AHMEDABAD: Shouting, “Gaay nu puchdu tame pakdo, amne amaari jameen aapo” Dalit protesters are marching into Una---the district where four Dalits were stripped and flogged for skinning a dead cow---to claim this Independence Day.

“Azadi” from exploitation and discrimination slogans rent the air, as the first group of Dalits along with the young activists like Jignesh Mewani and Pratik Sinha reached Una only to find their way blocked by protesting upper caste villagers. The police, standing by as always, made them change their route, with the result that they are now in an area different from the village where they have been given permission to hold the Independence Day celebrations tomorrow.

The route closer to Una was blocked at different points by ‘protesters’, clearly not in support of the Dalit show of strength expected in Una tomorrow. Interestingly, along the way the Dalit padyatra came across the dead carcass of a cow, and in keeping with the pledge taken not to lift the dead cows, many stopped at the spot, shouting slogans and asking the gau rakshaks to come and lift the cow.

The mobilisation has been kept free of all political parties. Mewani, a firebrand activist who is emerging as the popular leader of what many Dalit intellectuals see as a virtual uprising in Gujarat, told The Citizen earlier that care was being taken to keep the movement free of all political interference. “We are not inviting any political leaders, and are taking measures to ensure that it remains a Dalit movement, free of political intervention of any kind,” Mewani said.

The march has unnerved the centre to the point of replacing the Chief Minister of Gujarat and making Prime Minister Narendra Modi break his long silence on the attack on the Una Dalits, by distancing himself from the 80 per cent he said were anti-social cow vigilantes. This has brought the PM under fire from sections of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the RSS, with the fissures within more visible today than before the padyatra started.

The current effort of the Gujarat administration seems to be to curtail the strength of the public rally tomorrow, with the routes now blocked by other protesters, and the Dalits being re-directed to an area at some distance from where they had been given permission for the rally. As Pratik Sinha said, “some of us have reached Una, and now we will sit and figure out what to do (for tomorrow).”

The enthusiasm of the normally silent community has inspired the marchers with women coming out in solidarity as well. The issue of emancipation is being linked to the distribution of land amongst the landless, with the Dalits looking at dignity, equality with economic rights, as Sinha said.

Mewani’s speeches underline the demands and the agenda. In an earlier rally he said, what is being repeated through the padyatra,”To give a strong message to the government, I urge all Dalits to discontinue the work of disposing dead animals. I also want you to take a pledge of discontinuing the work of cleaning sewer lines. We no longer wish to do this work and want the government to allot agriculture land to us, so that we can live a respectable life.”

The list of demands as articulared by Mewani are:

1.“We want everyone who thrashed Dalits in Una to be arrested under Prevention of Anti-Social Activity Act (PASA). If they come out on bail, the government must extern them from five districts”;

2. “We also want government to make all safai kamdars (sanitation workers) permanent in their posts and pay them as per the 6th Pay Commission;”

3. Withdraw all cases filed against Dalits during recent protests;

4. Speedy probe in the 2012 Thangadh police firing in which 3 Dalits were killed:

5. Allotment of five acres of land for community members who want to discontinue their traditional work;

6. Martial arts training to SC members for self-defence.

Mewani and the others with him make it very clear that the agitation will not end until all demands are accepted by the government.