The yatra is on the move. Starting on August 5 from Ahmedabad, the Azaadi Kooch March (march towards freedom) will cover 350 km to converge at Una where it all began with a video of Dalits being thrashed for skinning the carcass of a dead cow. Neither Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel’s subsequent resignation nor Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belated condemnation of vigilante ‘gau rakshaks’ has made a dent. On Independence Day, if things go as planned, the procession will arrive at and unfurl the tricolour at Una.
The purpose is not to raise the flag as much as it is at ‘giving a message to the government that Dalits will not tolerate any atrocities’ 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani, a former reporter turned activist who is leading the march, told PTI.
Mevani wants alternative economic opportunities for Dalits. At every village the rally passes through, Dalits take an oath to never pick up a carcass again. But the implications of the padyatra go far beyond the borders of Gujarat.
Dalits comprise 16.6% of the total population; in Gujarat it’s 7% and in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, 20.5%. This might explain the uncharacteristic alacrity with which the BJP expelled its vice president Dayashankar Singh for his offensive remarks against BSP chief Mayawati.
The Dalit vote is impossible to ignore. An analysis by India Today magazine finds that the BJP’s Dalit vote share doubled from 12% in 2009 to 24% in 2014. But caste-based violence continues to plague India 69 years after Independence. Article 17 of our Constitution bans the practice of untouchability while the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 provides for strong legal protection. Yet, the data is grim. The National Crime Records Bureau reports a 44% increase in violence against Dalits — up from 32,712 in 2010 to 47,064 in 2014.
Partly this spike is because of better reporting, partly it’s a backlash from upper castes as Dalits grow more assertive. “The upper castes are still stuck in a world where the Dalits and tribals are untouchables,” Kancha Illaiah, director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy told the website IndiaSpend.
But it is not just crime, including routine rape and systemic murder. It is not just the denial of jobs or the persistence of abhorrent practices like manual scavenging. It’s the ingrained and persistent practice of untouchability that grates. A November 2014 survey across 42,000 households across India by the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland found that one in four Indians admitted to practising some form of untouchability.
The focus on cow vigilantes is undoubtedly political. Emboldened by the BJP’s victory of May 2014, thuggish gau rakshak groups have crossed a line that could cost the BJP valuable votes in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab that have sizeable Dalit populations. It could also serve to create a new Dalit-Muslim political alliance that could potentially destabilise this government.
Atrocities against Dalits are hardly new, even if the sense of impunity to the gau rakshaks is. Dalits have been denied entry into temples, access to drinking water and even cremation grounds and beaten for the most minor ‘transgressions’. Beyond the politics lies the far greater moral question of social justice. How does any modern nation tolerate such widespread, blatant apartheid against such significant numbers of its own citizens?
There is one remarkable new difference and it lies in the nature of the protests. What we are witnessing in Gujarat could mark a new beginning of the annihilation of an old order. A new generation of a largely apolitical movement that is savvy on social media and articulate on various platforms, is no longer willing to tolerate the indignities heaped on their parents.
To dump the carcasses of cows outside administrative offices is a dramatic signal that sends an unambiguous message: Dalits can no longer be taken for granted. Patience for injustice is running thin, as it should. “My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote scholar Rohith Vemula in his suicide note. The march to Una aims to reverse that thought. Here’s wishing for its extinction.