Numbers matter. And the crowd, or the absence of it, at the playground of a private school in this town on Monday will decide the course of the Dalit unrest in Gujarat.
It is at the grounds of Shah HD High School that the Una Dalit Atyachar Samiti has chosen to end its “march for freedom from indignity ”, coinciding it with India’s 70th Independence Day.
Launched early this month, the Dalit Asmita March (Dalits’ March for Pride) has attracted members of desperate groups working for the rights of the scheduled castes and backward communities from across the state.
The flogging of five Dalit men by cow vigilantes in this town for skinning a dead animal has come to symbolise the atrocities heaped on the community in the name of caste and has emerged as a rallying point for the young among the community.
There are no big names to pull crowds, resources are scarce but the goal is clear – freedom from discrimination and a life of dignity.
The videos -- there are more than one -- of flogging and gloating by the so-called cow protectors, most of them upper castes, went viral and sparked state-wide protests. But, the anger has been building for some time.
The young and the restless
Young and the educated Dalits have been at work for a while to spread awareness and harness the discontent. The suicide of Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula in faraway Hyderabad spurred them to come together.
Vemula hanged himself on January 17 alleging caste discrimination, leading to weeks of protests. Rohit’s mother, Radhika Vemula, is expected at Monday’s rally.
Local youth started networking – on and offline -- to prevent a Vemula. Many of those leading the protest hold good jobs and are well educated.
Subodh Parmar, a core committee member of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti, has an M Pharm degree and is studying law. Parmar and his friends even launched the Gujarat Ambedkar student association wing on the lines of the one in Hyderabad.
Last year’s Patel quota stir, which conflicts with Dalit interests, has been an inspiration. “When the government can hold talks with them, why not with us?” is what many protesters ask.
The Una flogging has forced many like Parmar to look back. Parmar, who now lives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, has not forgotten how it was growing up as a Dalit child in a village in Mehsana district that fronted India’s “milk revolution”.
“No one aspires to be a cow-skinner. It is imposed upon us by the caste system. But now we are thrashed even for that. If we don’t act now, we will be encouraging our suppressors,” he said.
Most are comfortable with the Gandhian way but haven’t ruled out a hardened approach. Parmar and others will on Monday set a deadline for the government to meet their 10 demands. Failing which, they plan to stop trains.
The community has rallied behind its young representatives -- they have given a voice to it. But there are questions that Parmar and others like him face when they stop for rallies in villages. “Sarkar kuchh degi kya?” (Will the government give us something?)”
An uneasy silence prevails in Mota Samadhilaya, a nondescript village of around 2,500 small brick and mortar houses off the Somnath highway.
Last few weeks have been busy. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and four-time former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati are among the VIPs who have come calling.
Mota Samadhilaya is home to the five men targeted by the cow vigilantes. Balubhai Sarvaiyya has been forced to rent and pitch a tent outside his house.
He just doesn’t have enough room for the steady stream of visitors coming to see him and his two sons after they were beaten up.
The visitors offer little comfort. “They will not remain quiet. They will kill me whenever they want,” he said, referring to the supporters of the upper-caste men who attacked him. Repeated assurances from villagers, his community and even presence of police have failed to calm his fears.
Four state reserved police personnel guard his house while eight others keep a watch from a cemented platform under a nearby neem tree.
Around eight kilometres from Mota Samadhiyala is Samret village. At least 10 of its men are in prison for the “kaand (episode)”, as villagers describe the incident.
One of them, Ramesh Bhai Jadav, is an auto-rickshaw driver. Sitting on the floor next to the white rickshaw, his mother doesn’t welcome visitors. “Go, go to the jail if you want to talk to him,” she says, refusing to answer any questions.
The villagers, explains Bhavesh Rohil, don’t want to be seen as taking sides. The 22-years-old videographer says, “We are damned if we support a Dalit and damned if we say anything against them.”
Back in Una’s HD high school, there is no such ambiguity. “A lot depends on what happens tomorrow. Let us see,” says Subodh Parmar, finalising the seating arrangement for Monday’s meeting.