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Azadi Kooch: Towards a New Grammar of the Dalit Struggle

Anand Teltumbde (tanandraj@gmail.com) is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

Non-Dalits in India would have considered July 2017 to be a month of glory for Dalits in general. A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-zealot and Dalit by caste, Ram Nath Kovind became the 14th President of India. As such, it should have been a non-event, given that the President of the Indian republic is just a ceremonial figurehead. The Constitution-makers enshrined the President’s stature such that the slightest whisper of disapproval against the incumbent government from him/her would create a wave of reaction across the nation.

Non-Dalits in India would have considered July 2017 to be a month of glory for Dalits in general. A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-zealot and Dalit by caste, Ram Nath Kovind became the 14th President of India. As such, it should have been a non-event, given that the President of the Indian republic is just a ceremonial figurehead. The Constitution-makers enshrined the President’s stature such that the slightest whisper of disapproval against the incumbent government from him/her would create a wave of reaction across the nation. Like many other fantastic ideas in the Constitution, this too has remained a chimera. Over the years, the office of the President has been turned into a parking lot for political spent force or a house of puppets in service of the ruling party to live a royal life in the palatial Rashtrapati Bhavan, a standing irony of the Indian republic.

This non-event, however, completely eclipsed a significant event that took place in Modi’s backyard, north Gujarat. It also marked a significant paradox in this country of paradoxes. Dalits had taken a seven-day march demanding azadi (freedom) from the state, ironically headed by a Dalit! The march was organised by the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch in observance of the first anniversary of the Una atrocity. Several non-Dalit activists from across the country also participated. It culminated in the physical possession of land that had been promised to Dalits decades ago, but never given. The march symbolically combined the battle for asmita (dignity) and astitva (existence) to be fought with the weapon of solidarity of the oppressed masses. This, if any, was truly a reason to celebrate July 2017.

The Una Model

Una, a small town in Gir Somnath district of Gujarat, shot to infamy when a video clip of four Dalit youths being mercilessly flogged by upper-caste men went viral on social media. On 11 July 2016, a mob of cow vigilantes entered the house of Balubhai Sarvaiya, a Dalit, in the non-descript village of Mota Samadhiyala, some 25 km away from Una and assaulted seven people: Sarvaiya, his wife Kuvarben and sons Vasram and Ramesh, two relatives Ashok and Bechar, and a neighbour, Devarshi Banu, who had come to the family’s rescue. Later, the mob picked up Ramesh, Vasram, Ashok and Bechar, stripped them, tied them to the rear of their car, and dragged them half-naked to Una, where they were again flogged in front of a police station. They were so confident of their act that they captured the proceedings on video and posted it on social media as an inspiration to others of their ilk. To their misfortune, it went viral albeit inviting criticism not praise, spreading indignation among Dalits and giving rise to a spontaneous protest movement. The culprits were arrested and are presently out on bail. However, the Dalits are still languishing, incapacitated by their wounds.

Up until this point, Una reads like any other caste atrocity. However, it soon changed course. The agitation did not follow the route of lamenting, protesting, or begging for justice from the state, which is routine after each atrocity despite the knowledge that rarely does the perpetrator of a caste atrocity get punished in this country. Protests occur within limits, which, if exceeded, are followed by much harsher atrocities by the state as in Khairlanji and most others (Teltumbde 2010). Such kind of repression by upper castes and self-restraint by Dalits were premised on the weakness of Dalits. Never did the Dalits realise their own strength and respond from that standpoint, the strategic prerequisite in any battle of consequence. The strength of the Dalits lay in what appeared to be their weakness. Their strength lay in that dirty work of dragging and flaying dead cattle itself, for which Balubhai’s family was flogged. The agitation that erupted in the aftermath of Una declared that the Dalits would give up their traditional caste vocations (which according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi [2007: 48–49] gave them an “experience in spirituality”) and in return demanded five acres of land. The encapsulating slogan went as “gayno pucchado tame rakho, ame amari jamin do” (you keep the tail of the cow, (and) give us our land). They threw corpses of dead cattle in the compound of the district collectorate office in Surendranagar, the stink of which shook up the administration into acting on their demand. It immediately undertook measurement and release of 300 acres of land to entitled Dalits. That was the first test of strategy, building the agitators’ confidence to take new steps.

Question of Strategy

Dignity and secure livelihoods are the analogues of Brahminism and capitalism in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s formulation, calling them the dual enemy of Dalits in the 1930s. However, in the contentions with dogmatic communists of his days, the latter got de-emphasised. In the later years of his life, Ambedkar’s experiences led him to realise that his representational logic worked only for a small section of the relatively better-off among urban Dalits and mostly failed to touch the vast majority of rural Dalits. He then suggested to B S Waghmare, a leader of the Marathwada unit of the Scheduled Castes Federation (SCF), to organise a struggle for procuring fallow lands for landless Dalits. Waghmare organised a satyagraha in 1953 in which more than 1,700 Dalits courted arrest. After his death, his lieutenant Dadasaheb Gaikwad led two satyagrahas, the first one in Khandesh–Marathwada region of Maharashtra, in which a large number of communist cadres and leaders took part and went to jail (Teltumbde 2017: 91). Unfortunately, a section of the Republican Party of India’s (RPI) leadership, claiming to be true followers of Ambedkar, castigated Gaikwad as a bedfellow of the communists and split the RPI. Nonetheless, Gaikwad led a second, historic, nationwide land satyagraha in 1964–65, in which hundreds of thousands of people courted arrests over a month. The alarm it created in ruling circles eventually led to the gradual co-optation of these Dalit leaders into the Congress fold, inducing the consequent disintegration of the Dalit movement. With the emergence of the new, educated middle class among Dalits, the livelihood issues of the masses got completely sidetracked in the resultant Dalit discourse.

