In the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx quotes Hegel and modifies him. He says, “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” Today this proverb seems apt to analyse Dalits, their traditional occupations and the atrocities they have to face because these jobs are considered “menial”. The protests by Dalit groups and their refusal to engage in their “traditional” occupations after young Dalit men were beaten up on charges of cow slaughter in Una is not without precedent.
With the support of the laws against untouchability promulgated after Independence, and under the influence of Dalit thinkers like Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram, Dalits, especially the Jatavs of UP, began a movement to put an end to traditional occupations like murda maveshi (dealing with dead cattle). This movement spread in the villages of UP between 1950-1980 and was called the Nara Maveshi movement. The men of the Jatav caste refused to dispose of the carcasses of animals. The women decided not to cut the umbilical cord of the new-born babies. They believed that they were considered “untouchable” due to these occupations.
The movement angered the savarnas, OBCs as well as a few other Dalit castes like Pasi, Kori etc. who occupied a better position within the Brahminical system. Enraged by their actions, these communities attacked, and set fire to Jatav hamlets. Such was the violence inflicted on the Jatavs that the thanas of UP in those days were inundated with FIRs against the perpetrators. Interestingly, even among the Jatavs, there was a significant section who continued with their caste-based profession. They argued that these jobs were their only source of livelihood. The Jatavs who have stopped this work have educated themselves, learnt modern occupations, and have made their social situation better.
Some Dalits living in poor conditions urban areas still undertake their “traditional” work as a side occupation. Of the many Dalits of who left these occupations during 1950-1980 in fear of the village chowdharies(caste “choudhuri”) of their own caste, few in the villages are now being compelled to back to these traditional occupations, since they have no other choice. In addition, dominant communities in villages are bringing extremely marginalised Jatavs from states like Bihar and MP and settling them in villages for the murda maveshi work. These Jatavs are called kor jatavs. Sadly, in addition to OBCs and savarnas, kors are discriminated against by their fellow Jatavs who once did the same jobs.
The bleak reality is that the people responsible for the atrocities committed on the Jatav castes over three decades are still roaming free. These criminals, who burnt hamlets and murdered pregnant women, are still not within the reach of the law because they have the support of politicians and officials.
Today, despite the expansion of the market economy, the story is repeating itself. Or at least a part of it. At various places, Dalits doing murda maveshi are being brutally beaten up by people with a Hindutva-Brahaminical mindset. Dalits are being subjected to violence, no matter what they do. If they refuse to follow their occupations they are pressurised to do so and when they begin practising their occupations they are beaten for killing the “sacred cow” for meat. Seeing their atrocious condition reputed Hindi poet Raghuvir Sahay wrote:
Ramdas us din udaas tha
Ant samay aa gaya paas tha
Use bata dia gaya tha
Uski hatya hogi’
(Ramdas was unhappy that day
His end time had come near
He had been told
He would be murdered)
Recently, two Dalit men in Una skinning a dead cow, were beaten brutally in the name of gau hatya. However two new points have emerged after the incident. First, prior to this, the news of such atrocities would be confined only to local newspapers. Now it has drawn the attention of the national media. Second, Dalit politics became empowered after 1980 with the advent of a political party like the BSP. Dalit civil society is also fighting against such atrocities in various states. In this situation, we have yet to analyse Marx’s proverb — whether this is a tragic history repeating itself as farce, or genuine social change.