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Denying dissent democratic space in Gujarat: 'sad narrative of eroding ethical values'

By Sandeep Pandey* 

A padyatra (foot march) was to be taken out between 26 September and 4 October, 2022 from Randhikpur village in Dahod district of Gujarat to Ahmedabad to apologise to Bilkis Bano. Randhikpur is Bilkis Bano’s village. In 2002 Gujarat communal violence she was gang raped, her 3 years old daughter, another child in womb and a total of 14 family members were killed. 11 people were convicted and sentenced for life in 2008.
However, on 15 August, 2022 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a speech from Red Fort appealing to people to change their attitude towards women and treat them with respect, a district level committee of Panchmahal decided to release the 11 rapists and murderers. A Bhartiya Janata Party leader described four of these criminals as virtuous Brahmins.
Before the padyatra could begin from Randhikpur, on 25 September night, 7 activists were picked up from Godhra corporator Hanif Kalandar’s house where they had gone for dinner. The detainee included Tanushree Gangopadhyay, D Gopalakrishna, Nitesh Gangaramani, Kausharli Saiyed, Noorjahan Dewan, Hanif Kalandar and myself.
A crowd had gathered outside Hanif’s house as the police were taking away the detainees in their vehicles. Crowd became more restless as Hanif and Noorjahan were continuously raising slogans demanding justice for Bilkis Bano. It followed the vehicles to police station. The only wise decision of police that night was to let Hanif and two ladies go back to his house otherwise the volatile situation could have become worse.
Rest of the detainees and another Dalit activist Advocate Narendra Parmar was picked up from outside his house were taken to Kankanpur police station, 15 kms outside Godhra. The detainees were kept for the night at police station.
I started a fast as penance for what was done to Bilkis. If the convicts and the government don’t feel any remorse for the incident and try to justify the release, then as a society we need to be worried. Essentially we are asking the victims to live with their tormentors.
The victim has to fear for her life whereas the rapists and murderers are garlanded and offered sweet upon release from jail. The erosion of values and upturning of ethical standards must be arrested otherwise we are headed towards a jungle raj. It is hoped that the society will think what kind of people we are electing to govern ourselves.
At about 3 pm the police decided to release the detainees on the condition that they would not go to Godhra but would begin their padyatra from the borders of District Panchmahal and Kheda.
No soon had the padyatris crossed the Mahisagar river which borders the two districts, the police of Sewaliya police station were waiting to the greet the padyatris. Another night was spent in the police station. 
Tanushree Gangopadhyay, D Gopalakrishna, Nitesh Gangaramani, Kausharli Saiyed, Rajeshwar Brahmbhatt, Pravin Patel, Haresh Raval, Rajeev Singh Kushwaha, Krishnendu Chaterjee and myself were detained. The police was very vigilant and was keeping close watch on all our movements including visits to toilets.
Sandeep Pandey
Tanushree was told that she would be taken to her home in Ahmedabad as she could not be kept at the police station but she was taken to a local hotel and had to spend the night guarded by 3 women police personnel. On 27 September morning she was brought to the police station and later all the 10 detainees were driven to Ahmedabad’s Odhav police station and released from there.
Thus a 180 km, 9 days padyatra was completed in a couple of kms and the remaining distance in police vehicles in 2 days.
I had broken my fast when we were allowed to walk from inside the Panchmahal district but started it again on the morning on 27 September from Sewaliya police station when it became clear that we were not going to be allowed to walk.
In Ahmedabad the police denied permission for the fast to be carried on at a public place. I tried to sit at Satyagrah Chhavni, the designated protest area in Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, but the intelligence personnel did not allow that without a permission of district authorities. 
It is a commentary on the democratic space for dissent in Gujarat that not a single demonstration was going on at Satyagrah Chhavni when we visited it. I then decided to carry on with my fast at a friend’s place.
The penance fast continued till 2 October and was broken on its sixth day at Kochrab Ashram of Mahatma Gandhi by the hands of two women who were detained by police on 25 September, Tanushree and Noorjahan.
However, the struggle for dignity of women will continue. The women can feel safe in only two conditions. One in which the men, who dominate the society, become sensitive to women and second, women themselves become empowered and prevent men from exploiting them. 
Although both processes are going on but they are very slow. Large numbers of women continue to be under patriarchal rule and have to suffer daily violence, at home as well as outside.
It is said that among all the struggles against inequalities of different varieties the gender inequality will be the most difficult to overcome. That is why probably the famous socialist thinker and politician Dr Ram Manohar Lohia in his enunciation of seven revolutions necessary for society kept gender equality at the top.
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*Magsaysay award winning academic and social activist, general secretary of Socialist Party (India)

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