Home >Politics >India >Dalits mobilize amid attacks from Khairlanji to Una

New Delhi: Ten years since a gang of men barged into Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s hut in Khairlanji, Maharashtra, dragged out the Dalit family and hacked all its four members to death at the village square, India’s chain of caste violence continues, unbroken.

On 11 July, four Dalit men tied to a vehicle cowered as members of a cow protection vigilante group took turns to beat them with iron rods. A video clip of the incident in Gujarat’s Una went viral, sparking violence that killed one policeman and injured many.

Following the incident, around 250 Dalits on 18 July dumped 30 cow carcasses outside government offices in Gujarat’s Gondal and Surendranagar districts. The protest was symbolic and the message clear: Let the self-imposed vigilantes lift the dead animals because the Dalits, who traditionally collect and dispose of dead cattle, will no longer do it.

According to Bezwada Wilson, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Dalits have taken to violent means only recently. “The caste arrogance is visible in our society even now. No amount of political mobilization triggers these kind of spontaneous protests. These are protests derived from deep grievances. This is our way of asserting our identity, our rights. This was inevitable. Laws are there, but they have failed us. Unfortunately, till people come on the roads, no action is taken. If the entire system fails you, violence becomes an inevitable reaction," said Wilson, whose organization is campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging, another job traditionally allotted to Dalits.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 47,064 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2014, up 44% from 32,712 in 2010.

Atrocities against Dalits are perhaps not news for most Indians, but what is interesting is how several protests by Dalits have occurred across the country in recent times.

The Khairlanji massacre on 29 September 2006 too was followed by violent protests. Initially, photographs of the victims’ bodies were pasted on the walls of Dalit settlements. After days of peaceful demonstrations, protesters stoned police teams and set cars ablaze.

In November the same year, the desecration of a statue in Kanpur of B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution and Dalit icon, triggered violent protests in Maharashtra. Three people died, a train was burned, and several areas were placed under curfew. While the trigger was the desecration, activists said rage had been building up since the Khairlanji incident.

In 2010, a 70-year-old Dalit man and his physically-challenged daughter were killed in their home by suspected upper-caste men in Mirchpur village of Haryana’s Hisar district. The attack took place after a Dalit’s dog barked at the upper-caste youths. Protests followed, particularly after the accused were released on bail. However, the protests didn’t spread far and wide.

In March 2014, four Dalit girls were abducted, drugged and raped by a group of upper-caste men in Bhagana, Haryana. Even though the survivors took to the streets of Janpath in Delhi, it took a while before their resistance was captured by the media.

Finally, it was the January suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad that sent ripples across the country, primarily because, as activists say, it involved educated, socially emancipated Dalits. Vemula emerged as a symbol of protest against the injustice and indignity that Dalits were silently suffering.

Inside locked doors or at remote villages, activists say, many such atrocities take place.

“Young people from the community are conscious, more aware of constitutional provisions, and wouldn’t have their status compromised or be treated unfairly. They are trying to change with the changing country, but given the lack of social and cultural capital, they find it hard to adjust in the urban economy. These kids have never experienced the caste economy," says Surinder S. Jodhka, professor of sociology and chair of the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The liberalization of 1991 opened up opportunities for Dalits as well, manifested in the emergence of several Dalit millionaires and bureaucrats—a development that would have been rare earlier when the community was called untouchable.

ALSO READ | Gujarat: A tale of two communities

“One of the biggest changes was that Dalits quit their traditional jobs and moved to cities to grab every opportunity available. Now, a group from within the society, which is turning into an organized sect these days, is not comfortable with the rise of Dalits, with Dalits asserting their rights. Dalits today have the courage to speak, to protest, because they are no longer dependent on their caste landlords.. They are now sheltered by the modern economy," says Dalit author and entrepreneur Chandrabhan Prasad.

The rise of Dalits points to their social mobility. Dalit politics, once restricted to a leader or a party, has entered the vocabulary of even national parties. As the book Dalits in Neoliberal India: Mobility Or Marginalisation? by Clarinda Still states, “At the most basic level, the sheer size of the Dalit constituency means that no political party can afford to overlook the Dalit vote and that even the unlikeliest parties, like BJP, court Dalit support now."

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi added 19 new members to his cabinet, including five from SCs, in the backdrop of an Dalit outreach programme his party has rolled out in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh.

As the Una protest spreads, every party is trying to cash in. Congress’ Rahul Gandhi has already reached Una to meet the victims’ families. Parliament is extensively debating the tragedy.

Vivek Kumar, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, says, “Dalits have become political orphans. Apart from Mayawati, who is speaking for the Dalits? Even the so-called Dalit leaders are all silent. Only by celebrating Ambedkar, some parties think they are speaking for the community. The reason why they are protesting is because they have been pushed to the wall."

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