by Aarefa Johari
Published Aug 16, 2016 · 06:30 am.
Many allege that the police did nothing to stop the mobs attacking people going home from an Independence Day event.
On Monday morning, thousands of people gathered in Una in South Gujarat for an Independence Day rally to mark the culmination of a ten-day march to protest the brutal assault last month on four Dalit youths in the town. There were stirring songs and rousing speeches. But hours later, the event met with a violent backlash by non-Dalit groups on the highway near Samter village, around 12 km from Una.
The attacks were aimed at Dalits from other parts of Gujarat who were returning home after attending the rally. Eyewitnesses and survivors claimed stones were thrown at them, that some people were beaten, that the panes of cars were smashed and that at least one motorbike was set on fire. At least 12 Dalits were reportedly injured, one of whom was shot in the back of his thigh. This person has been taken to a hospital in Junagadh. Three police personnel were also injured.
Almost all survivors and eyewitnesses Scroll.in spoke to claimed that the attacks had taken place in the presence of the police, who allegedly did not intervene to prevent the violence or restrain the perpetrators.
At Una police station, officers said that they had used lathis and fired several rounds of tear gas to control the violent mobs at around 6.30 pm, more than five hours after the violence began. By late night, the police had arrested 20 assailants, four of them women.
‘Mob of hundreds attacked us’
PHOTO: These two sisters were among the first to be attacked, along with their mother. Credit: Aarefa Johari
Among the first to be attacked were three sisters from Rajkot, their mother and a four-year-old girl. They were relatives of the four Dalit youths who had been thrashed by cow vigilantes in Una on July 11, sparking the agitation. After attending the rally in the morning, the women left around noon to visit their relatives’ village. While crossing Samter village, they claim their car was stopped by a raging mob of “hundreds” of non-Dalits, armed with “swords, sticks and bottles of kerosene”.
“They smashed our car window panes and we just ducked and reversed the car for a whole kilometre,” said Meena Sarvaiya, one of the three sisters. All the women suffered minor injuries, as did the child. “We could see the police right there, but they just watched and did nothing.”
After getting their injuries treated at a hospital in Una, Sarvaiya and her sisters attempted to file a First Information Report at the Una police station. But by Monday evening, the report had still not been filed. “All day they have been telling us that sahab is not there, come in five minutes, wait for ten minutes,” said Sarvaiya, whose family finally decided to leave for Rajkot by a different route at 7 pm. “This is the same police station near which the gau rakshaks beat up our four brothers. What justice can we expect here?”
‘My brother is still missing’
PHOTO: Deepak Parmar in the police station. Credit: Aarefa Johari
Deepak Parmar and his cousin Kishore Parmar, both 22-year-old Dalits from Amreli district, were attacked by a similar mob at around 2 pm when they approached the Samter area on a motorbike. “We had a photo of Ambedkar on the bike and they just blocked us and started beating us,” said Deepak, a labourer at a cement factory. As he spoke to Scroll.in at the Una police station, Deepak Parmar was weeping inconsolably.
Parmar claims that a group of policemen came towards them but did not take action against the aggressors. “Instead, they pushed me into their police van and said they would take me safely to Una,” he said. “I pleaded with them to save my brother [cousin] too, but they left Kishore there and brought me to Una. My brother is still in their clutches.”
Three hours later, when the Una police finally took down Deepak Parmar’s complaint, Kishore Parmar had still not been rescued from the mobs in Samter. Scroll.in was unable to reach Deepak Parkar later at night.
‘Police seemed to be complicit’
PHOTO: Another rally participant who was attacked was Vajubhai Parmar, an activist from Dalit rights organisation Navsarjan in Ahmedabad. While returning from the rally and crossing Samter, Parmar claims his Maruti car was attacked by stone pelters, as were some of the other vehicles ahead of them. At least two vehicles were smashed, but Parmar’s car had a narrow escape.
“I also saw the mobs set a motorbike on fire right in front of us, but no one was injured,” said Parmar. “Throughout all this, the police was just watching from nearby, doing nothing. This is just like in the communal riots of 2002 – the police seemed to be complicit.”
Another eyewitness – a government employee from Bhavnagar who did not wish to be identified – made the same allegation about the police.
“I had nothing to do with the Dalit rally in the morning – I was just travelling from Bhavnagar to Gir with my wife in a rickshaw when mobs at Samter began blocking the road and heckling people,” said the 25-year-old government employee, raging outside the Una police station. “While we managed to escape from the side, we saw them asking everyone in other vehicles, ‘Are you Dalit? Say ’Jai Mata di.’ And I swear, I saw the police just watching all this from the side.”
