An anti-caste, pro-land reform movement in Modi’s home state suggests a way forward for progressive forces in India.
Mehsana, a small city in western India, was meant to be the starting point of a seven-day “Azadi Kooch” or “Freedom March.” The march’s main demand was redistribution of land to Dalits, those historically at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy, formerly known as “untouchables.” A rally with several nationally known political figures had been planned in Mehsana on July 12 to kick off the multiday march. Organizers had received state permission for carrying out the rally and march, but this permission had been revoked at the last minute, with government officials vaguely referring to concerns about the “law and order” situation.
Confusion reigned on the morning of the Mehsana event, as arriving protesters were unsure whether the rally would take place. Eventually, a small group formed in a Dalit neighborhood near the city center. Making its way through the narrow alleys of the neighborhood, the group shouted slogans, sang songs, and exhorted the residents to join them for the protest. As the group weaved through the lanes, its size began to swell as other protesters found the marchers and joined in. The protesters poured into a main road and made their way toward the intersection where the rally was supposed to occur. The police had, for the moment, decided to avoid a confrontation. The rally was on.
Since permission for the event had been withdrawn, proper arrangements for a stage and a sound system could not be made. The rally’s leaders improvised, standing on a road divider and addressing the growing crowd through a small megaphone. The organizers urged the crowd to sit down in front of the makeshift stage, and speeches and sloganeering began. There was a sense of restlessness in the crowd, though, which only resolved with the arrival of the rally’s star speakers, including the main organizer of the event, Jignesh Mevani. The crowd got to its feet and cheered. Mevani, the convener of the recently formed Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch (National Dalit Rights Platform), has been the driving force behind the Azadi Kooch. When permission for the march had been revoked, he made it clear that the event would continue regardless. His presence on the stage confirmed his defiance of the ban.