|The carcass of a cow lies in a neighbourhood in Surendranagar city
in Gujarat on Monday after Dalits refused to remove it
Basant Rawat and Agencies, TT, Ahmedabad, July 19: A feared backlash building up over cow vigilantism in several pockets in the country has exploded in Gujarat after a downtrodden section rose in rebellion and exposed at least one city to a civic nightmare.
Dalits in Gujarat are dumping carcasses, targeting policemen, consuming poison, torching buses and blocking highways to protest the thrashing of four youths for suspected cow slaughter last week.
One head constable died today as mobs attacked the police with stones in Amerli town in Saurashtra.
The protests began yesterday in the Saurashtra region, where last week the youths, who skin dead animals for a living, were assaulted with iron rods, chained to a car and dragged to a police station by the Gau Rakshak Dal, a cow vigilante group. A video of the assault, which took place in Una in Gir-Somnath district, later went viral.
“Cow protection committees” have mushroomed in several parts of the country in the past few months, which have taken upon themselves the task of roaming highways in search of alleged smugglers of cattle. Since beef is banned in most parts of the country, old and sick cattle are often smuggled across the border.
So long, cow vigilantes have been largely picking on minorities. On the outskirts of Delhi, a man was lynched on the mere suspicion that he stored beef in his home. In Jharkhand’s Latehar, two cattle-rearers were lynched and hanged from a tree in March to make it look like a suicide. The hand of a cow protection committee had been suspected but police did not confirm it.
The eruption in Gujarat brings into sharp focus a social element that is often forgotten when the sensitive religious factor is discussed: not all those who protect the cow offer it dignity in death and some want others to take care of what is often considered a menial task.
In Saurashtra, efforts have been made by some NGOs to persuade a section of Dalits to give up carcass collection and disposal. But the section of Dalits found a livelihood in the twin tasks as each carcass fetches between Rs 500 and Rs 800. The skin and the bones are also sold.
Last week’s assault threatened this livelihood. The economic cost of extreme forms of cow protection is another effect that is often ignored. Sections of minorities have complained for long that the clampdown on beef shuts down a source of income.
Now, the Dalits have realised that if they refused to remove the carcasses, there are few others willing to step in.
As the protests began gathering steam yesterday, Dalits in Surendranagar dumped about a dozen cow carcasses in front of the collector’s office.
Among those who joined the carcass protest at Surendranagar were Baljibhai Chavda, 52, and his sons Tulsi, Kesar and Lalji. They are among hundreds of Dalits who earn a living by skinning dead animals.
But last week, Baljibhai asked his sons to give up the job. It was only after the Surendranagar collector, Udit Agrawal, and nagar palika officials pleaded with the Dalits sitting on dharna that they agreed to remove the carcasses last evening.
Before that, they asked Agrawal to give in writing that the administration would ensure there would be no repeat of the Una assault and nobody would harass them. “I told them we will do our best to ensure their safety from vigilante groups who will face strict action,” the collector said.
Agrawal claimed that things were under control now in the district, barring a few protests. But sources in Surendranagar said that Dalits had decided to give up their job of removing dead cows and skinning them. The collector, however, said: “No, I am not aware of any such thing.”
Natu Parmar, a Surendranagar-based Dalit activist, said about a hundred animals die on average in the district daily. There are about a dozen cow shelters, with over 5,000 animals in each shelter.
Baljibhai said he had been getting several calls from people to remove dead animals but he had put them off.
His 25-year-old son Lalji, who also doubles as a shoeshine boy, said his family wasn’t the only one that had decided to give up the profession. Hundreds of Dalits living in over 300 villages and towns in the district had decided that they would not collect dead animals, he said.
Other forms of protest are also taking shape. Three youths attempted suicide by drinking poison in Junagadh district but survived.
Jayanti Makadia, a Dalit commentator, said: “The attempted suicide by the Dalit youths is a desperate measure to draw attention to their plight. If they try to retaliate, elders tell them not to take the law in their hands. So, this is the only way they can make their point.”
Buses were damaged and road blockades put up in various places across Junagadh, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Amreli districts.
Chief minister and BJP leader Anandiben Patel, who has ordered a CID probe into the thrashing, tweeted: “Gujarat government is fully committed to protection and development of weaker sections of society.”
Political parties, vying for the Dalit votebank ahead of next year’s Gujarat elections, expressed solidarity with the victims. While Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal scheduled a visit to Una on July 22, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel tweeted: “Failure to protect Dalits… is absolutely shocking. Is it the Gujarat model?”
The police have arrested nine persons in connection with the Una assault and suspended four policemen, including an inspector, for dereliction of duty. But “it is too little, too late”, said Dalit activists.