Social issues

Expendable lives

Print edition : June 22, 2018

A video grab of Mukesh Vania of Parnala village in Surendranagar district being beaten outside a factory in Shapar accusing him of theft, on May 20.

The recent case of the murder of a Dalit man by upper-caste people yet again shreds the myth of a socially progressive Gujarat.

ON May 20, images of a man bound by a rope and beaten viciously with a rod went viral on social media—one man holding the rope that secures the victim and another thrashing him. At the end he flops down. He was later taken to hospital but declared dead on arrival.

The victim of this barbaric act is Mukesh Vania of Parnala village in Limdi taluk of Surendranagar district—one of the 11 districts of Gujarat listed by the State government as “atrocities-against-Dalits-sensitive”. Martin Macwan, Dalit rights activist and founder of the Navsarjan Trust, narrated Mukesh’s life story. “Parnala has about 100 Dalit families, but all except 30 families have migrated in search of labour. The first time I stayed in the village was in 1995. I visited it again in 2003 and on the 23rd of May. Over the years, I have found that the economic condition of Dalits has worsened,” he said.

Macwan said Mukesh’s father, too, had migrated 15 years ago to work in the farm of a Patel landowner in Junagadh district. He fell ill after spraying pesticides on the crop. But instead of rushing him to hospital, the landowner asked him to return home. He died at Limdi bus station before Mukesh could fetch him a glass of water. Mukesh thus started earning his living from childhood to look after his family.

Employed in a diamond-polishing unit in Ahmedabad, he lived there for over a decade. But the demonetisation in 2016 broke the backbone of an already ailing industry. Unable to pay the rent for the shanty in which he lived, Mukesh returned home. Every morning he travelled to a neighbouring village to work as a shoeshine boy. On his return, he would chop wood from a wasteland to sell it in his village.

Seeing him having a hard time to feed his family of four consisting of his wife and two children (a girl aged 10 and a boy aged four), members of his community asked him to join them at Shapar, a large slum outside the city of Rajkot. Some 30 families from Parnala lived there. They helped him build a small hut, and he and his wife started to work as ragpickers. Mukesh had migrated to Shapar just four days before he was beaten to death, said Macwan.

It is a common practice for ragpickers to carry a piece of magnet to find scraps of iron, which fetches a good price. On the fateful day, Mukesh was accompanied by his wife, who was ailing, and an aunt, who had persuaded the family to move to Shapar. They were collecting scrap in the vicinity of one of the factories, which had CCTV cameras, when the factory owner accused them of stealing. He took all three of them to another factory. There the two women were assaulted and Mukesh was tied and beaten. The women ran for help and returned with some Dalit men. They apparently found Mukesh lying on the ground. After much pleading, they were allowed to take him away. He was taken on a motorcycle to a house in the slum. “Seeing his critical condition an ambulance was called, but Mukesh was declared dead on arrival at the hospital,” said Macwan. All this happened at about 7:30 in the morning. The factory, where he was beaten, is half a kilometre from their house in the slum.

The police arrested five men under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Three of them are Patels, one is a Kshatriya and another is a Koli, who belongs to the Other Backward Classes (OBC). The video was shot by one of the accused who sent it to his friends. They apparently cautioned him against it, but it had gone viral by the time he deleted it. Mukesh’s wife said that the factory owner who accosted them asked them to name their caste, after which they were assaulted.

Mukesh’s case is one of the latest in a series of attacks against Dalits in the State. Gujarat’s record of implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act is poor. That it is a fact is clear from the official resolution of the State Home Department, which has declared 11 districts as sensitive in view of high incidence of atrocities against Dalits there.

According to Navsarjan, 38.85 per cent of the cases filed under the Prevention of Atrocities Act have been pending for three to nine years. The conviction rate is as low as 3.92 per cent. As per the Act, the administration should hold vigilance and monitoring committee meetings every six months and these should be headed by the Chief Minister. Yet, between “January 1, 2001, and June 13, 2016, the Chief Minister called just six meetings to monitor the implementation of the Act. Though the rules require two meetings to be held each year, no meetings took place in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014 and 2015,” said Macwan.

