Valjibhai Rathod, 43, and his family are bracing up to convert to Buddhism, and so are the Sumras and Parmars of Thangadh town of Gujarat’s Surendranagar district. And they are not the only ones. Many more Dalits from their town will join them. Three Dalit boys were killed in police firing in this town in September 2012. Fighting a hopeless and losing battle for justice, Valjibhai and others, who had been demanding a memorial at the place where the three boys were killed, built a Baudh Vihar (Buddha temple) there with their own efforts in 2016—just two months after the Una horror in July, when a video of four young Dalit men being flogged and beaten by cow vigilantes in Una went viral, causing outrage across the country.
“The memory of the cold-blooded killing of my son was yet to fade when the Una incident happened,” says Valjibhai, who lost his son 15-year-old son Mehul in the 2012 firing. “We were shocked by the flogging of the four young men and realised there was no point expecting to be treated like Hindus. We have no entry into temples, barbers will not cut our hair, we cannot participate in garba festivals, nobody wants to touch us. The Una attack was the last straw. When we are not considered Hindus and are being attacked for that reason, why should we stay in their fold? We decided to construct a Baudh Vihar with our own resources in Thangadh, at the same place where our sons were shot dead, so that we get a temple of our own and a memorial too. Embracing Buddhism is only a formality now and we will do it soon.”
The Baudh Vihar in Thangadh is not the only one. Many more have been coming up across Gujarat, especially in the Saurashtra region where Una and Thangadh are located. “Erecting Baudh Vihars is the first angry reaction now as a kind of reply to the Hindus who kick them out of temples,” says Keval Rathod, a Dalit activist from Una who is also a Gujarat High Court lawyer and takes up cases of atrocities on Dalits. With a mere three to four per cent conviction rate in Dalit atrocity cases in Gujarat, he admits there is little hope for justice. “Small wonder that attacks on Dalits and their constant humiliation at the hands of the upper castes have continued even after the Una incident. So the Baudh Vihars have become a place of solace,” points out Keval, who converted to Buddhism after the Thangadh firing incident.
Conversion to Buddhism has been on the rise in Gujarat and activists involved in it claim some 8,000 to 10,000 people have become Buddhists after the Una incident. This includes the family of Balubhai Sarvaiya, whose four sons were flogged in July 2016, and 350 other families who converted on May 29 this year. The biggest conversion event had happened in Junagadh in 2013, months after the Thangadh incident, when 80,000 people converted to Buddhism, according to the details provided to the then district collector.
The Baudh Vihar in Thangadh
“The Una attack in 2016 was the last straw,” says Valjibhai Rathod, a Dalit whose 15-year-old son was killed in police firing in Thangadh town in 2012.
“I mobilised a large number of people for the Junagadh event,” says Keval. “It was an organised programme for which we put in huge efforts to get people, but the conversions happening since the Una incident have been largely self-inspired.” Dhammachari Anand Shakya, who runs Triratna Baudh Mahasangh, concurs and says, “We converted some 200 families last year on October 14 at Nagpur, on the same day and at the same place where Babasaheb Ambedkar had embraced Buddhism. Many people came on their own and wanted to see the place where Babasaheb had converted.” Arguing that disillusionment with Hinduism has been becoming more pronounced since the Una incident, the Budddhist monk adds, “I keep on getting calls to convert someone or the other almost every alternate day. The calls are from people who say there is no point being among those who don’t consider them Hindus. They feel more and more frustrated when they see the growing atrocities against Dalits around them.”
He is not wrong. According to data with the police, as many as 2,007 cases, including 42 cases of murder, 133 of rape and a large number concerning grievous injuries, were reported in 2016-17 (data till May 2017). And there is no let-up. The recent flogging and killing of a ragpicker in Rajkot was recorded on video, just like the atrocity in Una. Dalit leader and independent MLA Jignesh Mevani says the incidents are continuing with impunity because there is no fear of the law. “Why should Dalit atrocities continue unabated even after the Una incident? This is because the BJP government does not wish to put a stop to it, not only in Gujarat, but also in the rest of the country. They are allowing their toughies a free run,” Mevani tells Outlook.
Pointing out that justice has not been done in Una, nor in Thangadh, where an inquiry commission report has been swept under the carpet, Mevani says, “The government tells us the report can’t be made public because it could be a threat to the social fabric of the region. Was the incident itself not a threat? Three Dalits boys were killed in deliberate police firing for no reason, but this was not a threat since the Dalits are expected to be docile and not react. Almost no action has been taken against the culprits of Thangadh.”
Valjibhai asks what kind of justice can be expected from a government that shields the culprits. Among the accused are four policemen, including two police inspectors and two constables. Three of them are out on bail, but are allegedly continuing on duty despite being accused of murder, while one is said to be absconding. A Special Investigation Team comprising three superintendents of police was formed to look into the Thangadh incident three months after the Una atrocity in 2016, but the inquiry is still on. “Nothing is going to come out of this,” says Valjibhai. “This becomes clear from the fact that the police are not arresting Harikrishna Patel, the then superintendent of police in Jamnagar, who admitted to the SIT in our presence that he had indeed ordered the firing.”
Of the four policemen accused in the Thangadh firing, three are out on bail and one is said to be absconding. An SIT inquiry has been going on since 2016.
Vashram Sarvaiya, a victim of the Una atrocity along with his three brothers, tells Outlook, “In our case, unlike in Thangadh, the chargesheet was indeed filed within the stipulated 90 day. Our case was also put up before a fast-track court a couple of months ago. But the sense of impunity among the culprits is still there. One of them, Kiransinh Rajput, attacked my youngest brother Ramesh while he was out on bail. We had gone to the town for some shopping to prepare for our conversion to Buddhism in May. Kiransinh threatened us with dire consequences if we embraced Buddhism. He was arrested again for this, but is now out on bail in this new case too. Now we plan to set up a Baudh Vihar exactly at the same place where the vigilantes had thrashed us for skinning a dead cow.” Clearly, anger over the Una incident is still raw in the minds of Gujarat’s Dalits, but the state government has been doing little to address it.
By Darshan Desai in Ahmedabad