Saturday, July 23, 2016

Parimal Dabhi - Gujarat Dalit flogging: ‘If we are treated this way for cleaning their filth, we won’t do it at all’

For generations, Dalits in Mota Samadhiyala village of Gujarat’s Una taluka have faced discrimination at the hands of the upper castes. But this time, when seven of them were flogged for skinning a dead cow, something snapped.

A couple of days after July 11, Dosubhai Sarvaiya, a 23-year-old Dalit from Mota Samadhiyala village of Una taluka in Gujarat’s Gir Somnath district, decided he wouldn’t do what he had grown up doing, what his father did before him and what his grandfather did before that: lifting dead cows that belonged to the upper castes. “If we are treated this way for cleaning their filth, we won’t do it at all. Let them do it themselves and then they will know our worth,” says Dosubhai, who lives with his two younger brothers and their 60-year-old mother Amriben.

That was a big decision for Dosubhai, who earned Rs 300 for every cow he skinned. But on July 11, when his relative Balu Sarvaiya and six others were flogged by a group of ‘gaurakshaks’ for skinning a dead cow, Dosubhai says he decided he wouldn’t take things lying down. News of the July 11 attack spread fast and soon, egged on by videos that were shared on social media, Dalits across the state took to the streets, with violence being reported from Rajkot city, Rajkot district, Surendranagar, Amreli, Junagadh and Ahmedabad. Protesters dumped a truckload of cow carcasses outside the collector’s office in Surendranagar district and elsewhere, Dalits attempted to immolate themselves. For a community that has rarely seen such consolidation, the protests brought out people in huge numbers and a rattled administration scrambled to contain them.

*****
Back in the Dalit quarter of Mota Samadhiyala village, it’s easy to see the source of that anger.
Mota Samadhiyala, 20 km from Una town, is a village of around 3,000, with the upper-caste Patidars (Patels) dominating the numbers, followed by other castes  such as Kshatriyas, Kolis, Valand and  the Dalits.

The Dalit basti is on the edge of Mota Samadhiyala, in a low-lying part of the village. Villagers say the 25 Dalit families here are close-knit and related to each other. While there are no visible lines that demarcate the upper caste areas from this basti, the divide runs deep. While the rest of the village has multi-storeyed homes and concrete roads, the Dalit colony has kuccha homes, mostly one-room tenements. Barring a few homes, most have no electricity, drains or toilets. “Most of us don’t have toilets; we simply go to the field nearby,” says Dhanji Sarvaiya, 32, a villager. Most homes have temporary structures that serve as bathrooms — stones stacked up to form walls — with the water spilling on to the streets.

Hajabhai Sarvaiya, in his mid-40s, says, “The government gives Rs 11,000 to build toilets. But it’s not easy to get that money — officials ask for a bribe of around Rs 2,000. How can someone who earns Rs 150 a day pay that kind of money?” Dhanji says, “Most of us are illiterate and do not know how to apply for government schemes. Who do we approach?”

Water and electricity are in short supply too. The only hand pump in the Dalit basti belongs to Balu Sarvaiya, who was attacked on July 11. He installed it a couple of years ago and now villagers line up outside his house to collect water. Earlier, people in the basti would depend on the irregular panchayat water supply and the nearby Raval river for water.

Except for 3-4 houses, the others don’t have a legal electricity connection. “Very few houses have electricity connections with meters. We applied twice for a meter, but haven’t got it yet. Almost all the Dalit houses draw electricity from the wires passing through the locality. There are raids at least twice a year and the electricity company fines each household Rs 7,500. People borrow to pay those fines,” says a villager.

Gir Somnath collector Ajay Kumar says the district administration is working to change things in Mota Samadhiyala’s Dalit basti. “We are going to hold a camp in the village to talk to them about health and education. We will also provide them help under the Indira Awas Yojana.” People in the basti mostly work as farm labourers and supplement their income by skinning dead cows. Villagers say Balu Sarvaiya’s family handles the skinning trade. He gets about two dead cows a day for skinning and he assigns the work to the other families in the colony. There is no job a Dalit can refuse. Which is why, Dosubhai’s decision not to “clean their filth” anymore is radical in these parts.

