Vijay Deewan, 59, says he has no caste, no religion. But on much prodding he said that his mother and father were Brahmins. For the son of a Brahmin family to take up this profession in 1982, the resolve he must have had to annihilate the poison of India's caste system is something you can only imagine. It was this that made me think that amid the raging controversy over cow-vigilantism, I should introduce you to Vijay Deewan.
Brought up in Mumbai, when Vijay Deewan told his family about his decision, he did not face a lot of resistance. In his youth, he had become a follower of Gandhi, a deeply compassionate young man. He went to Gagode village, 100 kilometres from the metropolis of Mumbai, to live in the birthplace of social reformer Vinobha Bhave. Vijay Deewan has spent the rest of his life there.
Vijay Deewan says Dr BR Ambedkar declared that because of this work, untouchability was thrust upon the Dalits and that's why they should abandon it. Gandhi also believed this; so did Vinobha Bhave. But someone had to act on it. So I did, he said. Listening to Vijay Deewan felt much better than reading a fat book on sociology. There is no dignity in working with cow hides, he said. Even if it provides an income, why should Dalits do something which doesn't have any dignity? If the upper castes want someone to remove and skin dead cows, then they should do it, he told me.
Vijay Deewan says it should be acknowledged that cow hides are the natural assets of villages. Gandhi used to say that there should be a tannery next to every cowshed. Every year, 10 to 12 cows die in every village. Their skins are part of the village's economy. A raw hide sells for Rs. 700. Processing it with lime takes it to Rs. 2,000. There are 40,000 villages in Maharashtra. That's an income of around Rs. 40 crore. Shoes and several other things are made from these hides in the villages - that income should be factored in separately.
Vijay Deewan says he is not an animal lover of the activist type. He says that most Brahmins of Maharashtra are meat-eaters. So why shouldn't he chop and sell meat? And why was the cruelest punishment of the caste system heaped upon those who do it? Why was dignity stripped away from a job that serves society? People eat fish. Who gets the fish? People from the fishermen community. But why don't upper caste families allow marriages to them? Many people support the death penalty. But you know who the executioner is. Does anyone from an upper caste become an executioner? Please find out. People from the Matang community become executioners. Those who call for the death penalty, will they marry into the Matang community?
The experiences that have motivated the strong sentiments and expressions of Vijay Deewan are precious. The question of the cow's hide is not one of religion. It's an excuse of Hindutva politics to torment Dalits. This should stop. Dalits should immediately stop skinning cows and leave it to the rest of the society. First they suffered exclusion and now they are being killed over it. This should not be tolerated in independent India.