In a desolate area surrounded by hillocks, in Mota Samadhiyala village in the Una taluka of Gir Somnath district, where four young Dalit were tied to an SUV and flogged for “killing a cow” by gau rakshaks one year ago, lay the carcasses of two cows, one of them mauled possibly by a lion, and a hide on which maggots were feasting. No Dalit or anyone else from the village has cared to clean this up.
The Una incident went on to become a defining moment in Dalit self-awareness, another instance on the journey to renewed Dalit activism. In hundreds of villages across Gujarat since, the Dalit subcaste called “chamars” or Jatavs, who are traditionally engaged in the leather tanning business, have taken a vow that they will quit the cleaning and clearing of cow carcasses if they don’t get the respect they deserve by Indians of other castes.
So as the Gujarat government busies itself with meeting its Open Defecation Free (ODF) targets, the question of what to do with the remains of rotting bovines, which are breeding grounds for disease with the onset of the monsoon – despite the official popularity of the Swachh Bharat Mission – remains unaddressed.
Meanwhile, the Gujarat BJP tom-toms its achievement in passing the new law imprisoning anyone for life if convicted for cow slaughter. The party probably forgot that the Dalit community, whom none other than prime minister Narendra Modi is feting these days, owes its livelihood to the cleaning of carcasses. And when there are no carcasses, there is no work.
Certainly in Gujarat, Dalits have hardly been at the centre of the BJP’s politics, because they comprise only 7 per cent of the population. Second, they are scattered across the state and thus cannot be organised as a constituency that can be wooed. Unlike tribals who are confined to eight districts along the eastern stretch of Gujarat, Dalits are found in almost 13,000 of the 18,000 villages. This is why the Gujarat government says it has been unable to allocate a budget proportionate to the Scheduled Caste (SC) population.
In contrast, Gujarat’s 14 per cent tribal population is found in 8 districts, which makes it easier for the BJP to reach out to the community. In February, notably, the Adivasi Gaurav Vikas Yatra travelled through all eight districts. Soon, when the Bharatiya Bauddh Sangh, a Dalit Buddhist outfit takes out a Dalit Rath Yatra on the lines of a similar yatra on the eve of the UP elections, the BJP will support it.
For the Dalits themselves, the BJP has decided to take another route. Instead of “chamars,” the subcaste will now be called “Rohits.” The areas in which these Dalits live, known as “chamarvaas” will now be called “Rohitvaas.”
What’s in a name, after all?
The Dalit name-change, announced last October, was followed up by another name-change this January, this time the specific target being the ‘Garoda’ or Garo Dalits, who are priests in the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. Gujarat social justice minister Atmaram Parmar has recently declared that the word “Dalits” will be dropped from official parlance – henceforth, they will known as Scheduled Castes, the term introduced during the British Raj and which was incorporated by the early leaders of independent India.
Instead of acknowledging the tremendous importance of the essential work that Dalits carry out on a daily basis, without which daily life would come to a halt – and which the government should have strategically invoked to make them a part of its sanitation mission — the government has chosen to reject the community’s very identity derived from its occupation.
Driving the “chamars” to joblessness was an easy tactic to have the upper castes take over the profitable leather industry, Dalit activists say. Except Dalits will, eventually, be employed in the “dirtiest” parts of the job. This is exploitation than empowerment, the activists add.
Dalit groups have already been protesting the contractual labour system in urban local bodies for cleaning and sanitation jobs and demanding that ‘safai kamdars’ or sanitation workers be taken on employment rolls.
Balu Sarvaiya’s family, which was beaten up by the self styled cow vigilantes in Mota Samadhiyala village of Una taluka last year on suspicion that his boys had killed the cow they were skinning, is living on the compensation it got from the Gujarat government – but only after Mayawati and other political leaders raised a political stink after the matter went public through social media videos.
In the uprising that followed, Dalits began to give up their employment in these “dirty” jobs. Safai kamdars employed by urban local bodies in several cities and towns in Gujarat, temporarily struck work demanding to be made permanent employees. There has been no solution to that yet.
Those Dalits who choose to continue working in the carcass-clearing business, risk being isolated by their community. Attacks on both Dalits and Muslims on suspicion of cow slaughter have not stopped after Una, just that there haven’t been as many videos going viral.
Meanwhile, NGOs working for Dalit rights and equipping them for an alternate livelihood, like the 27-year old Navsarjan trust in Ahmedabad, find themselves pushed to a wall. Navsarjan’s FCRA licence was cancelled last December. This NGO is training the younger of Balu’s sons, Ramesh, who was among the four tied to the SUV and flogged in Una last year, to become a tailor.
The NGO recently launched an unusual series of protests before every Dalit MLA against incidents like Una and Saharanpur. A small transparent jar filled with plastic found from dead cow’s bellies was a part of the memorandum handed to the MLAs, to demonstrate to them what stray cows were really dying of.
Meanwhile, 47-year-old Balu — who grew up watching his father tan the hide of dead cows to make leather that went to cobblers who made shoes, who trained under him and took over his business, and in turn trained his sons — says he has given up the trade completely after the public assault on him and his family.
Balu used to tan five cow carcasses a day, earning Rs 200-300 per carcass…This will give you, dear reader, an idea of the kind of rotting flesh one can expect this monsoon, especially in the rural areas, if the Dalits keep their vow.
Dalits in the leather tanning business say that by strengthening the cow protection law, the BJP has only further empowered the cow vigilantes, which are backed by saffron organisations. Ahead of the crucial assembly election later this year, the Hindu Yuva Vahini founded by Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, wants a toehold in Gujarat; the VHP and Bajrang Dal are also mobilising themselves, frequently hosting trishul diksha samarohs, the ceremonial donation of trishuls to participants.
A sample of how handing the reins to cow vigilantes could change the social and political narrative played out recently in a village in Navsari district, called Jamalpur, where a gram sabha member proposed changing the name of the village to ‘Rampur’ and ban the sale of non-vegetarian food, because it had only three Muslims houses in a population of 7000, and no mosque.
The sarpanch of the village, Sajan Bharwad, who also leads the local Gau Rakshak Dal in south Gujarat, is dreaded by the butchers in this region. But the proposal has so far evoked mixed responses and will now be discussed in the panchayat.
The Muslims of Jamalpur await the decision.