In Gujarat, First They Came for Muslims, then Patidars, Now Dalits

With Assembly elections due in Gujarat in 2017, will the BJP suffer a setback due to recent attacks on Dalits?

4 min read

Martin Niemöller was a prominent German Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He wrote the famously provocative poem “First they came… ”

The poem deals with themes of persecution, guilt and responsibility. In the second decade of 21st century India, this poem is suddenly more meaningful.

In 2002, they came for the Muslims.

The rule of law took a back seat in Gujarat. In early 2002, the state witnessed large, armed mobs roaming the streets with impunity, killing Muslims and burning anything that belonged to the minorities. The police were either neutralised or led the mobs for a good 48 hours. A silent sanction of the widespread violence by a large section of the community, including Patidars and Dalits, paved the way for hate politics in Gujarat and India.

With Assembly elections due in Gujarat in 2017, will the BJP suffer a setback due to recent attacks on Dalits?
Policemen remove stones put by members of Dalit community to block traffic during their protests in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)

In 2015, they came for the Patidars.

Frustrated with diminishing employment opportunities, Patidars demanded OBC status and organised a massive rally in Ahmedabad on 25 August 2015. The protest turned violent. A total of 457 FIRs were filed against 1,482 Patidars across Gujarat within the first three days of the rally.

Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) leader Hardik Patel along with five others were arrested in October and booked under IPC Sections 121, 121A, 120B, 153-B (assertions prejudicial to national integrity) and also 124 (sedition). Hardik was released on conditional bail last week after nine months in jail.

In 2016, they came for the Dalits.

For the third consecutive day, thousands of Dalits were out on the streets of Gujarat protesting the atrocities against them. The Una incident involving the thrashing of four Dalit men last week for skinning a dead cow triggered an unprecedented outrage in Gujarat. There have been 27 reported instances of attempted suicide, including that of a woman whose husband was arrested by the police.


Dalit Uprising in Gujarat

Transport services have been badly affected in the Saurashtra region. Schools and colleges continue to be closed. After the anti-reservation movement of the mid-1980s, this is the first time that Gujarat is witnessing a Dalit uprising on such a scale.

However, atrocities against the Dalits has a long history in Gujarat and most parts of India. A study titled, ‘Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages’, conducted in Gujarat by the Navsarjan Trust puts together staggering data on the obnoxious practice. The survey was conducted from 2007 to 2010.

The findings indicate that 98.4 percent of inter-caste marriages witness violence and the couple would often have to leave the villages. In 98.1 percent of the villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit locality. In 97.6 percent of the villages, Dalits touching water pots or utensils of non-Dalits was considered defilement.
With Assembly elections due in Gujarat in 2017, will the BJP suffer a setback due to recent attacks on Dalits?
Poster by a pro-Dalit group ‘Bhartiya Dalit Panther’ doing the rounds on social media. (Photo courtesy: Facebook/ Bhartiya Dalit Panther)

Dire Circumstances of ‘Safai Karamcharis’

The practice of untouchability is linked to the economic, social and political structure. There’s a deep connection between scavenging and debt bondage. Instead of opposing, the government itself marks out separate burial grounds for Dalits.

Over 20,000 safai karamcharis in Ahmedabad don’t get their minimum wage. Nagarpalikas and gram panchayats in Vibrant Gujarat do not pay even the minimum wage to the most exploited class. A majority of the nagarpalikas and local bodies in Vibrant Gujarat have not implemented the EPF Act of 1952.

Under the 1963 Gujarat Municipalities Act, for every 1,000 persons, a safai karmachari is required and is entitled to the wage and benefits of a permanent government employee. For the last 20 years, no Dalit has benefited as the Act has been violated left, right and centre. There are hundreds of instances where safai karmacharis have retired from municipal corporations after 30-40 years of service without PF and gratuity. These are the circumstances in which the Dalits are forced to skin dead animals.

With Assembly elections due in Gujarat in 2017, will the BJP suffer a setback due to recent attacks on Dalits?
Members of Dalit Community forcing closure of markets in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. (Photo: PTI)

Dalits Continue to Face Discrimination

In Vishal Hadmatiya village in Bhesan taluka of Junagadh district, even Lord Ram failed to bring Dalits to his temple. So they had to make a separate shrine for themselves. The barbers refuse to give Dalits a haircut or a shave, saying they will not get any upper caste customers. In October 2013, in an event in Junagadh, it is claimed that a total of 60,000 Dalits converted to Buddhism.

On Wednesday, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament that “atrocity against Dalits is a social evil”. He was quick to say that there has been a sharp decline in attacks on Dalits in Gujarat since the BJP came to power.

However, the ground reality paints a different picture. An RTI response obtained by Dalit activist Kaushik Parmar from the office of the state director-general of police states that in 2004, 24 Dalit women were raped in Gujarat. In 2014, the number increased to 74. That’s a rise of over 300 percent in a decade. The reply also says that in 2004, nine Dalits were murdered in Gujarat. In 2014, it was 27. That’s again a rise of 300 percent.

In Gujarat, Muslims didn’t rise up after 2002. But Patels did in 2015. Now a major Dalit uprising is in the making. When will the privileged intellectuals rise?

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Creative Communication, MICA. He can be reached at @mishra_pravin)

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