Print edition : August 19, 2016

Dalits protest in Ahmedabad on July 22 against the incident in Una. Photo: Vijay Soneji

A freeze-frame of the beating in Una, part of a video put online.

Manojbhai Makwana. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Vasram Sarvaiya. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Ashok Sarvaiya. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Ramesh Sarvaiya and wife. Photo: Anupama Katakam

Dalits of Gujarat show unprecedented determination in their response to the recent beating of four youths by “cow protectors” in Una for skinning a carcass.

"My father was begging them to stop. He kept saying we had gone to pick up a dead cow but they insisted we had killed it. They made us take off our shirts, tied us to a vehicle and used big lathis to hit us. More than 50 people were watching us get beaten including some policemen but no one helped. Instead they were filming it on mobile phones. We would never kill an animal. hen it is dead they call us to remove the carcass. For centuries our community has done this work. Why are they suddenly talking about cow protection?"

-- Vasram Sarvaiya, 23, one of the four Dalits who were beaten on July 11 by gau rakshaks (cow protectors).

"We were pleading for our lives as we heard some say they would burn us alive. There have been cases where Dalits burnt and killed for small issues. I was very scared. People watched they did not help. Even the police just stood around."

-- Ashok Sarvaiya, 17, one of the four victims.

IN an incident that shocked the sensibility of the country, four Dalit youths were tied up and brutally thrashed by a bunch of self-professed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) for skinning a dead cow in Una town of Gir Somnath district in Gujarat on July 11. With the arrogant assumption of having done a great service (as the cow is considered mother in the Hindu religion), the gau rakshaks posted videos of the beating on social media. They were successful in saving a sacred animal, they said proudly.

The video that went viral on the Internet triggered a nationwide outrage. After that the authorities were scrambling to find a solution. Otherwise it would have remained buried as just another case of brutality against a community that has been bearing oppression and violence for centuries.

The incident exposes several issues, the most critical of which is the serious level and number of atrocities against Dalits and the miserable status of that marginalised community.

Significantly, the incident caused the simmering resentment among Dalit youth to boil over. In a first, they rose in solidarity and the State witnessed massive protests in the form of a few suicide attempts and dumping of carcasses in front of administrative offices. Municipal cleaners, or safai karamcharis, who are largely Dalits, said they would stop cleaning the streets unless action was taken against the perpetrators.

The incident is not an isolated one in Gujarat. Facts show that atrocities against Dalits have been widespread and constant and that feudalism and casteism exist in their worst forms across the State. Speaking to Frontline, Vasram Sarvaiya said: “We earn Rs.200 from every carcass we skin. I share that with three other boys. I get Rs.50. Sometimes I get work in the fields and we manage with that. Our homes are away from the main village. We cannot use their well and we cannot enter the main temple.”

The police say the incident occurred at about 10 a.m. on July 11 after Balu Sarvaiya, a resident of Mota Samdhiyala village in Una Taluka, sent some of his younger family members to pick up a carcass from the neighbouring Bediya village. They suspect the owner of the animal told the gau rakshaks about the boys arriving. The accused arrived by car and asked the boys why they were slaughtering the cow. The victims told them the cow was dead. However, they would not listen and began beating the boys with iron pipes and sticks. Then they took the four Dalits, Vasram, Ashok, Ramesh and Bechar, to Una town, where they were paraded half naked and flogged publicly. According to eyewitnesses, the boys were pleading that they did nothing wrong, but the gau rakshaks would not leave them.

As the situation spiralled out of control, the police arrived and the gau rakshaks fled. “We also reached the spot to help the boys. There were many onlookers who shamelessly were recording the beating on their phones,” said Saileshbhai Makwana, a relative of Sarvaiya.

That only 17 men were arrested in connection with the incident when 30 were allegedly involved is probably indicative of how seriously the police take these cases. “In all likelihood, most of them will be released,” said Makwana.

Angry protests

An assertion the type of which has not been seen earlier took over Gujarat. Dalit youths began attempting suicide in protest. This form of dissent was not planned or coordinated. It was to get the attention of the national media towards their cause, said Manojbhai Makwana, a 28-year-old Dalit who drank poison at a protest rally in Rajkot.

Sitting on his hospital bed at the Rajkot civil hospital, he said angrily: “We had to take a drastic step as it was the only way to get attention. When I saw the video, I said I cannot keep seeing this happen over and over again. I have to do something.” Manojbhai feels that unlike their parents’ generation, the youths of today are not willing to tolerate these acts any more. “If they don’t take proper action against these gau rakshaks, we will take stronger action,” he said.

Ravi Sarvaiya, another survivor of a suicide attempt, said: “We are followers of Bhimrao Ambedkar who taught non-violence. We won’t harm our country. We are not like naxals or terrorists. Yet when we took out a protest they beat us mercilessly. We have to resort to drastic steps to make a point.”

Amrit Solanki, a social worker from Una, said: “We are supposed to be living in modern times, but if you see our villages you can be back many centuries. Even if we work in an office, caste people will not sit with us. They find some excuse and move away. They make us keep separate plates and glasses.” Gujarat has progressed in many ways: we have good roads and industries but unless casteism is stopped, we cannot call ourselves a developed State, he said.

