EPW, Vol. 51, Issue No. 44-45, 05 Nov, 2016
by Anand Teltumbde
For the first time in a long time Dalits have mobilised enmasse for issues concerning their livelihoods. The uprising in Una has shaken the political establishment in Gujarat and has spread to other parts of India as well, including saffronised Udupi in Karnataka.
The Dalit struggle in Gujarat sparked off by the public flogging of a Dalit family by the gau rakshaks has caught the imagination of the Dalits all over the country. By no means is it the first incident of its kind. As for tormenting the Dalits on account of the suspicion of cow killing, a far more horrific incident had taken place on 15 October 2002, the Dussehra day, near Jhajjar in Haryana. A Hindutva mob caught five Dalits who were carrying animal hides to Karnal, near the Duleena police chowki, lynched them, gouged their eyes out, mutilated their bodies and set them on fire. There were more than 47,000 atrocities that were officially recorded in the country the previous year, which yields an average of more than two Dalits murdered and five Dalit women raped every day. The difference the Una protest made was to raise the issue of land which would liberate the Dalits from their traditional humiliating vocations like scavenging and dealing with dead cattle. Another distinction was that it happened in Gujarat which was being flaunted as the model of development created by Narendra Modi over the years. It is this propaganda that hugely contributed to his image as the development man, catapulting him to the top post. Una squarely nailed this lie for the world to see.
The first Una-inspired Dalit agitation erupted somewhat expectedly in Karnataka. It all began with the discussions of Una on social media that led to an impromptu meeting being called at Bengaluru, to which over 300 youth turned up. They decided to enact Chalo Una by taking a march from Bengaluru to Udupi, one of the dens of the Hindutva forces, where in August 2016 one Praveen Poojary, belonging to a backward caste, was beaten to death by 18 Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal activists camouflaged under the banner of Hindu Jagarana Vedike after they found him transporting two cows in a vehicle. Interestingly, 29-year-old Poojary was himself a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member and pleaded with them that he was just transporting the calves for his friend. It, of course, did not matter as he became the victim of the obnoxious cow vigilantism of the Sangh Parivar.
Hindutva South of Vindhyas
Karnataka has been competing well with Gujarat, the acknowledged laboratory of Hindutva, over the last two decades. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Hindutva forces began aggressively claiming possession of Muslim properties, with disputed ownership. On 15 August 1994, Uma Bharti had attempted to fly the national flag in the Hubli Idgah Maidan despite the fact that the issue of its ownership was sub judice. In 1998, they chose the dargah of Baba Budan Giri in the hills of Chikmagalur, a well-known Sufi shrine of great antiquity. It typically represented syncretisation of Shaiva, Vaishnava and Sufi faiths, and so was visited by lakhs of Hindus and Muslims. For centuries the custody of the shrine was with a family of Muslim sajjada nishins (hereditary administrators) who claimed descent to one Syed Shah Tanaluddin Alamgaribi, who had been appointed as the custodian of the shrine during the reign of Adil Shah of Bijapur. The controversy over its ownership arose in the mid-1960s, when the Karnataka Waqf Board notified its custody. It was disputed by the Muzrai department, the commissioner of religious and charitable endowments in charge of Hindu temple trust in the state.
The rounds of the courts did not change the custody of the shrine. From 1990, however, the Hindus began celebrating Dattatreya Jayanti by performing pooja by a Brahmin, which became a three-day affair from 1997. The next year, the Bajrang Dal and the VHP organised five rath yatras that toured various parts of Karnataka, converging at Baba Budan Giri on 1 December 1998. The secular forces comprising left and Dalit activists under Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike resisted it with counter campaign. At the shrine, the rath yatris put up saffron flags and even attempted to install an idol of Ganesha inside the dargah but it was stalled by the police intervention. The controversy paid rich political dividends to the BJP, which came to power in May 2008.
Within months of the ascension of the BJP government there were orchestrated attacks on churches by Bajrang Dal activists. There were incidents of moral policing by right-wing activists who attacked boys and girls for violating their “Hindu” code of behaviour. One could cite innumerable other instances of violence by the Hindutva outfits like Sri Ram Sena of infamous Pramod Muthalik, Hindu Jagaran Vedike, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Sanatan Sanstha, etc. They used bombs (for example, bomb blasts in Hubli court in May 2008) and firearms to create communal tension and ignite riots (Sharma and Sanjana 2010). In 2012, explosives were seized from a car near Brahmavar near Udupi from an activist of a Hindutva outfit. They deliberately committed anti-India or anti-Hindu acts such as hoisting Pakistani flag at Sindagi (Kadkol 2012), and in the Tipu Sultan circle; or defacing a statue of Vivekananda or desecration of a temple to foment communal anger against Muslims. The complicity of the state was stark and naked.