Myth of social equality

A report titled “Understanding Untouchability: a comprehensive study of practices and conditions in 1,589 villages”, published by Navsarjan in 2010, explodes the many myths of social equality that have been assiduously projected by the State. It details discriminatory practices against Dalits in the State, mainly in central Gujarat. Significantly, the report does not spare the Dalit community either. Macwan said the 2010 study was “unique because for the first time there is a measure of prevalence of untouchability practices vertically (between Dalits and non-Dalits) and horizontally (within Dalits based on sub-caste identity)”.

The study contains more than 150 items on the list of untouchability practices. Some of the examples are shockingly ridiculous. For instance, smoke from a Dalit’s beedi should not drift towards upper-caste people as it would defile them. Or, Dalits must refer to non-Dalit males as bapu (father) and non-Dalit females as baa (mother). This practice is clearly designed to humiliate because even a 70-year-old Dalit is required to call a non-Dalit child bapu or baa. Dalits are not allowed to tuck in their shirts, wear ornaments or sunglasses. Dalit women cannot react to eve-teasing. If they report it, “they are told that they should be flattered or take pride in the harassment, because they are lower caste women being taunted by upper classes”, says the study.

Discriminatory practices

More “traditional” restrictions prevail in about 97 per cent of the villages surveyed. Inter-caste marriages are prohibited and detractors are subjected to violence and ostracism. Dalits cannot take houses on rent in non-Dalit localities. Nor are they allowed to touch utensils of non-Dalits. Tea stalls have “Dalit cups”, which the users themselves have to wash.

The legacy of discrimination is passed on to children. In more than 50 per cent of the schools, Dalit and non-Dalit children are seated separately for the midday meal; Dalit children have to go home to drink water. Non-Dalit children are taught to refuse a midday meal cooked by a Dalit, which in effect results in closing one more avenue of employment to Dalits.

Discrimination in schools has also resulted in a high dropout rate among Dalit children. In more than 40 per cent of the villages surveyed, Dalits were not permitted to enter shops and had to wait outside for service.

Ironically, though the constitutional provision for reservation of seats for Dalits in panchayat bodies is followed, “Dalit members are forced to sit on the floor in 47 per cent of the villages examined. In addition, water is not often available for Dalit panchayat members.” Worse, Dalit panchayat members are either not offered tea or are served in cups that are reserved for them. These are often chipped or cracked. “Segregation is near total, from schools, wells to temples, as is violence against Dalits,” says the report.

The study “makes clear that untouchability is practised within institutions directly within the control of the State. Thus, the application of current laws and regulations must be enforced, and more stringent ones considered,” it says.

On February 15, Bhanubhai Vankar, a Dalit activist, immolated himself outside the Patan District Collector’s office in protest against the delay in allotment of land to a Dalit family. The family had apparently paid the transfer fee, but the allotment was being withheld. Frustrated at what he saw as discriminatory stalling by the administration, Vankar tried to draw the attention of the authorities to the case through this extreme step. He died the next day, but the upshot was that the case was resolved quickly in favour of the Dalit owners.

Land ownership and caste

Land is a key factor in social status, and land ownership is understood to be at the root of the caste system. Dalits were primary beneficiaries of the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act and the Gujarat Tenancy Act. Macwan said that post-Independence about 3.75 million acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land had been demarcated in Gujarat for Dalits and tribal people. However, to date, barely one-third of it has been disbursed. A Navsarjan survey found that Dalits were given legal possession of 6,000 acres of land in Surendranagar district, but they were not in actual possession of the land.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has gone a step further. Before it came to power, there was a law which said that land obtained under land reform could not be sold, mortgaged or leased without the approval of the Collector. There was also a rule that specified that farmers could only buy agricultural land within 8 km of their residence. The BJP amended this law and permitted them to buy land anywhere. This paved the way for land to become an investment and also made it easy for rich farmers to buy out smaller landholdings. The BJP also permitted easy transfer of land from agricultural to non-agricultural use.

Since 1989, in Gujarat alone, Navsarjan has taken over 5,000 cases filed by Dalits to court under the Prevention of Atrocities Act. While the Act covers violence and obvious abuse, subtle daily practices of discrimination do not fall under its definition of atrocities. “Faced with abject poverty, oppression, exploitation and fear of the higher castes from which they earn their living, Dalits have a very difficult time reporting atrocities, or other violations of law, and realising their constitutional right to non-discrimination,” notes the study.

When Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, his government encouraged the perpetuation of the myth that the State was not only economically advanced but that its social indicators were superior to that of other States. Nothing reflects the lie more than the continuing grimness of Dalit lives in Gujarat.

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