UNA: Radhika Vemula, whose young son Rohith committed suicide at a university in Hyderabad in January, held top honours as she unfurled the national flag this morning at the grounds of a large state-run school in Una. The small town in Gujarat has turned into a national focal point after four young Dalits were tied to a car, stripped and flogged after being accused of killing a cow last month.
In Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the country, underscored the importance of social harmony and his government’s commitment to upholding the rights of the weakest sections of society.
The thousands who gathered at Una today say they are tired of those sort of promises. Among them were Kanhaiya Kumar, the student from Jawaharlal Nehru University who was infamously arrested on charges of sedition in February. Before he hanged himself, Mrs Vemula’s son, a PhD scholar, alleged continued persecution by campus officials on account of his being a Dalit. Mr Vemula’s death and Mr Kumar’s arrest drove twin student movements against the government in the first half of the year.
“You have exposed the Gujarat model of development,” Mr Kumar said to the crowd, attacking the PM’s storied development of his home state during his many terms as Chief Minister.
They insist that their yatra or march is apolitical and aims at delivering basic rights to Dalits – like land that was allocated but never handed over to Dalit farmers.
At the beginning of the month, Dalits blocked roads and attacked buses in Ahmedabad, stating they were striking back after the assault in Una was filmed and uploaded. As the anger spread, Anandiben Patel was removed by the ruling BJP as Chief Minister of Gujarat where elections are due shortly. Dalits form 8 per cent of the population and the rage over the Una attack has spread to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, both of which vote soon and have large sections of Dalits.
Muslims in Una and from other parts of the state today marched into the flag ceremony declaring their solidarity with Dalits.
The men who were attacked late in July were wrongly accused of slaughtering a cow, which is illegal in several states. They were, in fact, skinning it, a gruelling and low-paid occupation thrust upon the weakest castes for decades.
Last weekend, Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticized cow vigilantes or “gau rakshaks,” stating most use religion as a cover for crimes that have nothing to do with protecting the cow, which is held sacred by Hindus. The vigilantes chase trucks transporting cattle and raid slaughter houses.