In the last five minutes of his speech at a public meeting in central Gujarat’s Dhanduka tehsil, the voice of Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani becomes shriller.
Around 200 members of the Dalit community form the audience for Mevani, who is leading a 10-day march from Ahmedabad to Una, at a dimly-lit assembly hall of a government school. The 350-km march has been organised to galvanise Dalits to protest the atrocities against the community in the state.
More than half are women and could be seen with their faces covered with the end of their sari.
It is time to give the enthralled audience something they could go home with. “Repeat after me,” says Mevani, convenor of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladai Samiti. “Gaaye nu puchhdu taame rakho, amne amaari jameen aapo (You keep the cow’s tail, give us our land).”
He has hit the core and a deafening sound reverberates across the venue.
In the current wave of Dalit anger that was triggered by the Una incident, protesters in Gujarat have been using puns, jokes and wordplay to signify the distinctive nature of their unrest. They are assertive, inclusive and have concrete demands, indicating a shift from rhetoric and symbolism.
Here are some of the slogans heard at the ongoing march to Una:
1. ‘Gaaye nu puchhdu taame rakho, aamne amaari jameen aapo’ (You keep the cow’s tail, give us our land)
Subodh Parmar of the Samiti, the group leading the foot march, says someone from the crowd came up with this slogan at the Dalit mahasabha in Ahmedabad on July 31.
Cow’s tailis a metaphor for the traditional job that many in the community still follow: Skinning of dead bovines and disposing of carcasses. After the Una incident, Dalits have been taking a pledge to boycott their job and demanding land for alternative livelihoods.
2. ‘Lathh le kar jayenge, jameen khulli karaenge’ (We will go with sticks to get hold of our land)
This is the only slogan that was drafted by Samiti members while planning the July 11 gathering.
Demanding land for Dalit families is a key demand of protesters.
The Samiti and members of the Jan Sangharsh Manch, a civil society organisation, have been working for land rights for Dalits in Gujarat. They have highlighted cases where land has been allotted to the community members on paper but they are either not aware of it or their land was encroached upon.
“We are saying that if upper caste people use violence on a Dalit to ensure that he is unable to use the land that belongs to him, he should retaliate with violence,” Mevani says.
3. ‘Gujarat model fail, fail’
It is a slogan that has been raised in almost all the protests in Gujarat in the last two years.
Since Narendra Modi was anointed as the Prime Minister, his close aides and his PR machinery have been harping about the Gujarat model referring to the governance in the state which had Modi as the chief minister from 2001 to 2014.
Protesters have been questioning the ‘model’ saying it is a failure as it could not ensure the safety of Muslims and Dalit communities. The idea is to convey that atrocities on Dalits are not confined to Una and the trend is widespread across the state.
4. ‘Gaaye jiski maata hai, saand uska baap hai’ (One who considers cow as his mother should treat the bull as his father)
As villagers in Dholka tehsil joined the march, they came up with wordplay that is undoubtedly the most assertive response of the community members to those who consider cow as sacred.
As we tried to find the genesis of this one, we were told that the killing of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri village over rumours that he ate cow meat, prompted a wave of reaction on social media. One of the most viral messages on these social media platforms was to suggest cow sympathisers to establish a mythological connection with the bull.
“It is cultural resistance,” Ahmedabad-based sociologist Ghanshyam Shah, who has closely watched Dalit movements across the country, says.
“Ours is a diverse country. Different sects and communities have different food habits and multiple choices when it comes to worship. Dalits want to express that they are alright with someone worshipping the cow. But it should not be imposed on them as it is not part of their culture,” he adds.
5. ‘Hamein chahiye azadi’ (We want freedom)
Meena Mashal is a Dalit activist from Haryana. She used this slogan as she joined the march on Sunday. Within moments, she drew large crowds of girls and women in the village.
Used mostly by residents in Kashmir, the slogan is a favourite among student leaders in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. In February, the slogan caught the imagination of the country after Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union leader Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested and charged with sedition by Delhi Police for allegedly raising anti-India slogans.
In the backdrop of the Dalit protests in Gujarat, it denotes freedom from casteism.