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'Gau rakshaks are systematically targeting Dalits, Muslims'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
July 22, 2016 13:59 IST
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'Gau rakshak groups are beating Dalits and circulating videos on social media because they know that no one will touch them.'

IMAGE: Police try to detain Dalit protesters who blocked roads and attacked government buses in Ahmedabad. Photograph: PTI

Protesters from the Dalit community have blocked roads and attacked government buses in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat for the past four days over the flogging of four men accused of skinning a cow in Una.

A police officer has died in the most serious of protests that Gujarat has witnesses in years.

Jignesh Mewani, a social activist working for the land rights of Dalits in Gujarat, spoke to Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf on the violence and the underlying issues behind it.

What is happening in Gujarat? Why is there so much Dalit anger?

We all know that every village in India is affected by caste. After the rise of Hindutva forces in Gujarat, Manuwadi and Brahmanvaad forces have started systematically targeting and brutalising Dalits and Muslims.

This has started happening more often during Narendra Modi's regime. This issue was always on the boil and only waiting for a trigger, which has happened now.

In Una two years ago, one Dalit boy was burnt to death and therefore all these things were on the boil and this has led to the violence now.

Why blame Modi? He hasn't been in Gujarat for the last two years.

It is basically about the model; the design of governance. Dalits have been asking for justice, but there is none for them. Rajnath Singh, the home minister, said they will ask the CID (Crime Investigation Department) to probe the Una crime.

CID has investigated several atrocities against Dalits in Gujarat, but what has been the outcome of the result? Zero.

The rate of conviction is 3 to 7 per cent. If 100 cases were registered for atrocities against Dalits, justice has been served in only in 3 to 7 cases.

So, what kind of governance model is this? Rajnath Singh also said that these cases in Una will be tried in a special court, but in reality there is not a single special court as per the provisions in the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in any of the Gujarat districts.

So there was anger in the minds of the Dalits which has now spilled out on the roads of Gujarat.

What harm do these 'gau rakshak sevaks' (cow vigilantes) perpetrate against Dalits in Gujarat?

'Gau Rakshak' groups are fearless. They know that if they use the issue of 'gau mata,' the police will not touch them. They are openly beating Dalits and circulating videos on social media because they know that no one will touch them. Therefore, they are brutally beating Muslims and Dalits (in Gujarat) openly.

How many cases have been filed against these cow vigilantes for atrocities against Dalits? Are there any statistics?

There are no statistics as such. However, a trend has emerged in the last four to five years that show that these cow vigilantes, who used to target Muslims, are now even targeting Dalits.

IMAGE: A group of Dalit women hold a dharna in Surat against the brutal assault on Dalits in Una. Photograph: PTI

What is the reason, why Dalits?

It is more about politics. For four years, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) spoke of development, growth and progress, but with the elections around the corner, they will take up the issue of 'gau mata.'

They will start circulating videos on social media that cows are being slaughtered and ferried. That is their politics. They have always been doing this.

This time, these gau rakshaks thought that they will score politically in Una and get away easily, but this has become a big issue now. The media too has gone after them and has started putting pressure, otherwise the gau rakshaks and BJP have always been targeting Muslims and Dalits.

What is the socio-economic condition of Dalits in Gujarat?

Dalits are in a pathetic condition as far as their socio-economic condition is concerned in Gujarat. They are all landless.

Thousands of acres of land have been allotted and granted to Dalits all over Gujarat, but that is only on paper. Physical possession has not happened till date.

The land which has been given to Dalits is occupied by dominant castes and that is an offence under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and not a single case has been registered.

There are more than 100,000 sanitation workers in rural Gujarat who are Dalits. They are not even given minimum wages.

But, why now? Why have all the Dalits now come out to protest?

Their anger has been simmering for all this time. These videos now circulating has served as an impetus for them to come out and protest. This has been spontaneous and not organised.

What is the population of Dalits in Gujarat?

Dalits make up seven per cent of the population in Gujarat.

Of all the Dalits in Gujarat, only 7 per cent of them work in government jobs through reservation. The rest of them work as industrial workers in urban areas or landless farming labourers.

These landless farming labourers are compelled to skin dead cows. Even if that is not their choice they are compelled to do it. If Dalits refuse to skin the dead cattle, then they are socially boycotted.

Dr Ambedkar stated very clearly that Dalits must give up the job of skinning dead cows. Why are they still doing this job?

I have two points to make. Those who do it with the purpose of business and making money, I would not recommend them to get out. They are doing it by choice.

There is a second kind of group -- some Dalits are doing this business of caste system. They must get out of this. Now assume that if they want to get out of this work, what is the alternative employment?

I suggest to the government of Gujarat that they must give government land grants to the Dalits. If this was done earlier, many Dalits would not be in this profession.

What happens to the dead cows if Dalits refuse to skin them?

Dalits are compelled to do that work. If they do not do it, they will be socially boycotted.

Does the government have any plans in place for the dead cows and their disposal?

The government has no such plan. My suggestion to the government is that the Dalits must get alternative employment and they not be compelled to do this job. And if people who are forcing them to do it, then they should be charged under the Atrocities Act.

But who will do the work? Somebody has to skin dead cows.

Lots of people pose this question that if Dalits don't do it, who will? I think that society as a whole needs to think about this.

Secondly, you have to value the Dalit labourer's dignity. Thirdly, this work has to be done more professionally and if that is done, then people from other castes and religion too will come and do this job.

Why should only Dalits do this job?

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com
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