Saffron Udupi Turns Blue
On 4 October 2016, the Chalo Udupi rally, which spontaneously brought together Dalit, minority and left activists, began from Freedom Park in Bengaluru and travelled over the next five days to Udupi, holding meetings and performing programmes against the fascist onslaught of the Hindutva forces at Nelamangala, Kunigal, Channarayapatna, Hassan, Belur and Chikmagalur. As it reached Udupi on 9 October, it was welcomed by a thunder shower. By noon, the rains stopped and people began to trickle into the Ajjarkad ground with their placards and banners. A small stage with a banner of “Chalo Udupi” drenched in rains was wiped clean. By the time the meeting began, the crowd swelled to 10,000 people overwhelming saffron Udupi with its blue flags. The rally expressed its solidarity with the struggles of Gujarati Dalits and the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra which took place in Rajasthan from 18–28 September organised by Dalit women. The entire protest had a dominating imprint of women’s assertion although they were still a minority, just three in a 10-member core committee.
The meeting was attended by Jignesh Mevani, the face of the Una struggle, who exposing the hollowness of much flaunted Gujarat model, recounted how Dalits were the single largest group among the victims after the Muslims and also among those arrested for the 2002 riots. The speeches resounded their slogan of “Food of our choice, land is our right.” Jignesh promised to return to Udupi for a three-point agenda: to ban all gau rakshak groups, to ask the Karnataka government how much revenue land it has given to the Dalits and tribals according to the state land grant rules of 1969, and to enter the maths in Udupi that observed pankti bheda against the Dalits.
After the rally, the incorrigible Hindutva forces, interestingly under the banner of Yuva Brigade (formerly Namo Brigade), named after Narendra Modi, who was forced by the Una Dalit agitation to deliver his famous dialogue “If you want to shoot, shoot me but not my Dalit brothers,” decided to perform a purification programme on 23 October with the tacit support of Vishwesha Tirtha Swami of Paryaya Pejavara Math. Paradoxically named Kanaka Nede, after a Shudra saint Kanaka who having been denied entry to the temple, forced the god Krishna to create a kindi (window) in the wall for him, they claimed the people including Dalits would perform the ceremonial purification. The contradiction was hopeless: on the one hand they accused the march of being a leftist ploy and on the other they performed shuddhi! The Dalit-Damanitara Svabhimani Horata Samiti, the organisers of Chalo Udupi decided to resist it and the resultant tension compelled the police to deny permission and thwart the consequences. However, it is reported that the purification around the math was done on 9 October itself by the Yuva Brigade against which a police complaint was filed by the Samiti.
Paradigm Shift in Dalit Politics
The Dalit movement has taken a turn for the better with Una. The last time Dalits had taken up an issue concerning their livelihood was during 1953–65, when three land satyagrahas happened on prompting from none other than Babasaheb Ambedkar. Towards the end of his life, Ambedkar had realised that all he had done benefited only a small section of the educated Dalits and that he could not do anything for the vast majority of rural Dalit masses. While the first two satyagrahas took place in Maharashtra in 1953 and 1959, the last one was countrywide on an unprecedented scale in which hundreds of thousands of people including women and children courted arrests over a month and created tremors in ruling-class circles. The Congress had responded with its co-optation strategy that ultimately opened the floodgates for opportunist Dalits, leading to eventual decimation of the Dalit movement.
In order to express their anger against and isolate the degenerate Dalit leadership, the Dalits have been spontaneously coming on streets sans leaders in recent decades. It manifested in 1997 in response to gunning down of 10 innocent people in Ramabai Nagar, Mumbai and then significantly, after Khairlanji. But they could not articulate the long-term direction for themselves. Una for the first time has achieved it by going beyond the atrocity that sparked it off. It could transform their weakness that produced their humiliation into their strength. They collectively resolved that they would not perform their caste-ordained vocations like scavenging, dragging dead animals, and flaying cattle skins. They demanded land instead. It has already shaken the citadel of Modi, impelling the state administration to initiate measurement and effect the actual handing over of the plots of land. The Una-inspired Udupi march extended it to “food of our choice,” challenging the obsessive beef ban by fascist governments unleashing food and employment crises for the majority of people. They have all the potential to flower into a widespread anti-fascist movement in the country, which all progressive people in the country should come out of their shell and support.
Kadkol, Pradeepkumar (2012): “Pakistani Flag Hoisting Was a Hindutva Plot to Foment Strife, Police Say,” Hindu, 11 January.
Sharma, Pushp and Sanjana (2010): “Rent a Riot,” Tehelka, Vol 7, No 20, 22 May.
- See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/44-45/margin-speak/fire-una-ignites-saffron-udupi.html