Prime Minister Narendra Modi espoused India’s economic and global ambitions from New Delhi’s Red Fort on Monday, but away in his home state thousands of Dalit protesters cited inequalities and said freedom still eluded them.
If the Capital’s gathering was a joyous celebration of a nation’s independence, the Dalit rally in Una was a call for a different kind of freedom --from inequality, social injustice and indignity.
Modi called for social evils to be dealt with “sternly” and said economic progress alone cannot guarantee the survival of a society. But he made no direct mention of the Dalit protests that have wracked Gujarat for weeks; nor did he refer to Una, which has become the ground zero of Dalit discontentment.
“When society breaks, the empire disintegrates. When a society is divided into touchables and untouchables; upper and lower (castes), then such a society cannot last,” he said.
“These evils are centuries-old… The governments and the society will have to work together to pull the society out of this conflict. We together will have to fight these social ills.”
But the political rhetoric found few takers in Una, where some 10,000 people gathered at the culmination of 350-km march to protest last month’s beating of four Dalit men by self-styled cow protectors.
“I feel the only freedom we can get is through death. But… every time I try to make up my mind to commit suicide I get scared,” said Piyush Sarvaiya, whose brother Lalji was burned to death in 2012 by a dominant caste family that disapproved of his love for their daughter.
“The day I get to kill myself is the day I will get freedom.”
More stories of discrimination and violence against the Dalit community tumbled out at Una, where the speakers included Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar.
Lawyer-turned-activist Jignesh Mewani, who is mobilising the Dalits in Gujarat, warned of a rail blockade in a month if the state government didn’t accept their demands that included five acres of land for every member of the community.
The meeting in Una was also attended by Radhika Vemula, mother of PhD student Rohith Vemula whose suicide in January at the University of Hyderabad sparked a nationwide debate on caste discrimination.
“India belongs to all, not one caste or religion,” she said.