BY JULY last year, Balu Sarvaiya’s family had completed the construction of two pucca houses and a cattle-shed on his one-bigha farm in Kanada Sim area, around half-a-kilometre from Mota Samadhiyala village. They had also completed reinforcing their agricultural well with concrete and were planning to shift to their new home.
They never did.
On July 11 last year, Balu’s sons Vashram (26) and Ramesh (23), cousin Ashok Sarvaiya (20) and their relative Bechar (30) were brutally assaulted by a group of “gau rakshaks” while skinning a dead cow near the village. The cow vigilantes accused them of killing the cow. After they were alerted about the attack, Balu and his wife Kunvar rushed to the spot. They too were beaten up.
The “gau rakshaks” also beat up another Dalit, of neighbouring Bediya village, Devshi Babariya, as well as the owner of the cow, Naja Shyora. Later, Vashram, Ramesh, Ashok and Bechar were taken in an SUV to Una town, tied to the vehicle, and flogged by cow vigilantes all the way from the bus stand to a spot near the Una police station.
After the incident, says Vashram, “Out of fear for our lives, we stayed put in our one-room home in Dalit Vas in the village.”
While Balu has since done some more work on his houses on the farm, the family is also constructing a pucca house in the Dalit Vas, opposite the kuchcha one they stay in. He has already spent around Rs 1.3 lakh on it and is seeking assistance under the government’s Ambedkar Awas Yojana (AAY). Vashram hopes to get the benefit too, to build a house on the plots the government assigned to 15 Dalits of Mota Samadhiyala in Khajuriya Pir area of the village.
In the year since, the government has also concretised the lanes in the Dalit Vas. Vashram re-appeared for Class 12 Board examinations this March for social science, geography and English, but could clear only geography. “I hope to clear the examination so that I can be eligible for some government job, like a peon’s,” says Vashram. His wife Manisha is still in trauma from the death of their first child, a girl, hours after she was born around two months ago.
Balu’s younger son Ramesh and daughter Vanita, a nurse at a hospital in Jamnagar, have both got married in the past year.
Ramesh recently concluded a training course in garment-sewing at the Dalit Shakti Kendra in Sanand, run by an NGO. These days, he has been visiting villages near Mota Samadhiyala to study the condition of Dalits there and prepare brief reports. “Visiting villages and reporting the condition of Dalits was also part of my training at the Kendra. Till the time I am here, I will keep visiting the Dalits and try to persuade them to get some training which can help them in self-employment,” says Ramesh.
Ashok Sarvaiya’s family continues to live in a one-room house with tin-sheets as roof. The only addition is a pigeon house and an old TV which Ashok’s sister gifted them. His father Bijal (48) too was allotted a residential plot after the Una assault, but the family has no plans yet to build a new home.
While Ashok’s elder brother Kanti is a construction labourer, father Bijal tills one bigha of government land and doubles up as an agricultural worker. “Over the last year, work opportunities have dwindled here so I go to work on farms of nearby Navagam village,” says Bijal.
While Ashok is fond of his pigeons, what he loves most are his smartphone and his new motorcycle. In jeans and chewing a mix of betel nut and tobacco, Ashok loves speeding down the streets of Mota Samadhiyala. His parents admit they are worried. “He remains terrified at night. Therefore, he goes to bed only past midnight and wakes up very late in the morning. Since he wakes up late, he doesn’t go to work as labourer,” says mother Vimla.
Bechar, who was also beaten up on July 11, stands apart from Veshram and Ashok in his worn-out T-shirt and soiled trousers. His left temple is bandaged from an accident he had while cutting firewood. Till a few weeks ago, he was living in a small hut in Dalit Vas, but recently moved into a new house he constructed at a cost of around Rs 80,000.
“Bechar’s younger brother Natha allowed us to construct this home on the plot he owns. We may have to vacate this if Natha demands,” worries Hansa, Bechar’s wife.
She has another worry: “Bechar has not gone to work for one full day since the attack. One day, he did attempt. But his legs and other parts started aching and we had to go to a hospital.”
Vashram says Devshi Babariya (32), the Dalit from Bediya village who was also attacked, has shifted to Surat and now runs a small diamond polishing unit.
After videos of the assault went viral, drawing political leaders to Mota Samadhiyala, the Gujarat government had paid Rs 4 lakh as compensation to each victim, while BSP chief Mayawati had offered them Rs 2 lakh each and the Congress promised around Rs 5 lakh.
Vashram says each victim got Rs 7 lakh on an average, while the Rs 5 lakh given by the Congress were kept aside to fight the case in courts. “It is the videos of the incident that saved us. Had the shopkeepers and others not shot those videos, nobody would have known what happened to us,” Balu says.
However, there has been some dispute with other members of the community regarding the relief. The money given by the Congress was transferred to Vashram’s account and the Sarvaiyas have been accused of cornering the financial aid. Balu says the allegation is wrong.
“There is a huge list of witnesses. If any one of them turns hostile, I will drag them to the high court and even the Supreme Court. This is the reason we have kept the Rs 5 lakh in Vashram’s account. Going to courts, attending meetings of the community costs money. How much can I spend from my own pocket?… I know, the moment I distribute this amount among the rest of the victims, they will forget about the case,” he claims.
Admitting that some Dalit activists too had distanced themselves from his family due to differences, Balu adds, “Yes, the Dalits of Una taluka are drifting away from us, but I can understand their position. They are being pressured by local BJP leaders. But the larger Dalit community is still with us and we shall fight for justice.” Balu claims to have shifted his loyalties from the BJP to Mayawati.