By Rajiv Shah
In an unusual move, the Gujarat government on August 11 agreed for a rally — albeit “silent” — starting at Dalit Shakti Kendra (DSK) in Nani Devti village, not very far from the upcoming industrial hub of Sanand in Ahmedabad district, to about 50 km away, Gandhinagar, the state capital. The decision for allowing the rally was especially surprising, because the state government, of late, has been found to be averse to giving permission for rallies and meetings which may embarrass the powers that be.
The order allowing the rally said that there shouldn’t be slogan shouting of “provocative” nature, nor should there should be any slogans which harm the “reputation” of the authorities. Worse, the order not only did not allow the use of loud speaker, it stated that even songs shouldn’t be sung.
The official permission for the rally came on August 10 evening, just about 16 hours before the rally was scheduled to start at 11 am on August 11. This kept the Dalit leaders who had organized the rally on tenterhooks for several days.
Navsarjan Trust founder Martin Macwan had already told media persons on August 10 afternoon that even if the permission was not given, they would not budge. If they were stopped, it would be the first case of a government seeking to bar someone seeking to highlight the national flag’s significance.
The rally, led by Macwan, began at around 11:30 am at DSK, the Dalit empowerment centre, and was meant to hand over India’s largest-ever national flag, about 125 ft wide and 83.3 ft high, to Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, asking him to fulfill his constitutional obligation of what Dr BR Ambedkar called, annihilating caste. The 125 ft length of the flag signifies 125 years of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary this year.
Along with the national flag, Macwan had decided to hand over a large sized supda — winnowing basket — which is usually made by the Valmiki community, lowest in the Dalit hierarchy, to earn a livelihood in villages. A one line memorandum was placed in the supda, which asked the chief minister to name at least one Gujarat village untouchability free on Independence day.
The permission for the rally and for an appointment with the chief minister was sought by the Navsarjan Trust a week earlier. The letter was addressed to the chief minister’s office and the Director-General of Police, on one hand, and the the Ahmedabad district collectorate and the district police chief, on the other.
The authorities first tried to avoid giving permission for the rally saying the flag and the supda could be handed over to the district authorities, who in turn would send these to the chief minister.
But as Navsarjan Trust activists disagreed, the authorities allowed a “silent” vehicle rally up to Gandhinagar, but were told that, because the chief minister would be “unable to receive the National Flag, it would have to be handed over to the district collector, Gandhinagar”.The silent rally passed through the Gandhi Ashram on August 11 with the participation of hundreds of Dalits from across Gujarat .
The 125 ft long, 83.3 ft high national flag is sq ft, is made of khadi clothe, and has been designed and coloured by 100 DSK students and teachers, who worked on it for 25 days. Khadi clothe was chosen because it is generally woven by Vankars, a Dalit sub-caste.
While the supda and the one-line memorandum were accepted by an official of the Gandhinagar collectorate on behalf of the chief minister, it politely declined to take the national flag saying, “We don’t have the necessary facility for preserving such a big flag.”
Pointing towards the importance of the Ashok Chakra, which is 25 ft x 25 ft, in the huge flag, Macwan says, its spokes symbolise the 12 basic principles of Gautam Buddha, one of which pertains to equality. It reminds one of the fact that even 70 years after Independence, untouchability is alive. “We have called our movement Abhadchhed Mukt (Untouchability Free) Bharat: Mission 2047, seeking to end the most despicable practice till the centenary year of India’s Independence,” he says.
The participants in the rally, around 1,500, belonged to 125 talukas of 26 Gujarat districts, who, said the organisers, had come for the rally at their own expense. The decision to prepare the huge flag and hand it over to the chief minister, along with the supda with one liner memorandum, was taken on July 15 at a representative meeting of about 2,000 Dalit rights activists from across India, addressed, among others, by Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dr Ambedkar.
The rally was held following the successful campaign by Macwan and others to prepare a 125 kg soap to be handed over to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whose officials handed over soaps, shampoos and other toiletries to Dalits in Kushinagar May this year, asking them to come clean before meeting him. Taking the 125 kg soap to Lucknow by train, 45 Gujarat Dalits were detained temporarily at Jhansi and the soap was “confiscated” by UP police, leading to a major uproar across India.
The UP government went so far as to ban a UP Dalit activists’ media conference, scheduled at the Lucknow Press Club on July 3 to protest against the detention of 45 Gujarat Dalits. Top activists, including Kuldip Kumar Baudh, Ram Kumar, and SR Darapuri, a former IPS officer, were detained.
Pix: Tathya Macwan