In The Cow’s Name
- Widespread protests across Gujarat after four Dalit youths who were skinning a dead cow were abducted and beaten up. Brought to the Una town market, they were tied to an SUV and beaten with sticks by some men believed to be cow protection vigilantes.
- As all this happened, crowds watched, and the policemen at Una police station did nothing to stop the assault. After widespread protests in Gujarat and national-level Dalit leaders taking up the issue, some suspects have been arrested and four cops have been suspended.
- Dalits have refused to take cattle carcasses. In some places, they have dumped carcasses at government offices as a mark of protest.
- The protests have come as another challenge to chief minister Anandiben Patel, who recently has had to deal with the Patel reservation stir, followed by a similar show of strength by a united OBC front.
Always weighed down by the mountain-sized legacy of her predecessor, chief minister Anandiben Patel is lurching from one political crisis to another. And the assembly elections are just over a year away. The dust is yet to settle on the Patidar reservation stir of 2015, which eroded the BJP’s hold, built over a dozen years of Narendra Modi’s chief ministership, and the government finds itself faced with an unprecedented Dalit protest that not only threatens to further weaken support for the BJP in the state but could also affect its election prospects in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.
The trigger was the beating up and public shaming of four Dalits who were skinning dead cows in Una town of Somnath district in the Saurashtra region on July 11. The four—Ashok Sarvaiyya, Vishram Sarvaiyya, Ramesh Sarvaiyya and Bechar Sarvaiyya— were skinning a cow’s carcass on a plot allotted for the purpose by the Mota Samadhiyara village, when they were set upon by cow protection vigilantes. They were first taken to a village 11 km away, stripped and beaten with rods and sticks. Then, they were brought to Una town, tied to an SUV and thrashed with lathis.
All this happpened near the Una police station. Hundreds watched and the cops too remained mute spectators. Ashok, one of the victims, is on record that when they sought help, the cops watching the beating only mocked them. It was only after a video showing them being stripped and assaulted went viral on social media that the cops were stirred into action and three of the culprits were arrested. “If action had been prompt, instead of people choosing to remain mute spectators to a horrific spectacle, things would have panned out differently,” explains Piyush Sarvaiyya, a Dalit activist who is a witness in the case.
The Dalit reaction to the outrage was initially muted, but built up some spectacular momentum. A bandh call saw a total shutdown in Saurashtra. Though partial elsewhere, destruction of public property, arson and stoning was reported from across the state. Dalits jammed highways and held sit-INS. Across Gujarat, protesters clashed with police; one policeman lost his life in stone-throwing. Dalits also made it known they would stop lifting carcasses. Says B.K. Parmar, a Surendranagar-based Dalit activist, “Let these cow protectors lift the carcasses.” In some places, carcasses were dumped outside government offices.
Most dramatic was the highly emotional mode of protest that some adopted. Over a dozen Dalit youth attempted suicide, in an show of total loss of confidence in the state. Some even consumed acid, and others took poison—only one succumbed, in Junagadh, but the spate of attempts shook up the public sphere across the country.
The issue was soon in national focus. Raju Parmar, of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes (NSCN), visited Una on July 17. BSP supremo Mayawati raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha the next day. Rahul Gandhi and then NCP’s Praful Patel came visiting, and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal (whose AAP spots a chance for growth in Gujarat) too declared his intentions to do so, and also released a video appeal to Dalit youth to stop adopting the suicide route.
The official machinery was also jolted into action. Gujarat BJP president Vijay Rupani, who is also a minister, and social welfare minister Ramanlal Vora held a series of meetings to try to bring the situation under control. Anandiben, who urged opposition leaders not the politicise the issue, had rushed to Una first, on July 20, but her motorcade was surrounded by agitators. “The state government only wakes up when Rahul Gandhi plans a visit,” says a state Congress unit spokesperson.
Dalits protest in Surat against the assault by so-called “cow protectors”
Discontent has been building up among Dalits for long. They are riled that four years after the killing of three Dalit youths in police firing in Thangadh town of Surendranagar district in September 2012, an inquiry report is yet to be made public. Despite an order from the Gujarat Information Commission, the report, which has been sought under RTI, is being held back on the ground that it would harm the sovereignty and integrity of the country.
They have reasons to be upset. Atrocities against Dalits, who constitute 7.1 per cent of the state’s population, show no signs of declining. According to figures obtained under the RTI Act, 1,033 cases of rape, arson, murder and other grievous offences were committed against Dalits in 2001. In 2015, the figure stood at 1,052. “Dalits have been at the receiving end for long in the state and there has hardly been a concerted attempt to address their concerns. The Una incident is just a trigger that has stirred long simmering discontent,” points out Manjula Pradeep, a well-known activist.
Dalit discontent has been brewing. A report on the death of three Dalits in police firing four years ago is under wraps despite an RTI plea.
Meanwhile, an eight-member fact-finding team of activists has laid the blame for the Una incident at the doorstep of the Sangh parivar and the BJP. “The attackers took a group photograph, shot a video and put them up in the social media. This shows that they had the backing of powerful forces and knew that nothing would happen to them,” one of the members of the panel says. However, organisations associated with the Sangh and the BJP have condemned the incident and denied the charges. VHP international secretary Pravin Togadia condemned the Una incident, and in a series of tweets said, “We condemn the attack on Dalits in Gujarat. VHP has nothing to do with those who attacked the Dalits. They belong to a political party not related to the RSS.”
The lob-and-volley game shows the political pot is simmering: the BJP, already battling erosion of its Patel votebank, now has a new headache. The Congress, mostly lying low during Modi’s chief ministership, stands fairly rejuvenated now. The Hardik Patel-led reservation stir, too, brought dividends—it made a comeback of sorts in the last district and taluka panchayat elections. Hardik has expressed solidarity with Dalits, while Alpesh Thakore, an OBC leader, went on a protest fast in support of Dalits and was detained by police.
Political analysts, however, see the upheavals in the state—whether of the Patels, the OBCs or now of the Dalits—as a reflection of the rising discontent caused by the successive BJP governments in the state painting rosy pictures of employment opportunities that have failed to materialise. “Promises of jobs galore and proliferation of private educational institutions charging huge amounts in fees saw people selling land and mortgaging properties to pay fees for their children. Frustration is rising as the jobs never materialised and the anger of the youth is finding such reflections,” says Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi.
He has a point. By last count there were 16,000 engineering graduates registered with the government looking for jobs. Almost 30,000 seats in engineering colleges in the state are projected to remain vacant this year. According to an elementary education report with the government, almost 1.75 lakh teachers have themselves studied only up higher secondary!
Add to this the deep-rooted caste feelings that routinely manifests in the form of state apathy. Even after Una, SP (Gir-Somnath) H.R. Chaudhary trotted out the official line that an inquiry had been instituted and nine accused arrested—plus an inspector and three constables suspended. But most of this was ex post facto, four days too late, and had the air of empty formality.
By R.K. Misra in Ahmedabad