For the men who thrashed four young Dalits in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow, uploading the video of the assault a few weeks ago was a self-awarded trophy. But it was social media that rounded them up, provoking national outrage and politicians who headed in quick succession to Una to express their solidarity with thevictims.
The horror of the visuals may have earned Una frenetic attention and headlines, but it is just one of many attacks on Dalits this year in Saurashtra in Western Gujarat.
In July, Rama Singrakhiya was hacked to death by a mob in Porbandar district for sowing castor seeds on a disputed piece of land; days before that, Sagar Rathod, imprisoned in Gondal jail, committed suicide. His family accused the jailor of harassing him.
Discrimination against Dalits has been prevalent across Gujarat for decades but in Saurashtra, it is extreme, a blistering legacy of the region’s feudal past.
Of the nearly 600 princely states in India that were integrated in 1956, as many as 188 were in Saurashtra. But unlike the Gaekwads of Baroda who set up schools for girls and worked towards abolishing untouchability, most Rajput rulers in Saurashtra were not progressive.
Their community, locally called Darbars, not only practiced customs like dudh peeti (a form of female infanticide where the girl child was drowned in a vessel of milk), but believed firmly in the sanctity of the caste system.
After independence, the Saurashtra Land Reforms Act of 1952 transformed the region’s social landscape. It gave occupancy rights to lakhs of tenant farmers, mainly Patels, who successfully cultivated cash crops, especially cotton and groundnut, to become the wealthiest and most influential community in the state.
In contrast, the bureaucracy and political leadership, dominated by the upper castes, ensured that government records did not reflect the land that had been allotted to Adivasis and Dalit tillers.
Attempts to continue that sort of conning have remained in practice. Gujarat has 12,500 villages inhabited by Dalits. In 1996, a survey conducted in 250 of them in North Gujarat’s Surendranagar district by the NGO Navsarjan Trust discovered that 6,000 acres of land set aside by the government for scheduled castes had not been transferred to them four decades later. Large tracts were being illegally cultivated by upper caste farmers. It was only after the Navsarjan Trust went to court that the state was ordered to hand over the land to its rightful owners.
Back in the 1960s, Dalits and other marginalised communities in Saurashtra forcibly took possession of nearly 2 lakh acres of gauchar or common grazing land which had been acquired by the government from the former princely states. The agitation pitted the Dalits for the first time against the Patels, who were gradually replacing the Darbars as the most powerful caste in the area.
The next round of confrontation took place a quarter of a century later. The Congress party’s success with the alliance of Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims (KHAM) in the 1980 elections had ended the monopoly of the Vaniyas, Brahmins and Patidars in Gujarat politics. For the first time, Yogendra Makwana, a Dalit was appointed to the union council of ministers (he became Minister of State for Home), and Amarsinh Chaudhury, an Adivasi, was made a full-fledged minister in Gujarat.
The forward castes hit back with the anti-quota agitations of 1981 and 1985, in which more than 300 Dalits were killed. But reservations, guaranteed by the Indian constitution, contributed significantly towards improving the economic status of Gujarat’s Dalits over the next three decades. By the mid-2000s, these gains started diminishing with a corresponding rise in crimes against the scheduled castes.
A Right to Information query answered by the state police revealed that in 2004, nine Dalits had died and 24 women been raped in caste-related attacks. By 2014, the numbers had shot up to 27 murders and 74 rapes. An increase of 300% in both instances. (But the rate of conviction under the Caste Atrocities Act is a shockingly low 4 percent.)
Social scientist Achyut Yagnik blames the frustration of young, educated Gujaratis with a model of development focused on setting up capital-intensive industries which generated employment for unskilled labour, but did not create enough white-collar jobs. In these conditions, Dalits, the most visible yet vulnerable beneficiaries of reservation policies, become easy targets, he said to NDTV.
Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust, says that the impression that Dalits have slowly been getting an easier ride is incorrect. He told NDTV that 64,000 vacancies in various state departments meant for scheduled castes have not been filled – this is according to the government’s own data released last year. Dalit leaders say this is a conspiracy to keep the caste chained to the occupations forced upon them by an exploitative system – manual scavenging or processing of carcasses, for example – to ensure their social status remains unchanged.
But this is not the only one reason why Gujarat’s Dalits believe the state is prejudiced against them. A series of RTIs filed by community activists revealed that since 2001, the government has not allocated a single rupee for installing a statue of Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar. And this year, the state government released funds for construction of separate cremation grounds for Dalits in upto 40 villages in North Gujarat, ensuring caste boundaries are not blurred.
Dalits make up barely 7% of Gujarat’s population, less than half the national average of 15%. Traditionally, that has meant they could not impact election results in the state and political parties could ignore them. But that’s changing. Gujarat’s Dalits are now more assertive and connected, in part through social media, to members of the community across the country. Any act of discrimination is immediately shared and the sense of hurt is felt collectively. Many believe the attack in Una and January’s suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad could influence the sizeable Dalit vote in next year’s election in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
Apart from the considerable political calculations, there is an urgent need to make amends. In his book Karmayog published in 2007, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led Gujarat for twelve and a half years, wrote the “work of cleaning of toilets must have been a spiritual experience for the Valmiki community (a sub-caste of Dalits)”, suggesting a strong subscription to the caste system.
It is that sort of political toying in the last decade or so that has fuelled the determination of Gujarat’s Dalits to push back. Since the Una attack, nearly 30 Dalits have attempted suicide to forge attention to their cause. It should be seen as an act not of desperation but aggression, however foolhardy – who dare look away from this now?