Except for the Independent Labour Party (ILP) phase in the 1930s, when it was expedient for the 1937 elections, the need for a working-class unity encompassing Dalits has not occupied strategic space in the Dalit movement. The circumstances impelled Ambedkar to dissolve the ILP and form the SCF, but he always yearned for a broader unity of people and thus, declared his intention to float the RPI. Given the uniqueness of caste, with its propensity to split like amoeba and deeply ingrained notion of hierarchy, it can never be the basis for any radical struggle of the downtrodden. Jyotirao Phule’s pioneering effort to conceive a Shudra–Atishudra category or Ambedkar’s lifelong efforts to construct a “Dalit” category including and uniting all the untouchable castes, did not really succeed. The debacle of the Dalit movement and the resurgence of caste identities among Dalits amply testify to this fact. Hankering on caste identities serves ruling class interests and hence, benefits its patrons but fails to benefit the larger masses, who are victims of the caste system. The conclusion is inescapable: Unless Dalits transcend castes and forge a class unity with other marginalised people, their struggle can never reach fruition. Class unity is not necessarily communist, the fond bête noire of the Dalit middle class. Notwithstanding historical mistakes on the part of the early communists, history is testimony to the fact that whenever Dalits and communists have joined hands, the struggles threatened the ruling establishment. Una consciously revived this implicit strategy in attempting to build bridges with other movements.

From Abstract to Concrete

Having set the strategic tone of taking an economic route to dignity, Una Dalit Atyachar Ladat Samiti (Committee to Fight against Una Dalit Atrocity)—an outfit formed to further the Una struggle—organised a Dalit Mahasammelan (grand assembly of Dalits) at Ahmedabad calling for an end of their social discrimination, oppression and political apathy. The victims of Una, Thangadh and many others exposed the ugly face of Modi’s Gujarat, testifying to widespread and deep-rooted untouchability and discrimination rampant in the state. Nearly 20,000 Dalits pledged in the name of Ambedkar that they would give up their dirty caste vocations and instead, demanded jobs and land for rehabilitation. The anger was palpable against not any abstract manuwad or casteist elements, but the politicians, RSS, Bharatiya Janata Party and the state. It was followed by a 10-day-long march from Ahmedabad to Una from 5–15 August 2016. Several Dalits and progressive people from across the country had joined the march and the concluding rally at Una.

A series of actions were planned, some executed and some thwarted by the state. Jignesh Mevani, who emerged as the face of Una, inspired the youth in other states to articulate their own land struggles. Although the struggle, by default, was mainly focused on the immediate issues concerning Dalits, it avoided a sectarian attitude and tried to include other oppressed classes. The changed tone of Una forced the chief minister to resign and the Prime Minister, who scarcely reacts to peoples’ woes, to softly criticise the self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) and shed crocodile tears saying “if you want to beat, beat me but do not beat my Dalit brothers.” The Azadi Kooch held to commemorate one year of the Una struggle resounded the slogan raised in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) two years back, touching upon the issues concerning all oppressed people. It demanded freedom from casteism, mob lynchings, price rise, farmers’ suicides, and exploitation and unemployment of workers. Apart from many noted progressive individuals in the country, Muslims, backward castes and even Patels joined the march. At the end of the march, Dalits took symbolic possession of land from among the 1,63,808 acres that was given to them decades back but continued to be in the possession of the dominant communities.1

Una certainly presents a new grammar of the Dalit struggle rooted in a well-thought-out strategy. It has discarded the abstract cultural argument for dignity and linked it to the livelihood issues of the vast Dalit masses who are being systematically excluded, primarily by the state. It has many challenges, both internal as well as external, but one hopes it will not deflect from its path.

Note

1 I too have participated in a similar action led by a senior Dalit leader Valjibhai Patel in Jordiyali village in Vav taluka of Banaskantha district in 2011, where the Dalit owner, on paper, was a bonded labour on his own land (see Teltumbde 2011).

References

Modi, Narendra (2007): Karamyog, Ahmedabad: Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation.

Teltumbde, Anand (2010): The Persistence of Caste: The Khairlanji Murders and India’s Hidden Apartheid, London: Zed Books.

— (2011): “From the Underbelly of Swarnim Gujarat,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 14, pp 10–11.

— (2017): Dalits: Past, Present and Future, London: Routledge.

Updated On : 4th Aug, 2017

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