By Rina Chandran
NEW DELHI, Feb 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of protesters blocked highways in the western Indian state of Gujarat on Monday demanding that land be handed to members of the Dalit caste, who are at the bottom rung of the country's social hierarchy.
The blockade, which activists said highlights growing anger in a community that has long been denied land, followed the death of Bhanu Vankar, 61, who set himself on fire last week in a government office.
Vankar's suicide followed a delay in granting land rights to a lower-caste Dalit couple, activists said.
"It is very tragic. It shows how frustrated he was to take this extreme measure," said Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan, a charity in the state, who attended Vankar's funeral on Monday.
"We have been demanding land that is legally due to landless Dalits for decades now. Even when land is allotted on paper, very few get possession," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
State Chief Minister Vijay Rupani told reporters the incident was being investigated. Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel said officials would hand land to the Dalit couple Vankar was helping, and would resolve other such cases quickly.
India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups including Dalits are among the most marginalised communities.
Land rights became a flashpoint in Gujarat in 2016 after upper-caste Hindu men stripped and flogged four Dalit youths they accused of skinning a cow - regarded as sacred by Hindus.
Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani subsequently led protests across the state demanding land for Dalits with the slogan: "You keep the cow's tail; give us our land."
Mevani filed a petition in the Gujarat high court saying that although each landless Dalit family was entitled to five acres (2 hectares) of land from the state, few had received any land allotted to them.
In December, Mevani won a key state election as a first-time contestant.
On the weekend, Mevani posted a video clip on Twitter of policemen pushing him into a vehicle, saying he was detained as he was heading to a protest.
"If a legislator is in this condition, then think about any Dalit's situation in Gujarat," he wrote on Twitter.
More protests are planned across the state until officials hand over land that is allotted to Dalits, Macwan said.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran. Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)
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