By Ila Ananya
On 5th August, Dalit men and women gathered at Ahmedabad to begin their march to Una, where Dalit men had been beaten by cow vigilante groups, or gau rakshaks, on 11th July for skinning a dead cow. The subsequent protests, and the march, which is being called the Azaadi Kooch, has brought together Dalits from all over Gujarat, forcing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn gau rakshaks after a long silence, and also say, “If you have a problem, if you feel like attacking someone, attack me, not my Dalit brothers. If you want to shoot anyone, shoot me, not my Dalit brothers.”
Many different groups and individuals are behind the powerful protest. Navsarjan Trust has been a part of these protests, and is frequently cited as one of the largest Dalit organisations in Gujarat, that aims to strengthen the movement for equality from within the community itself.
46-year-old Manjula Pradeep is the Executive Director of Navsarjan Trust. Pradeep, who was the first Dalit woman to join Navsarjan before she became its Executive Director in 2004, first began working in Vadodara, where she focussed on the minimum wages of agricultural labourers. Pradeep has a reputation as a fiery speaker animating the protests in Gujarat. She says it was extremely hard to begin in an organisation that otherwise had only men, and over the years, she has started to organise training programmes for women so that they can also take up leadership roles and be included in Navsarjan’s staff. We spoke to Pradeep about the ongoing protests at Una, and the participation of women in these protests.
Could you tell us a little bit about the protests, and how they began?
The incident happened on 11th July, where four Dalit men were beaten up over allegations of killing cows in Una. On the 15th, I got a message on Facebook with a photo and video of the incident, which I immediately sent to my colleagues. It was shocking and brutal, and I told them to get hold of the FIR that had been filed, and they also did a lot of fact finding about what had happened. I think this was the beginning of talking to and mobilising people on the whole issue. What we tried to do was identify the loopholes in the FIR, and mark out all the sections that hadn’t been covered in it. When I went to the hospital where these men were, the doctors just came and said they were going to discharge them. I kept asking them how they could do that, because the men were still very obviously in trauma, but the superintendent of the hospital told us we had political motives, and that he had made his decision to discharge them.
A few weeks before this, 7 Dalits had been beaten up in Rajula for the same reason, but this wasn’t reported in the police station. There is a lack of awareness among Dalits in villages about their rights: in the name of cows, there are gau rakshaks or cow vigilante groups that are harassing Dalits and Muslims. There are more than 200 cow vigilante groups in Gujarat. What we want to do is get the list of all these places, and then attack all their offices. My colleague has done this in one place. They got 25 to 30 dead cows and threw them in front of the collector’s office. The thing about these protests now, is that they aren’t only limited to few people, it includes all the 32 Dalit sub-castes in Gujarat, including Valmikis, weavers, those who clean toilets. This is the first time everyone has come together. Even Muslims have joined, even though we’ve previously had our differences. It has pushed us to start organising meetings for solidarity, for communal harmony, and to create awareness among Dalit youth. Until now, they have never been given prominence, the Dalit movements were always organised by the elderly village man. Now all their anger and aggression questioning unemployment, the caste system, quotas, everything is coming to the fore.
Did you go to Una?
Yes, we went to Una soon after the men were discharged from the hospital. The first thing we noticed is that everyone has stuck to their occupations for many many years. They are forced to do this menial, dirty work, and the families have all been doing it because they come from the Chamar caste. I think there’s also the sense of their being a conspiracy behind the whole incident, because the Sarpanch of the village, who is the main accused, has not been seen, and the police have done nothing to find him.
What is the situation at the moment?
There’s a march being taken out to Una, which is supposed to end on the 15th of August. I think it’s an important march, and the protestors are not only demanding justice, but also rehabilitation of those involved in manual scavenging. We can’t end this protest by 15th August, we have to keep it going until there is no untouchability. That’s going to be a challenge. At Navsarjan, we are planning to organise regional conferences, or maha sabhas. There will be one in Saurashtra at the end of the month, and in Rajkot, 50,000 Dalit youth and women are expected to attend it. We’ll have another one in north Gujarat, which has been in the hold of the Patels. Anand, which is so called developed because of Amul is also in the hold of the Patels, and we’ll have another maha sabha there. Others will happen in Kheda, Baroda, and Surat. The point of organising these sabhas is to train younger people about their rights, and tell them about amendments to news laws.
While Una was the immediate cause, do you think this has been brewing for some time now?
