By Deepika S
Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, a PhD scholar of linguistics at JNU, is one of many Dalit women from outside Gujarat who travelled to join the Azaadi Kooch march. Sanghapali, a 36-year-old activist, is one of the founder-members of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), and is part of Mukti Labs — a tech collective of Dalit, Adivasi and genderqueer folk. In 2014 she was part of the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra, and has been involved in activism surrounding Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s death at the University of Hyderabad.
We spoke to Sanghapali during her journey to and from Una, the place where four Dalit tanners were attacked by self-appointed ‘gau rakshaks’, and where Azaadi Kooch culminated with a large rally on 15th August. Here are excerpts from phone interviews with her.
Why did you make the journey from Delhi to Gujarat to join the protests?
There are lots of atrocities taking place against Dalits and the voices of people speaking up against it are normally silenced. Very rarely do you find these moments coming up [where it is possible to gather and protest in large numbers] — Rohith Vemula’s death was one.
I’ve been to the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra, and events in Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and several other places where we’ve had to confront the authorities because it’s not a changing scenario [when it comes to the lives of marginalised communities]. Protests like these are the only way to reach out to authorities, and I’m so glad lots of Dalits, Muslims and marginalised people are doing it.
In 2012 and 2014, when I participated in the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra, in which Dalit women were fighting against caste-based sexual violence, I was excited to meet and interact with survivors. As an amateur reporter, I took photographs and have been working in whichever way I can for them, to support them. We know that the mainstream media has been maintaining silence along with the state on issues related to Dalit rights and Dalit atrocities. Hence we took to social media to report and share our stories of suffering and resistance, and that’s when we started the hashtag #DalitWomenFight. Apart from contributing to the movement, I had a lot to learn from it.
I believe I will also get to learn a lot [from the protests in Gujarat].
This yatra is also a message to the self-appointed gau rakshaks and the Hindu fundamentalists that, “we are not four, we are a nation” — a phrase that emerged during the suspension of the five students [including Rohith Vemula] at the University of Hyderabad. It is to warn them that if you attack our brothers and sisters, we will not be silent any more.
Does it feel now like an arrival at a point of no return? That there’s a bubbling sense that discrimination is no longer acceptable and there’s no going back to how things were?
The recent incidents of attacks [by ‘gau rakshaks’] on Dalits are related. It’s an important message to Dalits that they cannot go beyond the lines. They want to rule by exerting their power over us. This is a movement that has to go to all states.
Today’s media covers many things, and there is increasing awareness with the Internet, and tools like WhatsApp and Facebook. But there are many people in remote areas that still need to be reached. The population of Dalits protesting in Gujarat is just a fraction of the total number of Dalits in the country. We need to reach out to each one of them, to everyone who still doesn’t have access to freedom, to people who are still doing the same demeaning jobs they have been before.
We want to educate people about rights, about legislations. We have to create something for the future, and walk with them long into the future.
What was it like to actually be at the Una rally?
We arrived at Una on the 15th around 5.30 am. Police had given permission for the whole rally to be conducted only between 10 and 12 am. People gathered early at the school premises there, shouting Jai Bhim. Around 8.30 am, we reached the actual venue. Radhika Amma and Raja Vemula [the mother and brother of Rohith Vemula], who arrived all the way from Andhra Pradesh, were on the stage. Jignesh Mevani [a lawyer and activist being projected as the ‘face’ of the Gujarat agitation], Kanhaiya Kumar [president of the JNU Students’ Union], Pratik Sinha [of Truth of Gujarat] and Nirjhari Sinha [of the Jan Sangharsh Manch] and Rahul Sharma [a former IPS officer] came after some time, and left immediately after Jignesh and Kanhaiya’s speeches. They did not stay until Radhika’s Amma’s speech ended. Students from Mumbai and Ahmedabad, if I remember right, performed cultural programmes.
There was such a large number of people, and the impact was huge. Everyone seemed charged, asking for justice and concrete solutions such as the end to caste-based professions and land so they wouldn’t have to continue doing the same work. They wanted to hold this moment and move forward, there was lots of hope, and a clear idea of what we were working towards.
