Coin Yatra prevented from reaching New Delhi: A first hand account

A show of force turned away the ‘Coin Yatra’ from Haryana, preventing it from reaching Delhi. Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan Trust, writes on what it was all about

The Coin Yatra (Photo: Navsarjan)
The Coin Yatra (Photo: Navsarjan)

Martin Macwan

We wanted to hand over a specially designed brass coin weighing 1,000 kilograms to the President of India with the request to place it in the new Parliament building by way of a reminder to lawmakers. The coin that stands at 10 feet is engraved with the question, “Will the 1947 dream of untouchability-free India be a reality in 2047?”

Along with the brass coin, made by melting brass utensils donated by Dalit families and mounted on a truck, Rs 20 lakhs in one-rupee coins donated by people were on display in two trucks—our contribution to the new parliament building—as part of the Yatra. In addition, there was a statue of Dr Ambedkar and a sculpture of the Constitution.

But while the Yatra passed through Mehsana and Banaskantha in Gujarat and went through Rajasthan, we were stopped by Haryana Police at the RajasthanHaryana border on the evening of August 7.

There were instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs not to allow the coin yatra to proceed to Delhi, they informed. The policemen were courteous and offered to arrange for food and overnight stay, an offer that was politely declined.

We were not going to Delhi to seek alms. We were going to donate money for the new parliament building. We were going to ask if untouchability will be eradicated in the next 25 years. What should Independence mean to the Dalits if there is no end to the violence targeting them?

During the UN Conference against Racism held in Durban (2001), the Indian government had claimed there was no untouchability in India. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution and provision of ‘reservation’ were cited to support the claim.

And yet this year in 2022, Government of Karnataka has launched ‘Vinaya Samarasya Yojana’ to eradicate untouchability and the Government of Tamil Nadu has released a list of over 500 villages that still have worrying practices of untouchability. Clearly, untouchability exists. Why would the Union Home Ministry then pass an order to stop the Yatra?

After all, the Yatra was on its way from Gujarat to give the parliament as a gift a 1,000 kg brass coin and over 2 million coins as donation from the people. The parliament certainly had the option of refusing to accept the gift.

But to stop the yatra being undertaken by 350 people from 14 states, including 104 women, midway with a force of over 1,000 police personnel, equipped with water cannons, tear gas, large boulders, barricades, Vajra vehicles and commandoes on the Haryana border made it look as if the peaceful, unarmed yatris were about to unleash something terrible on the State. What did the government fear?

Was it the question etched on the coin the reason for such fear? It did seek to expose that despite all the development in the last 75 years, the country has failed to abolish untouchability. The Yatra held all the political parties of India collectively responsible for the failure.

A robust four-year-long study by Navsarjan Trust across 569 villages with 98,000 respondents in Gujarat had found in 2010 that Dalits, though Hindu, could not enter village temples in 90.2 per cent villages; Dalit children seated separately for mid-day meals in 54 per cent public schools and 64 per cent panchayats maintained separate cups and glasses for Dalit Sarpanch and Panchayat members.

Credible data on Dalit violence is missing till 1977. Based on available data of the past 42 years, the estimates are as follows:

Murders: 25,947 (Dalits); 5,356 (Tribal), Rape: 54,,903 (Dalit women); 22,004 (Tribal women); Other Atrocities: 12,04,665 (Dalit); 2,11,331 (Tribal). Anecdotal evidence in the media also indicate that the incidence of brutal violence on Dalits and tribals is on the rise.

Incidents of caste violence as a response to Dalit youth growing a moustache or mounting a horse on the wedding day are rooted in the growing defiance of traditional caste norms by Dalit youth. Dalits no longer participate in community feasts where they are invited to sit and eat ‘separately’.

Unfortunately, tension between Dalits, who are not ready to bear caste humiliation any longer and other castes, who perceive their caste identity as a privilege and a source of domination is rising. But the government is merely a spectator.

Untouchability to me has been a personal childhood experience. What is new however is that over the years I have been able to redefine ‘untouchability’ as a ‘psychological response to the fear of becoming impure-untouchable’.

Those who practise untouchability are driven by fear and schizophrenic traits, I have come to realise. Every moment in their life is spent to guard their ‘purity’. They fear that their superiority of caste rank is vulnerable and can be polluted if the mere shadow of an untouchable falls on them.

Does the parliament have any role to play in correcting this irrational behaviour of some of its citizens? The framers of the Indian Constitution held that the key to nation building was development of scientific temper as well as the value of fraternity; the absence of both can promote disintegration based on caste, gender and communalism.

The next question is: Do we really want to build a strong nation guided by the vision and values enshrined in the Indian Constitution?

Our failures have been many. We have failed to correct social evils of caste and gender inequality, hunger and malnutrition, continuing communal hatred and violence. This indicates our preference for an unequal political order which denies equality, justice and peaceful co-existence to all citizens.

India, as it would now seem, had a tryst not with destiny but with fundamentalism. The political class is clearly not comfortable with its citizens being informed and guided by rational thought. They need a country where fewer citizens are informed of constitutional values and driven more by fundamentalism.

Is it possible to annihilate caste and untouchability? Dr. Ambedkar had pointed towards departure from Hinduism as the way out. However, with all religions including Islam and Christianity infected with the caste virus, the only effective way ahead is unflinching loyalty to the Constitution.

(Martin Macwan is the founder of Navsarjan Trust, Ahmedabad)

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Published: 21 Aug 2022, 10:37 PM