Well-known Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, his colleague Hiten Makwana, who leads the safai karmacharis' (sanitation workers') 36-day-old strike in Ahmedabad, along with several of their supporters were detained at the busy Income Tax Circle in Ahmedabad after they tried to resort to Rasta Roko (road block) agitation in favour of their demands.
Police used force to get Jignesh, who was surrounded by tens of safai kamdars in an effort to "protect" him. “Jignesh was picked up, dragged, pushed to the ground, stepped on and shoved into the van”, said an eye-witness, who was standing close by. Around 600 workers, a large number of them women, were detained in batches.
This is the third time that Jignesh was detained over the last few days.
“At one point the police tried to attack the safai kamdars through the windows of the van in which they were pushed. The glass of the window got shattered. On being asked why were they resorting to force, a cop replied, 'Police to marne ke liye hi haina?' (police is there to beat you up, isn't it),” the eye witness said.
The protest took place under the aegis of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, Gujarat Mazdoor Sabha and Jan Sangharsh Manch, and the main demands included their regularization, and provision of basic benefits like health card, provident fund, employees' state insurance and retirement benefits.
Talking to media before being pushed in the police van, Makwana claimed, they intended to sit peacefully at the Income Tax Circle for an hour or so to get the government to take their demands seriously. However, he added, even before many workers reached the circle, the police started threateningly charging towards the workers.
Added a supporter, “Left with no other option, those who were present led by Jignesh started the agitation by lying down on the road. Following this, they were dragged away brutally by the police. But more than four groups of safai kamdars kept the agitation going by continuing to block the road one after the other.”
Earlier on Monday, Makwana, a Valmiki himself and is leading the strike, told an interviewer, “Our demand is to take back the police cases have been lodged against us, and call back the workers who have been fired, without any prejudice.”
“There is failure to realize that the safai karmacharis are putting their own health at risk to help public health, yet they do not get any health benefits.”, he said, adding, “We don’t get the benefit of reservation. We do not get ‘equal work for equal wages’ principle either.”
“Because we are tied to the Valmiki community, the state government is biased against us and we are exploited even in the work we have been doing for generations. We are temporary, despite the rule that all workers, who for five years should be made permanent”, he added.