For BJP chief Amit Shah, the NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind is a “party veteran born in a poor Dalit family who went the hard way up”. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi is “proud” that the Opposition’s choice Meira Kumar is “the second Dalit candidate for the post of President”.
In neither, says Balu Sarvaiya, does he see his aspirations fulfilled or his fears addressed. For now, that’s Mayawati.
“We are with whoever she is,” says Balu, 47, pointing to pictures of the BSP chief, B R Ambedkar and the Buddha mounted on the wall of his home at Mota Samadhiyala village in Gujarat’s Una taluka.
Balu was the face of the massive Dalit protests last year after his two sons and two nephews were among those tied to a vehicle and flogged on suspicion of having killed a cow last July 11. Police investigations later revealed the cow had been killed by a lion.
Days to go for elections to the country’s highest office, and nearly a year after the Una flogging, Sarvaiya was among 50 Dalits gathered inside a large room in Gir Gadhada, 30 km from his home, listening to a BSP leader charting a political position.
“We are soon going to see the election of our country’s President. Ram Nath Kovind and Meira Kumar are the two candidates. Till today, did we get to know what caste Pratibha Patil belonged to? Or Pranab Mukherjee? Now, they say it will be a Dalit Rashtrapati and that they are ours. We all know how much the Centre loves us, we have seen that in the last 65 years,” says one of the speakers, Gautam Jadav, from Vadviyala village nearby.
Also present in the room were Balu’s nephews, Bechar, 30, and Ashok, 20, whose terrified faces — along with those of his sons, Ramesh, 23, and Vashram, 25 — were captured on shaky mobile footage of the flogging last year.
The only one in Balu’s family for whom the names Kovind and Kumar carry some weight is Jitu, another nephew who recently completed an engineering course from Bhavnagar.
Balu would rather speak about his family’s plans to convert to Buddhism, fears that they would be attacked, happiness at the pucca house coming up opposite the old one, and despair at what he says is indifference by the authorities.
“Our family has given up the cow-skinning business, but the fear of attacks by gau rakshaks remains. We want our sons to settle in Ahmedabad,” says Balu.
“I will stay in this village, if they kill me there is no issue. They are angry, and can take revenge anytime. If my son was put in jail, I would feel the same. This time, when they attack us, there will be no video going viral, it will be a quiet affair,” says Balu.
Gujarat Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) have arrested 43 persons so far in the flogging case, including four policemen for allegedly fudging case records, and filed a chargesheet last year. Twenty accused, including the policemen and a prime accused Shanti Monpara, are out on bail.
Yet, Balu is angry that the government “did not keep any of its promises”. “Anandiben (the then Gujarat CM), Rahulbhai (Rahul Gandhi) and Arvind Kejriwal had come. They said that in 90 days, we will complete the case. The government said it would run the case in a special court. But nothing has been done,” says Balu.
“When the accused were brought from Rajkot jail to court, their relatives collected a crowd in the court to intimidate us and the prosecutor,” he says.
Balu is angry, too, about the new law in Gujarat that mandates life terms to those accused of cow slaughter. “Their laws only empower gau rakshaks. Why not empower sarpanches to book those who let their cows loose on the streets after having consumed their milk all their lives? How justified is that? The sarpanch should be empowered to impose a 10-year imprisonment on whoever lets go of their cow because she stopped giving milk. They should pay a Rs 5-lakh penalty,” he says.
His anguish is also because he says he was with the BJP for 20 years.
“I used to campaign for the BJP in 20 villages around here for the last 20 years. What should I think now? Modi saheb (Narendra Modi) spoke about us a month after the incident, when he said, ‘Shoot me, not the Dalits’. It took him a month, while Mayawati is the only one who raised it in Parliament. This time, we have to think and vote for whoever does good for us,” says Balu.
“This Dussehra, I am planning to formally convert to Buddhism with my entire family,” he says.
Balu’s anger is echoed by his son Ramesh, who got a Jai Bhim tattoo on the back of his right palm in January, and wears a “Sikh kada” on his right arm.
“We earned more from skinning cattle, but we don’t ever want to do it again, even if the law changes. They beat us only because of this (cow slaughter ban), isn’t it?” says Ramesh, who is training to become a tailor at the Dalit Shakti Kendra in Nani Devti village of Sanand taluka.
Ramesh got married in February and wants to set up a tailoring shop of his own. Vashram is in grief after his newborn baby died in hospital this March due to what his mother Kunwarben says was “a low heartbeat”.
From an earning of around Rs 50,000 from skinning dead cows, the family now has no livelihood, says Balu. They have two cows and two buffaloes, whose milk the family no longer sells, claims Vashram.
“We sit idle and eat from the money the government gave us,” says Balu, referring to the around Rs 15 lakh he says the family has received as compensation.
“Anandiben promised us a livelihood, jobs for our children. My daughter Vanita is a contract nurse at the civil hospital in Jamnagar, they promised her a permanent job, but nothing happened,” he says.
Balu and his wife were beaten when they went to plead with the attackers on behalf of their sons and nephews. “After the beating, our bodies cannot take heavy manual labour. My feet and hands swell,” he says.
The sense of despair echoes outside Balu’s home, too.
In Mota Samadhiyala, 100 toilets were built under the Swachh Bharat campaign, including 15 in the Dalit quarter. But the Rs 12,000, which was the government’s contribution for each toilet built, has still not been paid, claims Dhanji Korat, the BJP sarpanch.
“I must have visited government offices at least 30 times with all the documents but nothing has happened. Until the labourers are paid, more toilets cannot be built,” says Korat.
The only relief for Dalits here is that since they stopped skinning cows, they face less discrimination from upper castes.
“Now, they eat mava (betel, tobacco and lime paste) with us and have tea in our vessels. They even let us have tea and water from theirs. They tell us that the discrimination was because of the business we did,” says Balu.
Ramesh, meanwhile, insists that he knows nothing of the presidential election. Asked what he would wish from a Dalit President, he says, “I would ask why do Dalits always face atrocities?”