Of course. There have been so many instances of atrocities against Dalits, and all of these contribute towards the feeling of unrest. In 2012, for instance, we started handling a case where three Dalit men were killed by the police. We’re still demanding justice. There have been so many cases in which Dalit youth have been killed, or Dalit women have been raped. In 2008 we had to deal with this case where a young woman was raped many times by six of her professors, and she came to live with me after we got custody of the girl. Finally the men got life imprisonment. All of this contributes to the feeling of unrest. We are also planning to file a petition with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), to form a team and make a status report of Dalits in Gujarat.
— Truth Of Gujarat (@TruthOfGujarat) August 7, 2016
Can you tell us something about the history of Dalit women protesting in Gujarat? Are there many women protesting this time?
I just came to know that Anandi, a women’s group in Gujarat, is organising protests now. But oh my goodness, I don’t know if you’ve seen the things I’ve put up on Facebook of women protesting. I went with one group near Baroda, and the women were demanding to meet the district collector. There was a point where the women just sat down and started beating their chests saying hai hai.
But when I first joined Navsarjan, there were hardly any women in the movement, with no space for conversation about women. The thing about Dalit women protesting is that even though they assert themselves very strongly, there is no visibility, because in history, only men are recorded. Protests have been compartmentalised into men’s issues and women’s issues, and they can’t protest for each other, and apparently there can’t be any time when they intersect. What I mean is that like in this case, caste and gender issues are not seen as those that intersect. But Dalit women, they don’t wait for consent, they decide their own strategy, and tend to take a wider look into these issues of caste. If they have a problem with something, they always say it, and try to make sure it is known about.
The stories of Dalit women in every village need to come out. They are always protesting issues because they have to fight for drinking water, and experience caste in this way, but it’s never reported. There are cases when Dalit women are complainants, and demand their rights very strongly. I remember a case of a Dalit woman who was gang raped in a village in Gujarat, I think it was in 1998, and still no justice has been given. People started talking about compromise, and out of court settlements, and I remember how angry this woman was, she kept saying, how could you even think about that, what about me, and my rights to my body.
When I joined this work, I was really young, and I was surrounded by men and we had to listen to them. I remember an older campaign that we had started, to end violence against women in Gujarat. We’re making a documentary on it now. There were so many stories in every village that we went to: we have been told of cases where a girl committed suicide after she was gang raped, a story of a tribal woman who was raped and murdered. Every village had these stories.
I think Dalit men also put their anger of being supressed onto women. But I also think that it isn’t just about women participating in protests, but they must also take up leadership roles. There are lots of women involved in Navsarjan, but when you’re part of an organisation, there are also restrictions in terms of what you can do. In my case, my team accepts my leadership. But in terms of the protests themselves, I also feel like our work hasn’t been recognised as much—I’m not even sure who is organising the yatra, but I still think it’s important to go for these things.
The point is, women’s movements in Gujarat are not that extensive. The thing is, when something happens, you need to rush there, organise, protest. There should be a storm.
What kind of role has the media played, and what has the reporting been like?
I don’t know how much reporting is from a feminist perspective. The arguments are mostly focussed on caste, and even though women are involved in this, they aren’t paid much attention. For example, something like manual scavenging is done by 95% women. People might write reports on this, quote percentages, but nobody talks about what it means to be a woman who does manual scavenging. The reporting is only of rape cases when it comes to women—and of course this is necessary—but other stories, like stories of courage, they also need to be talked about. There is so much division that the true picture of any situation is never visible, because as readers also, we seem to want masala. The thing is, that the whole scenario is seen as one in which Dalit women can’t make choices. Gender and caste clashes, and only caste gets prominence, not gender. Ultimately gender is linked to caste also: even a Brahmin woman suffers because of her gender.
Are the demands of women protesters different?
There are no women-related demands, as far as I know. But the thing is, there are so many small protests happening, and there is also no printed material to go through. But the main demand is to put an end to caste-based occupations. The point, I think, is that Dalit women’s stories need to come up.
There are very few women in leadership positions. If you get some kind of leadership role, you should just take it. Don’t wait for someone to come and give it to you, or tell you it’s okay for you to take it. Having said this, I also know what it’s like to be a woman in a leadership role. There are so many challenges, usually from conservative families. When I became the head of Navsarjan in 2004, I felt like I had to prove myself more, that I had to do double of what men did. But in any movement, especially those relating to minorities, we have to ask where the women are. The movement cannot be complete without them.