Thousands of Dalits in Gujarat will start a 10-day march from Ahmedabad to Una on Friday to protest against atrocities against the community in the state.
Organisers said the march called ‘Aazadi Koon’ (March for Freedom) has been planned to galvanise the community and will cover a distance of around 350 km. The march comes after a number of protests by Dalits against upper-caste communities as well as the state government, which they view as unsympathetic to their cause, across Gujarat.
“The foot march with end on August 15 in Una where thousands of Dalits will converge to observe ‘independence’. We want to give the message that we will not tolerate discrimination against the community anymore,” Jignesh Mewani of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladal Samiti, who will lead the march, said.
“During the march, we plan to meet people and make them take an oath that they will not skin animals anymore. We will tell them to demand jobs under Digital India and Skill India initiatives which Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi has been publicising,” Mewani said.
“At the same time, we will make them aware of our key demands and ask them to join us on Una on Independence Day. Never before in Independent India, have Dalits asserted their demands like this.”
Una town in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district has become an epicentre of Dalit protests after the brutal thrashing of four scheduled caste men by alleged cow-protection vigilantes for skinning a dead cow last month.
At least six people have been arrested in connection with the case.
Dalits have staged statewide protests to register their opposition to the incident and raised a number of issues facing the community for decades. “Your mother, you take care of it,” has become the slogan for the protests.
Following the Una incident, several incidents of Dalits attempting suicide in the state have also been reported. A 23-year-old Dalit, who consumed poison during a rally in Rajkot on July 19, died at an Ahmedabad hospital on Sunday.
Around 5,000 Dalits from across the state gathered in Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati area and appealed for unity in the fight against injustice and atrocities on Sunday. They also pledged to stop skinning cattle carcases and cleaning manholes as a mark of protest against the flogging incident and demanded that the government should provide them with alternative livelihood options.
The 10 key demands that the community leaders put before the government include providing them with alternative livelihood options, reservation for Dalits under the reservation act, allotment of land for Dalit families, strong legal framework to fight atrocities against Dalits, ensuring that people from the community do not work as manual scavengers and implementation of Forest Rights Act.
Of India’s 200 million Dalits, 2.3% live in Gujarat and make around 7% of the western 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.
Gujarat has a rising record of atrocities against Dalits. 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.
The massive statewide protests have threatened the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) poll chances in Gujarat as well as other states such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
On Monday, Anandiben Patel stepped down as Gujarat’s first woman chief minister, a decision seen prompted by mounting pressure over her government’s handling of a string of political protests including the Una incident.
A day after, she resigned Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi alleged on Twitter that Narendra Modi’s rule as the chief minister of Gujarat is responsible for the state’s problems. He said the move to sacrifice ‘scapegoat’ Patel will not save the ruling party in the state where elections are due next year.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party is looking to make an electoral foray into Gujarat, said Patel’s offer to resign was the “result of growing popularity” of his AAP.
“BJP is terribly scared,” Kejriwal tweeted soon after Patel made the announcement on Facebook. “The resignation is a victory of AAP’s fight against corruption in the state.”