On the eve of Gandhi Jayanti, a 20-year-old Dalit youth was murdered for watching the garba outside a temple in a village near Anand in Gujarat. The accused, seven men and a 17-year-old from the Patel community, have been arrested and sent to judicial custody. A few days earlier, two Dalits from Gandhinagar had been attacked by upper-caste Hindus for sporting a moustache. It is the responsibility of the Vijay Rupani government to send out the message that the state will not tolerate caste atrocities.
Issues of caste discrimination receded into the background in Gujarat after the anti-reservation riots in the 1980s and politics shifted towards a consolidation of Hindu identity in the 1990s. The 2002 riots ripped apart the state’s social fabric. The pursuit of justice for the riot victims kept alive the question of the alienation of Muslims and discrimination against them. With the passing of years, the Muslim question has receded to the background — without a resolution of fundamental issues like justice and reconciliation — and the faultlines within the Hindu fold are now coming to the fore. The Patidar agitation of 2015 and last year’s Dalit protests following the Una outrage reflect a restive society. The assault on seven Dalits in Una by self-proclaimed gau rakshaks triggered a massive mobilisation in the state and threw up a new, energetic leadership from the community that culminated in the Dalit Asmita Yatra. While the Patidar protests have continued unabated, the Dalit movement seems relatively less vigorous. This could also be a reflection of demography since the Dalits constitute just about seven per cent of the state’s population. However, the post-Una Dalit mobilisation did move the state government to address issues of Dalit discrimination: Setting up 16 special courts for speedy trial of cases registered under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 was a step in the right direction. Studies and surveys point to rampant discrimination against Dalits, especially in rural Gujarat.
On the eve of a crucial assembly election, the BJP’s record in office will come under enhanced scrutiny. The much-touted Gujarat Model was about projecting high economic growth and achievements in building physical infrastructure. The Patidar agitation demanding reservations in education and employment, however, indicates that the Gujarat Model could not lift all boats. The anti-Dalit violence must be addressed before it further imperils social peace in an already restless state.