On the eve of the 69th Independence Day, Amit Kumar reports from Amreli, Gujarat, where Dalits and Muslims are rallying for independence from extreme Hindu right wing oppression
Yusuf Ghaffar, a man in his 50s, sipped his tea, as he watched a dozen or so young men, all from his village of Rajula, of district Amrel converge at an intersection. One held a framed photo of Babasaheb Ambedkar, the others merely stood, waiting for a cavalcade to arrive in the town. A few metres away from the bunch of excited youth, half a dozen local Muslims stood in proximity, watching in turn these youths. A minute later, the youth holding the photo took a few steps to his left, spoke briefly for a minute to one of the Muslims. The next minute, the Muslims had joined the youth, and with more than 20 in number, the youth’s rally call sounded all too familiar: Jai Bhim, Jai Bhim!
“This is for the rally. Dalit rally,” said Ghaffar. “It is our rally too Bhai,” said Imran, a much younger man, sipping his tea and breaking into a smile.
In Savarkundla, a day before the rally in Rajula, people at the local Mosque had completed their evening prayers and stood waiting eagerly. For Mohammed Salman, a 19 year old student who was visiting home (he studies in Baroda), this was a day he had been waiting for the past week. “It is good they are coming after 6 pm. Otherwise I would have to consider skipping Namaz in order to join the rally,” he said. As the Dalit Asmita rally entered the streets of Savarkundla, a sea of people emerged from the Mosque, merging with the protesters. “Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai!!!” thundered across the town. “Bade maze ki baat hai, Dalit Muslim saath hai” echoed through the dusty town, and it was impossible to not break into a smile upon hearing this.
The brutalities of cow vigilantes, and of Hindu right-wingers, hardly need an introduction for the Muslims. Whether it is in UP, Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, in the the last two years the Muslims have been at the receiving end. But on July 10, as four Dalit men were stripped and paraded by these cow vigilantes in Una, Gujarat for “killing” a cow (the men were skinning a dead cow), the tide turned. The video, recorded and shared by the perpetrators, angered the Dalits to no end; and as they decided to protest, they found an unlikely ally in the Muslim population of Gujarat. In the past, the state government has often tried to pit the two communities against each other to ensure upper caste Hindu dominance.
“We were angry anyway, but never had the courage to protest. They (Dalits) took up the matter, and we joined in because otherwise this issue also would have been brushed under the carpet.” says Ghaffar, who is his 50s. He says this is the first time that he has seen Dalits and Muslims protest together in the state against their common enemy: the BJP and its increasingly vast, extended-and-unruly family. At the last count, this family, the ‘first’ in the family of overzealous patriots included people who want death punishment for cow slaughter to people who believe that putting a layer of cow dung on your cell-phone prevents radiation.
But before we understand why it has taken so long for Dalits and Muslims to come together, it is important to understand how the seeds of mistrust sown by Hindu right-wingers have worked in Gujarat over the past two decades. In 2002 riots, especially in Ahmedabad and Baroda, a number of attacks carried on Muslims was by Dalits. Jayesh Solanki, a member of the Una Dalit Atyachar Ladak Samiti (UDALS) says post the traumatic events in 2002, there was zero trust between these communities even though at least in big cities, they lived as neighbours. “I remember, whenever I used to compare the situation of the Dalits and the Muslims, a number of Dalits would raise objection, saying that they were different, and that they (Dalits) too were also Hindus. The collapse of Ambedkarite politics and ideology, coupled with the strong rise of RSS, meant that these two communities had drifted apart,” he says.
Shamshad Pathan, a member of the Jan Sangharsh Manch and one of the most recognisable faces from the Dalit Asmita Yatra, says that the Una incident has uncovered the mask of Hindu right-wingers. “They have shown that they will spare no one. The brazenness of the attacks, coupled with the video being made, and the lack of police activity, showed the Dalits that there was no difference between them and Muslims. Similar attacks had happened on Muslims across the country, and now Dalits were attacked,” he said. “Calls of ‘Hindu Muslim’ unity assumed Dalits were Hindus”
It was the common thread of being marginalised, attacked and ignored by the state set-ups, that proved to the protesters that if they wish to make their voices heard, they had to garner support from as many people as possible. One of the first things that was decided during the meeting of UDALS that instead of chanting Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai, we will chant Dalit Muslim Bhai Bhai. Solanki explains, “In the past fourteen years, there have been several attempts at ‘Hindu Muslim’ unity by a number of NGOs. However, when you say Hindu Muslim unity, you ignore the basic tenet of caste, and apart from that, it also assumes that Dalits are Hindus. However, we did not want that. We wanted to make it clear that we are Dalits, and that Muslims are our fellow brothers, who have also been systematically marginalised and denied of their rights.”
According to Pathan, the call for Dalit Muslim unity is as much as a social call as a political call. “Dalits are about 8% of the population while Muslims are about 10% of the population. It is only when these two communities combine that their strength becomes visible,” he says. Subodh Parmar, convener of the UDALS and a fiery young leader, says that before Una, such a rally, with Dalits and Muslims marching together and shouting slogans like “Gujarat Model Haaye Haaye” was unimaginable. “You would have been considered a crazy guy if you had suggested this idea. But now, look!” he says, pointing to photographs of Muslims and Dalits holding hands, marching for their rights. “Una has made the impossible come true, but now we must continue on this path and ensure that this alliance, this brotherhood, does not end with the rally. If anything, we need to work harder among the two communities,” he says.
This story first appeared on twocircles.net