or the poor — I was startled to discover that being a non-vegetarian is virtually a crime in Gujarat, inviting hounding and ostracism.
These and other startling facts are part of The Gujarat Promise, a documentary film, made by mass media students led by Bishal Paul under the banner of Little Monk Productions, which is among the most incisive commentaries coming out of Gujarat in recent months. The film is incomplete as yet but when Paul and his interns tried to premiere a raw version for a select gathering at a popular cinema in Bombay last weekend, the management refused to screen the film at the last moment despite having been paid the full fees upfront. There were, of course, references in the documentary to the plight of Muslims in Gujarat and the management took it upon itself to play censor. “It might create trouble. People might object to the film and we do not want any trouble on our premises,” Paul was told. But it is to his enterprise that he still booked a hall nearby and screened it for interested viewers, including a bunch of Modi supporters who, while not disturbing the screening, were extremely critical of the enterprise of these students in bringing, at times with the aid of spy cameras, the truth of Gujarat to the fore and raise serious questions about Modi’s PR machinery that brushes so many facts under the carpet.
The documentary presents chilling facts like lack of healthcare for ordinary Gujaratis, the persecution of Sikh farmers settled in Gujarat — their stories reminded me of Kashmiri Pandits who were terrorised and then driven out of their homes. What is more impressive, though, is the courage of these babes in the woods in not just exposing the truth of Gujarat but withstanding the pressures and bullying by vested interests unlike many of us veterans in the media. But even more, they have so quickly and in such a short time been able to put their finger on the pulse — that Gujarat today is just a rich man’s paradise and that you have no right to be anything but a Hindu, and an upper caste one, in Modi’s Gujarat today.
Moreover, as swathes of agricultural land in Gujarat succumb to industrialisation, one of the protagonists tells the filmmaker that people — and their dogs — are turning red and green “not because they are either Communist or Muslim” but because the water is full of chemicals and people consuming that water are taking on the hues of those industrial wastes.
“Gujarat is a chemical state,” he says. I could not have put it better. He meant it literally but that is true of everything in Gujarat. It is no place for an ordinary human being today.