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Why I refused to be part of Rahul Gandhi's 'tryst' with civil society on Bharat Jodo

By Martin Macwan* 

It is in the context of the current discussion and organizing of the Bharat Jodo Yatra under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi that I write this. I sense from the social media an upturn of delight and a sense of welcome of the idea from certain quarters of intellectuals and educators. I am not averse to the idea.
A month ago, we had started our yatra, Bhim Rudan, with a large brass coin and the cash donation from the community to the tune of about 20,00,000 and more in the form of one-rupee currency coins. There was nothing that the yatra was seeking from Parliament or the Government of India. Rather, it wanted to give the coin and the donation of the common people to strengthen its resolve to abolish untouchability de facto.
It’s a history now how the yatra was prevented from moving ahead on Haryana border with unimaginable strength of armed police force under the direct order from the Ministry of Home affairs.
It took us almost two years to give final shape to the yatra involving several hundred people across various states of India, with many more people joining us en route; the first programme of this campaign was organized in 2017.
The yatra was successful in terms of drawing national attention, thanks to the media and social media, towards the question of persisting untouchability practices. The sad demise of  nine-year-old Dalit boy Indra Meghwal, in the week following the yatra, sparked a fierce protest across the country on untouchability. 
The yatra had covered a distance of about 1000 km in Rajasthan in four days with never-before-seen response from the common people. When the yatra was planned there was skepticism all over: ‘Where is untouchability now?’
What has pained me most is complete silence from the civil society on the yatra even after it drew huge media attention. I believe, the silence was on the issue of untouchability. Gujarat, more than any other state, is full of NGO and civil society organizations with their claims on Dalit upliftment, and yet they maintained silence.
I do not remember receiving a single call, except one, to inquire about the yatra. Is it the fear of losing funds under Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), or is it their hypocritical commitment to the cause of untouchability removal that is keeping them at bay, I wonder.
A few months ago, the issue of Gandhi Ashram renovation and the apprehension of state-sponsored destruction of history and the spirit of Gandhiji and his struggle for Independence was raised, and even a yatra was organized from Maharashtra to Gujarat.
My Gandhian friends called me to inform me that they had added me to the group knowing well I stand for such issues. On their request I worked till early morning to write a lengthy article on the subject. It was well received, because I brought in it the perspective of social justice, including abolition of untouchability, that Gandhiji weaved along the struggle for national Independence.
A few weeks later, when we planned our small agitation demanding removal of the Manu statue from the Rajasthan High Court premises, I found all Gandhian friends, secularists, educators and intellectuals missing.
I had a long email conversation with Gandhian friends from the US cautioning me about the damage this may cause to a few remaining Congress and Congress-supported governments against the rise of the BJP. These people were otherwise warm and friendly to me, as I was among the rarest among Dalit activists who spoke in favour of Gandhiji.
The only person who wrote to me an emotional email was Swami Agnivesh, and it was just four days before his tragic death. He had written to me just before he was to be admitted for a surgery. He had hoped that he would survive the surgery and work along with me to resolve the issue arising out of the Manu statue.
In the aftermath of our yatra, Meira Kumar, former Lok Sabha speaker, came out openly against persisting practices of untouchability. She spoke of her bitter memories of how her father Babu Jagjivan Ram, former deputy Prime Minister, faced caste humiliation for being a Dalit.
I remember the days of the several prep-coms leading to the UN world conference against racism held in Durban in 2001. In one such prep-com held in Tehran, ironically, it was Meira Kumari who led the protest against us on behalf of the Indian government for bringing the caste issue to the world platform. She was not ready then to admit the humiliation that her father had suffered even as the deputy Prime Minister of India.
Our yatra convinced me that the epic struggle of removing untouchability remains the call of Dalits alone
The Indian government, I recall, formed a group of seven Members of Parliament, all Dalits, to oppose us. We succeeded ultimately to include the issue of discrimination based on caste on the agenda of the conference. The government delegation was assisted by some Dalit activists and legal luminaries such as Soli Sorabjee.
True, we too on our side had four ex and current members of Parliament, including Prakash Ambedkar, Ramdas Athwale, Dalit Ezhimalai and Pravin Rashtrapal. While the government delegation stayed in starred hotels, we with little resources stayed in an old school building free of cost and bought second hand utensils to cook our own food.
I did receive an email invite in the names of prominent leaders of civil society to attend the meeting of the proposed Bharat Jodo Yatra, where Rahul Gandhi would interact with civil society leaders. I respectfully declined the invite. I could not stop short of letting my reasons known in the letter. 
I failed to understand how the issue of untouchability was unconnected with the idea of Bharat Jodo. If the Congress government in Rajasthan had no courage to remove a statue from High Court premises which was installed after 26 years of Indian Independence, I wonder, what is the difference between the Congress and the BJP?
I did not expect from Gujarat intellectuals-educators-secularists-civil society leaders-NGO sleuths to physically participate our yatra. They neither donated a one-rupee coin, nor did they write even one post on social media in support of the yatra. My emails and letters to many of these so-called friends and colleagues have not received even an acknowledgement.
The yatra was successful thanks to the support of the most common people, and from people with whom I had little interaction over past few years, those who, in any case, never steal the limelight.
Dr BR Ambedkar, Gandhiji and the pre-Independence generation leaders focused on untouchability removal along with the issue of national Independence. How and why would common persons join the struggle for Independence, if it did not offer even slightest hope to protect their interests?
Applying the same logic to the Bharat Jodo Yatra, in spite of the fact that it is a noble objective, why would Dalits be attracted to it when the people associated with such yatras keep mum to the struggles the Dalits or the Adivasis face in their daily lives.
The Congress was instrumental in bringing about the most revolutionary land reform legislations in independent India in the form of Land Ceiling Act the Tenancy Act. However, in Gujarat the community which benefitted the most from such land reforms was Patidar. A transfer of 3.75 million acres of land in Patidar favour, thanks to the courageous first Congress and Gandhian Chief Minster, Uchchhrangrai Dhebar, ensured Patidar dominance in economic and political spectrum of Gujarat.
An equal amount of land was awaiting transfer to Dalits and Adivasis of the Gujarat part of the Greater Bombay State that was soon to be reorganized as Gujarat. Unfortunately, the Congress political leadership was less than enthusiastic about this. There is reason to understand why Dalits were forced to cling to ‘reservation’ as the sole constitutional protection and the bitterness of Dr Ambedkar towards both Gandhiji and the Congress.
As I remember, the receipt of non-support of the intellectuals in the times of the Durban conference was on semantics and pseudo ideological grounds: caste is not race. Today, in the context of our yatra against untouchability, the silence is complete. The yatra has convinced me that, at the end of the day, the epic struggle of removing untouchability remains the call of the Dalits alone.
After all, what would India’s general population gain with annihilation of caste?
*Founder, Navsarjan Trust and Dalit Shakti Kendra, Gujarat; recipient, Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award, 2000


Dr. Ingole K. S said…
Thank you, I support you and ready to participate whenever you need. जय भीम


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