Little Has Changed for Dalits in Gujarat After Dalit Asmita Yatra

From anganwadi to burial ground, prejudice marks every aspect of a Dalit’s life in Gujarat

ByAmit Bhardwaj
Little Has Changed for Dalits in Gujarat After Dalit Asmita Yatra
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“Hum Gujarat ke Dalit log Dr Ambedkar ki saugandh lekar kehte hain, aaj ke baad Gujarat mein kabhi bhi, Gujarat ke kisi bhi koney mein bhi, Gujarat ke koi bhi gaon mein, mare hue pashu ke nikalney ka kaam nahi karenge. Gujarat ke Dalit ke log,Dr Ambedkar ki saugandh lekey kahte hain na keval Dalit balki sabhi vanchit-shoshit vargon ke liye bhi kaam karenge. Hum ye bhi pratigya lete hain ki aaj ke baad hum gutter mein utarne ka kaam bhi nahi karenge.

(We Dalits of Gujarat swear upon Dr Ambedkar that from today, at any point of time in Gujarat, at any place of Gujarat, in any village of Gujarat, we won’t remove carcasses. Dalits of Gujarat swear upon Dr Ambedkar that we will not only fight/work for Dalit, but also for the unprivileged and oppressed classes. We also pledge that from today we will not do the job of cleaning sewage.)

In August this year, these words resounded across 380 kilometres of Gujarat. As the Dalit Asmita Yatra made its way from Ahmedabad to Una, Dalits gathered in villages and towns and took this oath. They demanded land, they demanded respect and to shouts of “Inquilab zindabad,” they demanded to be noticed.

Two months later, there were no trending hashtags about Dalits from Gujarat. What remained was what had started the movement in the first place – oppression, segregation and violence on the basis of caste.

While caste politics is a term that’s bandied about for states like Uttar Pradesh, those at the bottom of Gujarat’s social hierarchy are rarely either the object of political attention or the subject of conversation. While significant minorities (who are economically and socially powerful), like the Patidars, have grabbed headlines, Dalits have not entered the conversation in the state that is often held up as a model of Indian prosperity. The reason: numbers.

Forming only seven per cent of Gujarat’s population, Dalits have been a largely-silent minority in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state. As you travel through the Dalit neighbourhoods in villages and towns in Saurashtra, it’s impossible to not notice certain indicators of development: water taps in almost every house, the numerous pucca houses, the fact that some even own small plots of land. However, as the infamous flogging incident at Una showed, the Gujarat model hasn’t really brought social progress to the state.

The horrific humiliation and beating that Vashram Sarvaiya and his brothers suffered at the hands of both the cow vigilantes and the state police shocked the nation. It was proof of how powerful imagery can be – the video of the Sarvaiya brothers went viral and spurred millions into reacting. Some took to social media and many took to the streets, protesting against the atrocity. Returning to Una and its surrounding areas after the dust of outrage and protest had settled, Newslaundry found that the struggle continues, but in a quieter vein.

Some, like the Sarvaiyas, have stopped doing the work of removing carcasses as an act of rebellion, but there are others who no longer do so because they’re afraid of being attacked by cow vigilantes. In Motha village, Ajay Shondarva [name changed] said, after the Una flogging, there is a fear of cow vigilantes and hence he is wary of taking up the job of skinning. But, for Dalits like Ashokbhai Parmar, the little money that is brought in by skinning carcasses is critically important.

Yet Dalits are damned if they do remove the carcasses, and damned if they don’t. On August 21, Nagji Rathod, 41, and his 25-year-old nephew Mahesh were supposedly asked by the sarpanch of Mandal village to remove the carcass of a calf. “I told him that our community has given up the job of removing carcasses and skinning animals,” said Rathod. “He first misbehaved with me and then started beating me and my nephew with an iron rod.” A first information report (FIR) was registered under the Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act. The sarpanch and three others were arrested.

One day later, a counter FIR was lodged by the sarpanch’s family. Nine Dalits, including Rathod, were arrested. They were later granted bail.

Fear in the Dalit community comes from knowing that they are considered insignificant and that for all the attention that the flogging at Una received, there are violations and atrocities against Dalits that go unnoticed. Because in Gujarat, ‘normal’ is a system rooted in caste-based prejudice.

According to farmers like Uggabhai Tababhai Chauhan, being Dalit is reason enough to be killed. On June 19, 2012, Chauhan’s brother Hembhai was walking in Samter village. He was hit by a motorbike, which led to an altercation. The rider happened to be from the Darbar community and didn’t take kindly to being reprimanded by a Dalit.

On September 13, 2012, Lalji Sarvaiya was burnt alive in his house, which was attacked by a Koli mob, allegedly at the behest of the sarpanch of Akolali. The sarpanch had suspected Lalji of runningaway with his granddaughter, which was later proved baseless. His brother Piyush Kadabhai Sarvaiya told Newslaundry, “Though it was a mob of over 500, only 11 people from Koli community (a dominant OBC) are accused in the case.” They are still awaiting trial.

“We [the family] left the village on the same day and never returned,” said Piyush.

The Sarvaiyas were the only Dalit family in Akolali.

On September 6, 2016, Ramila Ben Sarvaiya, 21, was stopped on the road in Timbi village by Manu Jeeva Koli, 30. “When I objected to his advances, he started beating me with a stick, tore my clothes and pinned me down,” she told Newslaundry. Her brother, Narsee Dayabhai Sarvaiya, was willing to come on camera and describe what his sister suffered and his harrowed expression speaks volumes about the trauma undergone.