“For generations, we have been discriminated against and we would tolerate it silently. But this time, we have been beaten up for doing the kind of job these people would never do. We are also Hindus and we never kill cows. In fact, we give cows an honourable exit. And still, we face this humiliation. All this angers us, but we have never had the strength or the courage to oppose them. But this time, we could see that the entire community was standing by us. So, we feel a lot empowered,” says Dhanjibhai Sarvaiya, 32.

*****
Many see the events of the last few days as a spontaneous outburst against generations of discrimination and subjugation. Dalits in Mota Samadhiyala are not allowed into its two temples, Ramji Mandir and Swaminarayan Mandir. Villagers say there has never been any tension over temple entry because the Dalits never tried to “break rules”. “We have never tried to enter these temples. It is a tradition we have followed for generations. Plus, we are illiterate and we work on the farms of the upper castes. In such a situation, how can we think of challenging rules,” says Dhanji.

“If there is something important, say, we are part of a wedding procession, we stop outside the temple and take the blessings of the deity from outside,” says Jaya, Dhanji’s wife. Dhanji then rushes inside his house and brings out a small steel bowl. “You ask us about discrimination. Look at this bowl. We have to carry this with us when we go to work in their fields. They give us water and food in this bowl. They pour us drinking water from a height, making sure they don’t touch our bowls.”

Kanti Korat, the former sarpanch of Mota Samadhiyala, says, “We have never stopped them from entering the village. In fact, they have never asked to enter the temple. They are merely following an old tradition.” Collector Kumar denies any caste discrimination. “We have made 2-3 visits to the village and nobody has complained about discrimination. The villagers live in harmony; we have not received any such complaint,” he says. Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit activist from Ahmedabad, says nothing could be further from the truth. The recent uprising, he says, was waiting to happen, that it’s simply an uncorked bottle now.

“The Una incident has sparked a lot of anger among the community. The outburst was spontaneous and vociferous, especially in Saurashtra because for the past many years the region has been boiling. Recently, a Dalit was killed in Porbandar. Then in Una taluka in 2012, a Dalit youth was set on fire and killed by an upper-caste mob. The family, which had to migrate to Una town, is yet to get the compensation the government had promised them. Similarly, a Dalit youth in Gondal had died in police custody. Apart from that, hundreds of Dalits in the state are yet to get possession of surplus land under the provisions of the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act — it’s criminal negligence on the part of the state government.”

The anger, Mevani says, also reflects a generational shift in thinking. Many of those who took part in the recent protests were youngsters who declared they wouldn’t face the humiliation that their parents put up with. Sitting on a cot in his house that has a poster of B R Ambedkar on its tiled wall, Jitu Sarvaiya says, “We keep asking our elders why can’t we speak up and stop this humiliation. We too want to go and play garba during Navratri with all the people of the village. We too want to lead a dignified life, but people keep a physical distance from us. The elders tell us that we are financially weak and should not confront them.” 

For a community where few make it to school, Jitu’s is a rare success story. The 22-year-old is studying for his BTech in electronics and communication from an engineering college in Bhavnagar. Jitu, and Balu Sarvaiya’s daughter Vanita, who is a nurse at a government hospital in Jamnagar, are the only two in the Dalit colony to have cleared Class X.

Mota-Samadhiyala has a primary school with classes up to VIII. The school has 155 students, of which only 21 are Dalits. The nearest high school is in Samter village, 10km away, and few from among the Dalits go there. Jitu’s parents Hajabhai Sarvaiya and Naniben say they are “great believers in the value of education”. While Jitu is doing his engineering, their younger son, Vijay, is in Class VIII. Hajabhai, who used to work as a diamond polisher in south Gujarat, says he moved back to his village two years ago when the industry went through a slump and he lost his job.

Naniben says, “We realise how bad the situation is for us Dalits. But we also know that only education can liberate us and therefore, unlike many others in our basti, we decided we will never force our children to start working.” A few homes away, Bhana Sarvaiya settles down to talk in a shed near his house. Of his five children, none has cleared Class XII. This year, his son Hasmukh failed his Class XII Board examination. “He had to work on the farms and couldn’t study properly,” Bhana says in his son’s defence. Both his daughters dropped out of school after they failed their Class X. “I can’t afford to educate my children anymore. I earn Rs 150 a day from working as a farm hand. I can only leave the education of my children to fate. A Dalit will study only if he is destined to,” he says.