The man also claimed he saw a policeman casually resting his arm on the shoulder of one of the attackers in the mob. “I have completely lost faith in law and order today.”
‘They said they would hit us if we said Jai Bhim’
PHOTO: Jairaj Makwana. Credit: Aarefa Johari
Jairaj Makwana, a businessman and social activist from Bhavnagar, also claimed that the aggressive mobs were forcing Dalits to say "Jai Mata di" and "Gai Mata ki jai". Makwana and four of his companions decided to drive out of Una through the Samter route at around 5 pm only because some police personnel they met assured them that the road block had been lifted and the situation was peaceful.
“But when we were passing that stretch, a huge mob carrying swords and other weapons attacked us and some police vans nearby,” said Makwana. “They were telling everyone to say ’Jai Mata di’ and said they would beat us if we said ’Jai Bhim’. And the police who were nearby was no better – instead of pushing them away, they told us to ‘understand the danger’ and just say Jai Mata di for the sake of being safe.”
Makwana sustained minor injuries but claims that the police retaliated and began hitting the assaulters only when their own personnel were attacked.
‘Who will ensure we reach home safely?’
The violence that erupted in Samter on Monday had been preceded by stray incidents of similar attacks on August 13 and 14 as well. On the night of August 13, mobs near Samter pelted stones at Dalits returning from a bike rally. On August 14, incidents were reported from Rameshwar Patiya and Nandrak villages as well.
At the Una civil hospital, Scroll.in met two Dalits from Thangadh village who had been assaulted while passing through Nandrak in their Bolero at around 8.30 pm on Sunday. “We were going to Una so we could attend the rally in the morning, and we had Ambedkar banners on our car,” said Dalabhai Parmar, who sustained shoulder injuries when a mob of non-Dalits attacked the car with sticks, stones and pipes.
Purshottam Parmar, who was also injured in the same vehicle, claims the attackers proudly declared themselves as “Darbars” (higher Rajput caste) and used expletives against Ambedkar and Dalits during the attack. “Now we have been treated at the hospital and want to go home, but are not getting any police protection,” he said. “So who is going to ensure we get home safely?”
The family of Balubhai Sarvaiya, including the four Dalit tanners assaulted by cow vigilantes last month, also staged a dharna outside Una police station for the same reason – they wanted to be escorted safely home to Mota Samadhiyala village, and Samter falls on the way. The police had offered to take the family through a different, much longer route, but the Sarvaiyas did not agree till 7 pm, when they finally piled into a police-driven bus and were taken home.
What the police said
A senior police official at Una, who did not wish to come on record, claimed that the police was doing everything they could to maintain law and order. At around 6 pm, the official claimed that they had not made any arrests yet because their first priority was restoring law and order.
When asked about the consistent complaints from survivors and eyewitnesses that police personnel had been silent observers to violent attacks, the senior official claimed action would later be taken against those officials. “But why haven’t people who saw police inaction come to file FIRs?” he said. “How can we take action till FIRs are filed?”
However, another police official claimed that at least three FIRs had been filed against unidentified mobs on August 14, pertaining to stone-pelting incidents at Samter, Nandrak and Rameshwar Patiya.
‘Our leaders should have been here’
Part of the chaos in Una on Monday was the result of angry Dalit youths staging their own roadblock on the highway just outside Una to protest against the violence at Samter.
The youths, a mix of both local Dalits and those returning home from the Monday morning rally, placed stones on the highway and allowed almost no one, except ambulances, to pass. The block lasted around three hours.
“We are not going to move from here or let anyone pass till we get justice,” said Rameshbhai Babaria, one of the roadblockers at Una. “Our brothers and sisters have been attacked at Samter and other places for two days now, and the police has taken no action. We cannot tolerate this.”
The crowd claimed they were doing the roadblock spontaneously and did not have any leader. The leaders of the morning’s rally and the ten-day yatra preceding it – including Jignesh Mevani – had already left Una by then, a fact that did not go unnoticed.
“Our leaders should have been here, it is their responsibility, but they seem to have left early right after the rally,” said Ashwin Sonara, a Dalit social activist and accounting consultant from Ahmedabad, who was in Una to attend the rally.
Scroll.in attempted several times to reach Mevani and other leaders of the rally organising team, but their phones were not available.