Koli, his mother and his wife were arrested three days later, on September 9, under the SC/ST atrocities act.

Beginning at the anganwadi and ending at the burial ground, prejudice marks every aspect of a Dalit’s life in Gujarat. In Harmadiya, Dalit labour built the Krishna temple that has been standing in the village for generations. However, Dalits are not allowed to enter it. There are three temples in Umrala, but only one of them is for Dalits. “Woh bolte hain yahan mat aao, yeh tumhara bhagwan nahi hai (They say, don’t come here, this is not your god),” said Anu Chandpa, 19, an undergraduate student from Dr Bharat Barad College.

The Dalits of Harmadiya built their own temple eventually. In Ukadiya village, Dalits did the same because they weren’t allowed to enter the village temple. However, building one’s own place of worship doesn’t necessarily mean freedom to worship, regardless of what the Indian constitution promises its citizens.

Last year, the Dalit community of Motha installed a statue of Buddha in their newly-constructed Bodh Vihar, which is built on land owned by the government. Two months later, the structure was demolished although those responsible did ensure that the Buddha statue was removed before the Bodh Vihar was razed to the ground. “Wahan pe teen aur bade-chotte mandirthe aur 30 aspaas ke makaan (There were three other big and small temples, and 30 houses),” said Sanjay Sondarva, 41, an advocate based in Motha. “The department didn’t even touch those constructions.” Dalits in Motha are convinced that their Bodh Vihar was demolished at the behest of the dominant Darbar community.

Discrimination begins early in Gujarat. Gunjan Dholiya, 45, lives in Umrala, where 300 of the 700 families are Dalit. Her mother, Manjilaben, runs one of the three anganwadis. The elementary education centre is meant to eradicate illiteracy and malnutrition. There is, however, one detail that sets Manjilaben’s anganwadi apart: it has no children from savarna families. “All Dalit children of our village come to my mother’s centre,” Gunjan told Newslaundry. All dominant and upper caste children go to different anganwadis. This system of segregation didn’t strike Dholiya as odd because it’s standard practice here. In village after village – Kodinar, Harmadiya, Nangdla – the same story was repeated to us.

No one could explain how the Gujarat administration had succeeded in demarcating these anganwadis according to caste. For most, there seemed to be nothing to question since there is reportedly no caste discrimination in schools. Sunil Makadiya, 23, who is from Ukadiya village, told Newslaundry, “It is an unsaid rule here. There are two different anganwadis. One is for Dalits and the other, for everyone.” Makadiya told Newslaundry “even Muslims” don’t send their children to the anganwadi for Dalit children, which goes to show just how deeply-embedded prejudice is and how much of a victory it is that the Dalit Asmita Yatra was able to bring these communities together.

Vipul Sondarva, 18, of Motha village said that he had to get a haircut in another village. Why? Because the predominantly-savarna Motha won’t sully itself by cutting Dalit hair (in the Hindu social hierarchy, barbers are in any case low in the pecking order). Consequently, Dalits take turns to become barbers for their community. If there is no one who has chosen this profession, then Dalits need to go to a nearby village.

Not just that, Dalits of Motha are not to use the village well. Again, the oppression has been intense enough to establish this as an order that will not be questioned.

When we asked why this system was being followed, upper-caste villagers said it was to “protect our traditions.” Ramesh Makana, 26, belongs to the upper-caste Darbar community. He said, “See, this has been going for hundreds of years. In our village, we have to follow our traditions and customs.”

To question these traditions and customs as a Dalit is to ask for trouble, but that’s exactly what all those who supported August’s Dalit Asmita Yatra did. There have been consequences to their defiance. Chandpa’s education has been interrupted because there was violence in her college against Dalit students.

Though no one was stopped from attending the rally in Una on August 15, there was violence in Una during the rally. After the rally, many of those returning faced angry groups of upper-caste men and women, particularly Darbars. “We still live under constant fear,” said advocate Sanjay Sondarva. Parvesh Parmar, 28, who lives in Motha, said that every Darbar in his village is a gau rakshak. “Dar bahot hai gaon men (There is a lot of fear in the village),” said Dileep[name changed], 28, a Dalit resident of Samter. “Police hata diya gaya toh hum ghum bhi nahi payenge (If the police are removed, we won’t be able to move around freely).” There are also hints of a social boycott by non-Dalits.

Sagar Rabari of Gujarat Khedut Samaj pointed out that few Dalits want to confront the upper caste community in their own villages. “They have to live in the villages with the same upper caste community,” Rabari pointed out. “I have cautioned [Jignesh] Mevani to speak carefully – woh bhashan de kar nikal jayega. Jo gaon mein hoga usey Dalit ko hi jhelna padega (he’ll give a speech and leave. What happens in the village will have to be suffered by Dalits).”

And yet, despite all the pressures and the anxieties, the resistance to everyday casteism in Gujarat is building momentum. In Ahmedabad, the upper caste sentiment was “yeh sab rajkaran se ho raha hai (this is all politically motivated),” which is a woefully blinkered point of view. Meanwhile, the state’s response to the growing Dalit resistance is to earmark leaders like Mevani as troublemakers who need to be detained.

Not only is that a violation of civil liberties, the Gujarat administration appears to be missing how the temperament and thinking of the state’s Dalit community is changing. As Chandpa put it in a nutshell, while pointing at a picture of Dr BR Ambedkar, “Now, my family and I consider him our God.”

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