Though atrocity against the Dalits is a perennial affair, the incident in Gujarat on July 11 adds three new dimensions to the phenomenon. One, unlike in the past, the Dalits from the tanner community were accused of cow slaughter and beaten up by the gaurakshaks not only in their village, Samadhiyala, but also taken to Una town, more than 30 km away where they were tied to a car opposite a police station and flogged brutally. The cow vigilantes also forced a Muslim boy to thrash the Dalits to prove that Muslims are anti-beef. The video of the incident circulated on social media to give a message that those who do not follow the gaurakshaks diktats will be punished in the same manner.
Second, generally the cases of atrocities in the past — and even today— used to be related to economic issues related to land, wages, water, housing and/or the practice of untouchability. This time, the central issue was a willy-nilly resistance of the Dalits to follow the neo-Brahminical nationalist cultural practices conceived by Hindutva champions. Various outfits of the Sangh Parivar tell people what to eat, drink, dress and monitor their behaviour. The self-styled gaurakshaks keep a watch on cow slaughter. Four months ago, they organised a demonstration in Rajkot and gave a memorandum to the collector demanding that the cow be declared rashtramata. They also demanded a complete ban on the sale of beef in the country. As a part of this campaign, they have been asking tanners to give up their occupation.
Third, the protest against the incident and demand for justice by the Dalits is unprecedented. For the first time in Gujarat, as many as 20 young Dalits attempted suicide to express their anger and get justice. It showed their sheer helplessness. Moreover, for the first time in recent history, not only all the Dalit castes but also many OBCs, Muslims, and human right groups joined the protest.
The state government took the Una incident as a routine matter for the first eight days. This government has a tendency to ignore Dalit problems, or for that matter, the problems of the deprived communities. For example, in 2003, the government of Gujarat declared before the Supreme Court that the state was free from manual scavenging. But a study carried out in 2006 shows that there were 2,456 households and 4,333 persons engaged in manual scavenging. Half of them clean public toilets and remove night soil from roads. Nearly 20 per cent of the manual scavengers still carry human excreta in baskets, buckets or handcarts. On an average, more than 15 scavengers die every year of carbon monoxide poisoning while cleaning sewage blockages.
The extent and nature of untouchability in different spheres in rural Gujarat has not declined significantly since the formation of the state. In fact, the practice has made its way to new sites: Primary schools, drinking water facilities and public transport. In as many as 96 per cent villages, the SCs do not have access to the village burial grounds and in nearly every other village, the SCs do not get access to common grazing land. On the basis of a study of more than a thousand villages, Navsarjan, a civil society organisation, demonstrated, in 2006, that the extent of untouchability varied from 10 per cent to over 50 per cent villages in public health centres, public water facilities, mid-day meals, sitting arrangement in government schools and panchayat offices. The government did not accept these findings. And in order to counter Navsarjan’s findings, it hired an academic institution, which studied five villages to conclude that untouchability was a non-issue in the state.
The incidents of atrocities against the scheduled castes have not declined after the formation of the state. On an average, more than a thousand cases are reported in a year. They include rape, murder, and injury. The terror against Dalits, and the government’s indifference to it, has led to mass exodus of people from such communities in more than 20 villages. The implementation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is dismal at the state. A 2010 study of 400 cases adjudicated by the district courts in Gujarat since 1995 reveals utter negligence of police investigation. Public prosecutors — both at the higher and lower courts — are purposely hostile to the Dalits. In more than 95 per cent of the cases, technical lapses by the investigation and prosecution resulted in the accused being acquitted. In the remaining 5 per cent cases, court directives were flouted by the government. The government’s casual attitude is evident from the fact that it has not followed the rules of the act which require that cases under its purview be investigated by an officer, not above the rank of deputy superintendent of police. There is no “exclusive” court to adjudicate such cases as required by a directive of the Union government.