Current Public Administration Magazine (April - 2016) - A Journey for Liberty

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Social Development

A Journey for Liberty

‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Azadi, Azadi’ are the two signature slogans of the Dalit Asmita Yatra from Ahmedabad to Una that culminated in a massive rally on August 15.

There were several unique features of this yatra. It was spontaneous, with a publicly stated non-violent approach. It had no political affiliation. Ordinary people supported it in large numbers, with meetings held in villages en route where local participation was spontaneous. There were no celebrity leaders or speakers. Undertaken on a shoestring budget, it had several groups coming together — trade unions, Dalit Sangharsh Samitis, workers’ unions, youth groups and individuals. Participants came from all over India and Dalit leaders from Punjab, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana joined in.

The yatra was an immediate response to recent repeated attacks on Dalits. In Rajula, a Dalit man and his non-Dalit wife were killed. In another village, a Dalit boy was burnt alive. On July 11, four Dalit youth were stripped, tied to a car and beaten for hours in public in front of the Una police chowki for allegedly skinning a cow. The public outrage ultimately led to a rare speech by the Prime Minister on the issue. Over 30 Dalits either committed suicide or attempted it. Buses were stoned and the Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation cancelled services to the region.

On the revolutionary road

The government did not leave anything to chance. A couple of buses with State Reserve Police personnel accompanied the yatra from Ahmedabad. The yatris were well received in every village by local people. The speeches were remarkably sober with no rabble-rousing. Each meeting had a public pledge that no one would henceforth skin dead cows or other animals. There was a demand for land from the government. A procession was taken around each village. People of other castes watched the yatra with curiosity. The group solidarity was an enormous confidence-booster for the local Dalits. The peaceful, non-violent yatra was all the more remarkable given the background of inhuman and humiliating incidents.

However, another set of discussions took place in private without the mike. The women complained of daily humiliation. They have to take their own glasses for tea as no dhaba will offer them theirs. They cannot dip their vessels in the wells to draw water. If some other woman touches them by mistake, she washes her hands. If their family refuses to skin dead animals, they face the wrath of the local elites. If they perform the skinning, they face the brutality of the gau rakshaks. They live in an atmosphere of fear, they said. They want to be free of discrimination. Are we not human beings like everyone else and doesn’t the same blood flow in our veins, they asked. What stood out was the steady voice they spoke in without anger or resentment. They want simple justice, not revenge.

The younger men are keen to get jobs as many are now educated at least up to high school. The older men want land which not only provides agricultural income but is the one asset that confers social status. None brought up the topic of the atrocities they suffer. They said they do not want to fight with anybody. There was fear among the locals about what would happen after the yatra. Would there be a backlash?

The well-educated leaders of the yatra do not hold the same opinion. They quote Babasaheb Ambedkar and discuss the roots and nuances of the caste system. They want a complete change and say so openly. They don’t agree with Mahatma Gandhi or the communists or the well-meaning urban liberals. However, these are intellectual disagreements and no barrier to working together. The severe exclusion practised against Dalits by Hinduism convinces them that there is no good in the religion. The ordinary Hindu, who may even sympathise with the cause, feels a bit of reform is enough. But the Dalit cannot imagine any good coming from Hinduism. Our society has to find a way of bridging this gulf, the deepest in India, without being patronising. Public apology by the gurus and custodians of Hinduism and a clear denunciation of discrimination, saying it is anti-Hindu, may be a good beginning.

Towards meaningful change

The Dalit leaders of the yatra understand that the so-called ordinary rural local Dalit is not ready for a fight. But they talk of the myriad day-to-day experiences of exclusion and discrimination they live through. One of them challenged an upper-caste man to change his last name to a Dalit one for six months and live in a rural or working class setting. “The expression on the other person’s face changes when you mention your very name. Live with a name like that and then you will understand what it means to be a Dalit.”

In the leaders’ view, change requires a multi-pronged approach that includes material, social and psychological progress. While the first two are heard about, it is revealing to hear of the ‘superiority complex’ of the upper castes that is reflected in the feelings of inferiority among the Dalits. If society looks down on you all the time you cannot develop to your full human potential, they said. They asked a simple question to the well-meaning outsiders: “You come here and give advice that Dalits should be clean, well behaved, study hard and so on. Are Dalits mere objects for reform? But who will clean the prejudice from the minds of the upper castes?”
The atmosphere during the course of the yatra was charged but in a silent way. Once, false rumours spread at night that the yatris were insulting other people. Some roads to Una were blocked. Police intervention was required.

Some important questions remain. Will this Dalit Asmita Yatra mark the beginning of a new set of social changes? Will it spread to other States? Will there be new alignments and a lasting political fallout?

The region in Gujarat from Rajula to Una is isolated. Beyond that you see factories, highway restaurants, elite schools, the ubiquitous cows on excellent highways, and several huge 30-foot trucks transporting industrial goods. But in this stretch you see terrible roads, poor communications, and very little signs of luxury or even prosperity. Locals say feudalism is strong here. The progressive movements in the country and the government will closely watch the developments over the next few months. If the movement generated by the yatra does liberate Dalits in the region and also provides meaningful jobs, there will be a silent bloodless revolution. Success will depend on the long-term staying power of the movement. It needs to remain true to its real purpose of materially, socially and psychologically liberating society from all forms of overt and covert discrimination. The feudal and conservative backlash is likely to be reined in due to electoral politics. Any such backlash will cost the party in power dearly. So the government is likely to do something to prevent it. If the government goes further and gives in to the Dalit demands, the movement will not only succeed but spread to other parts of the country. Real Independence needs all Indians to be truly liberated. How can India be free if Indians are not free?

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