Gujarat police detain Jignesh Mevani as Dalits protest over land rights
Protests were triggered by the suicide of Bhanubhai Vankar, a 61-year-old Dalit activist
Ahmedabad: Police detained independent legislator Jignesh Mevani and others in Ahmedabad as protests flared up in various parts of Gujarat on the issue of Dalit land rights, presenting a major cause of worry for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
This is the second such large-scale Dalit protest in Gujarat since the ones that followed the flogging of four Dalit men in the town of Una in July 2016.
Sunday’s protests were triggered by the suicide of Bhanubhai Vankar, a 61-year-old Dalit activist. Vankar died on Friday, a day after setting himself ablaze outside the collector’s office in Patan.
A resident of Unjha town of Mehsana district, Vankar was fighting for the land rights of two Dalit labourers who alleged that authorities were refusing to regularize the land allotment despite collecting Rs22,236 in 2013 for the transfer.
Protests were held in various parts of the state including Patan, Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar, Junagadh, Banaskantha and Surendranagar. Thousands of protesters took to streets and blocked highways across Gujarat.
Bhanubhai’s family has refused to take the body pending fulfilment of their demands, including allotment of land, action against the guilty officials and formation of a special investigation team to probe his death.
Meanwhile, another Dalit, Kailashben, a resident of Panchasar village in Patan district tried to commit suicide by immolating herself on Sunday as a mark of protest over the land rights issue. She is currently undergoing treatment for her burn injuries.
Vankar was a member of Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, an organization led by Mevani to fight for the rights of Dalits.
The state government on Saturday evening announced that the ownership title of the land would be given to the two Dalits for whom Vankar was fighting. Mevani and other Dalit members however continued their protest saying that they wanted a written directive from the state government to fulfil the land right demands of Dalits.
Apart from Mevani, Patel Anamat Andolan Samiti leader Hardik Patel, Congress MLA Alpesh Thakor and Congress Leader of Opposition Paresh Dhanani came together on Saturday to support the Vankar family.
BJP legislator from Kadi and Dalit community leader Karsan Solanki were heckled by a group of protestors when he went to meet the victim’s kin on Saturday.
The issue is likely to cause a major uproar at the budget session of the Gujarat assembly that is scheduled to start on Monday. At a press conference on Sunday, joint police commissioner (crime branch) J.K. Bhatt said that Mevani, who had given a bandh call in Ahmedabad on Sunday, was arrested to prevent any untoward incident. He claimed that Mevani was not co-operating and had misbehaved with officials.
“We were protesting peacefully but the police used force in which two people got injured and have been hospitalized. The police it seems is working on the directive of the state government. If the government is so serious about our demands, why does it not issue a written directive or meet the family and assure them support. The ruling government wants us to end our protests so they do not face any embarrassment in the assembly session,” alleged Mehul Manguben, a Dalit activist and a close aide of Mevani.
On his official Twitter handle, Mevani alleged that he was pulled out of the car by the police who broke his car keys and detained him on the way to the protest rally at Ahmedabad.
The issue of land rights was central to the Dalit movement following the public flogging of four people in Una in 2016 when the community leaders demanded 5 acres of land for every landless Dalit family as per the Gujarat Agriculture Land Ceiling Act. Mevani, who became the face of Dalit community during this movement had coined the slogan: Gai ki doom aap rakho, humein hamari zameen de do (You can keep the cow’s tail, we want our land back).
The issue of land rights of Dalits dates back to 1952 when the Saurashtra Land Reforms Act with an aim to give occupancy rights to tenant cultivators.
“Of the 3.75 million acres of land to be distributed to Dalits and Tribals, only one-third of this land has been distributed in all these years. While a lot of this land is encroached, many Dalits who have got land entitlements are not getting possession and forced to work as labourers in their own fields. In Surendranagar district, we had to fight for eight years to get 6,000 acres of land for Dalits and it was only after the high court’s intervention that it was done,” said Martin Mackwan, a well-known Dalit rights activist and founder of Navsarjan Trust.
In a town in Surendranagar district, a group of Dalits has been protesting for their land rights for the last eight years but the government hasn’t been able to resolve the issue, Mackwan said, adding that the deadlock between the government and community is an indication that the community is losing faith in the government.
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