After Una, what next?
Jignesh said that if the government doesn’t respond to their demands in 15 days, a rail roko would follow.
I don’t know if this is the right time to say this, but I really believe that the Una protest should have been organised better, from a human perspective of safety. Please, please, please, if you are doing a rail roko, I would request the organisers to please make arrangements for people’s safety.
During the rally, I was on stage speaking briefly as Radhika Amma, who I know personally, asked me to translate what she said for the crowd. After a while, I came down from the stage, because I wanted to record the voices of some of the women in the crowd, but soon after, people began to scatter. People were rushing from there, saying a riot had broken out. I couldn’t leave until I’d made sure that most of the women had left the venue, since Dalit women are usual targets in an attack, and that all my friends were safe. We saw smashed cars and terrified people, and didn’t know what was happening outside Una.
I don’t mean this as a criticism of only this protest, as it’s something that’s missing all over India, but you need to ensure safety for protestors if you are organising an event on such a scale. You need people around to monitor the situation, you need to have measures planned in advance such as having a safe place to retreat to, and what to do in case violence breaks out. When the perpetrators as are able to find out details about our activities such as the route we’ll be taking from the police, we should be able to get this information about them too. Not all policemen are the same — some of them in the lower rungs are from our community too, and might be able to give us this crucial information that might prevent clashes.
In the case of Una, everybody knew there had been threats and even an attack the night before the rally. After the rally, three men on their way back to Bhavnagar were shot in Samter, luckily all seem to have survived. We can’t afford to risk the safety of our brothers and sisters who come out to support us. We’ve lost too many lives already, and we need to strategise better to protect them. We want to fight back, but not at the cost of our brothers and sisters.
Was it exciting to be alongside women leaders at these protests, like Manisha Mashaal and her sister Rajni Mishal from Haryana?
There are lots of reports about Dalit protests, but not enough about women leaders. Very rarely do we find Dalit women in a leadership role. From history we have Savitribai Phule (who was a Bahujan, and has been our icon), Jhalkaribai – but there are only a few. Dalit women are not written about by so-called feminists as inspiration for other women.
Having more women leaders is the change we really need. When girls today see Manjula Pradeep [of Navsarjan Trust] and Manisha, they will get inspiration. The Swabhiman Yatra was a success because it was led by women. Though Dalit women are striving for positions of leadership, there are people who are still trying to [undermine] our leadership.
At Una, Radhika Amma shared the stage with Jignesh and Kanhaiya and Rahul Sharma, but that was also because they didn’t have a choice, as she is an iconic figure and had come all the way from Hyderabad. But they left before her speech ended. Barely any other Dalit women were allowed to speak. At the end, Manisha Mashaal tried to step up to the mic, but one of the men on the stage actually grabbed her hand and tried to pull her back. She had to physically pull herself free to be able to go up and speak.
This raises the question: are people really ready to work under Dalit women’s leadership? Are they giving women enough chances to lead rallies and movements? Will their actions stand in contradiction to what they are saying? One of the prominent leaders at the Una rally has said repeatedly that if he had two sisters, he would marry one off to a Valmiki and the other to a Muslim. I wonder how many of us would find this statement progressive, or exhibiting any perspective on gender. Who is he, or anyone, to decide that for other women, even if they are his sisters?
You mentioned that at the protest, an ‘upper’-caste woman tried to grab Rohith Vemula’s photo from you…
I was holding a large photo of Rohith Vemula while Radhika Amma was hoisting the flag, and one female organiser who was ‘upper’-caste came up to ask me who that was. When I told her, she tried to take the photo from me and pose for photographers with it. It was so funny, I wish I had a video of it to show you. But these were small issues.
I have worked with upper caste people before, and I am not excluding support from those who are truly allies. They should understand the importance of having an autonomous Dalit/Ambedkarite movement, and lend solidarity — not assume leadership. And if they truly want to work to dismantle caste, they have to work on their own communities, because it is they who need to change their casteist mindset, and stop committing atrocities on us.