“If we stop collecting carcasses, cleaning streets and doing obnoxious work such as manual scavenging, the State will suffer,” said Solanki. “The upper castes deserve to suffer and I hope our youths can teach them a lesson.”

Unabated atrocities

In May 2016, a group of men calling themselves gau rakshaks attacked a colony of Dalits in Rajula, Amreli district. Accusing the Dalits of killing cows, they beat and broke the hands and legs of several Dalits with lathis and knives. When Premabhai Rathod, who was hit on the head, attempted to file a complaint at the police station, he was sent back saying they did not believe him and that it was some sort of a vendetta.

In July the same year, Rama Singrakhiya, a Dalit, was hacked to death by a mob in Porbandar district for sowing castor seeds on a disputed piece of land. A few days before that, Sagar Rathod, who had been imprisoned in Gondal jail, committed suicide. According to news reports in Gujarat, his family has accused the jailor of harassing him.

Data compiled by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) show that there has been an almost 40 per cent increase in the incidence of crime against Dalits across India between 2011 and 2014. In 2015, Gujarat reported the highest crime rate against Dalits (163.3, 6,655 cases), followed by Chhattisgarh (91.9, 3,008 cases) and Rajasthan (58.5, 7,144 cases). The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that there were 1,130 cases of crimes against the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) in 2014 in Gujarat. Activists point out that this means at least three cases of atrocities a day.

Although the newly amended Atrocities Act, 2016, had enough teeth to book perpetrators of violence on Dalits, the rate of conviction was so poor that they know they could get away with it, said Jignesh Mevani, a civil rights activist and advocate. He said the sense of impunity came from the fact that the conviction rate was as low as 3 per cent in Gujarat. “They have become fearless and shameless. Imagine putting a video online and proudly claiming they have beaten Dalits. Where is this coming from?” asked Mevani. In 2004, there were 24 cases of raping Dalits. In 2014, the number was 74.

In an internal report, Navsarjan, a non-profit organisation that works with Dalits in Gujarat, says: “Refusing to accept any challenge to their hegemony, non-Dalits engage in violent repressive measures to silence any form of dissent among the Dalits. These measures range from brutal murders, such as burning individuals alive or stabbing them to death, to gang rape, arson, and grievous injuries. Significantly, it is not upper castes alone who abuse the Dalits, but the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) too engage in oppression and physical violence. On a sample of 3,083 offences in 13 districts of Gujarat, it came out that Patels were the accused in 34 per cent of the cases, the Kshatriyas in 32 per cent, and the Brahmins only in 7 per cent of the cases.”

Sadly, all over India, crimes against the S.Cs and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) have been on the rise. The NCRB says a total of 39,408 crimes were reported against S.Cs in 2013 across the States. It went up to 47,064 in 2014, an increase of 19 per cent.

Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, recently launched the Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (development for all) programme, and billboards of this are seen all over the State. “These economic policies and the famous Gujarat model have led to further deterioration of the condition of Dalits in the State,” said Mevani. The State will give land to industry but not to Dalits. With the shutting down of textile mills, many lost decent jobs. None of the policies specifically include Dalits who are at an extreme end of the spectrum and require upliftment, he said. Mevani says it took Chief Minister Anandiben Patel a few days and probably public furore to visit the victims. Modi has not yet made a statement on the incident. It is unlikely that he will. “This discrimination and segregation has been perpetuated by the Modi government. With the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in power at the Centre the saffron brigade seem to feel they can do as they please,” Mevani said.

Mevani and other activists have been campaigning for land reforms that will benefit Dalits. He says in 2006, the State government said that gauchar (barren) land would be given to Dalit families for cultivation. However, the bureaucracy has been so slow that very few have received allotments. Half of the S.C. population is landless or owns less than one acre of land, which forces them to work on dominant castes’ land in order to survive. The Patels were the beneficiaries of the land reforms in the pre-Independence period. This allowed them to evolve into a highly successful farming and later entrepreneurial community. The same could happen for Dalits. However, the caste system is so deep-rooted in Gujarat that even if they are a potential political vote bank, little effort has been made, says Mevani. Dalits make up about 7 per cent of the total population in the State.

The land of 100 kingdoms

Saurashtra is the region which looks like a jaw on the Gujarat map. It was under the suzerainty of the British. Achyut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action, Ahmedabad, explained: “Of the 600 kingdoms in India, 188 existed in the Saurashtra region. That is a lot. Because it was never colonised, the feudal system that existed in the princely states continued quite untouched by the emancipation that took place in other parts.” Yagnik says it is very deep-rooted in the Saurashtra belt.

However, he says this is the first time there has been an assertion of this magnitude. There is large-scale mobilisation which has spread to the northern region. “The younger generation has more aspirations and craves an identity of a different order. The resentment is showing.”

Traditionally the Dalit vote has been with the BJP in Gujarat, says Yagnik. But Modi will not take a stand against the accused as it will anger his larger vote base. After this incident, Dalit groups have attacked their political representatives as well. Politicians Kirit Solanki and Rajni Patel, both Dalits, were surrounded by protesters who demanded action against the accused. “Last year we saw the Patel uprising, this year it is Dalits. The BJP is going to face tough times in the next election,” said Yagnik.

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