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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 39 New Delhi September 17, 2016

Understanding Dalit Assertions

Sunday 18 September 2016

by Suranjita Ray

The recent mobilisation of Dalits to assert their rights to livelihood and dignity has once again reminded us that the state has failed them. By imposing disparaging occupations on the Dalits, such as manual scavenging and skinning of dead cows, the legacy of the upper- caste domination has been sustained. Despite the welfare policies based on affirmative action and protective discrimination, the everyday experiences of deprivation and violence of the Dalits are a consequentiality of the oppressive relations embedded in the social, economic, cultural and political history of the country. The dominant castes spare no opportunity to exploit, suppress, deprive, and alienate the Dalits, in particular the landless, who are pushed to the periphery as dispossessed, marginalised, and disempowered. Thus the constructions of the powerful class and the periphery class are mutually constituted.

While the processes of domination and deprivation have its lineage in the exploitative structures of the colonial state, they have been re-established due to the alliance of the post-colonial state with the hegemonic class, invariably belonging to the upper castes. The dominant class and the ruling class draw on each other to reinforce the structures, institutions and practices of hierarchy and control. Notwithstanding the attempts of the dominant castes to bully the lower castes into silence, the Dalits’ unrest in Gujarat and elsewhere has resulted in a large mobilisation that is unprece-dented. The emergence of organised Dalit protests is a turning-point in India’s political history as it has exposed not just the denial of justice to the majority, but the perpetrators of violence as well.

However, it is critical to ask if the Dalit assertions will actually break the hierarchies deeply entrenched in the caste system which ensures that the Dalits are placed at the bottom, as subjects of the practices of untouchability and humiliation. Such experiences are not occurrences that are abrupt and unforeseen. They need to be explained in terms of their continuity. The narratives of these experiences become significant as they explain a genealogy of the historical, social, economic, political and cultural reality.

Cow Protection Squads

The recent instances of becoming vigilant about cow slaughters, that have resulted in massacres and atrocities against the Dalits and Muslims need to be understood. Though cow protection movements have their historical legacy, attempts to institutionalise cow vigilantism have been deeply disquieting.

The heinous incident in Una in Gir Somnath district in Gujarat on July 11, 2016 where the gau rakshaks stripped and flogged four Dalit men in public in front of the Una Police Chowki, accusing them of killing a cow for skinning, has exposed the sense of impunity that the perpetrators of violence enjoy. Neither the public nor the police intervened to stop the whipping. In fact, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s argument that making the cow a metaphor for the strategy for ‘skin for skin’ explains the convoluted inhumanity. (Shepherd, 2016: 12)

On July 17 nearly 40 Bajrang Dal activists brutishly attacked a Dalit family on charges of eating beef in Karnataka ruled by the Congress. A similar incident of violence on October 15, 2002, when five Dalits were beaten to death for merely skinning a dead cow in Jhajjar district in Haryana, illustrates the quandary of the Dalits. The rumour of killing a cow had spread. And till today no one knows what happened to the killers. (Ibid.)

A year back, on September 28, 2015, in Bisara village near Dadri Taluka in Uttar Pradesh a Hindu mob lynched a Muslim family, killed 52- year-old-Mohammad Akhlaq and seriously injured his son Danish, alleging that they had killed a cow and consumed the beef on Eid-ul-Adah.

This most cruel and inhuman happening exposed the growing intolerance towards diversity and plurality that kept the country united for centuries. It led to widespread criticism and sharp condemnation from the political parties across ideologies. However, some believed that it was an accident, while others argued that the ‘Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef. The cow is an article of faith here.’ (Manohar Lal Khattar, the Chief Minister of Haryana) Two Muslim men were hanged to death from a tree for cattle trading in a village in Jharkhand earlier this year. Most recently two Muslim women, suspected of carrying beef, were thrashed by cow vigilantes/gau rakshaks in Mandsaur district of Madhya Pradesh in the presence of the police, who refused to intervene. The captured images show that the women were kicked, slapped and abused by a mob. The meat was later found to be that of a buffalo.

The persistence of such tragedies and their recurrence must be seen as morally outrageous and politically unacceptable in the context of the democratic transformations that have seen an unprecedented expansion of the social welfare state and its constitutional responsibilities to secure the basic rights to the people.

In the context of the growing intolerance towards the dissenting voices, and attempts to preserve ‘narrow nationalism’ that excludes the alternative viewpoints as anti-national and anti-democratic, deciding food habits has become a prerogative of the ruling class and their ideology. Though several writers have returned their awards in protest against such growing intole-rance, it has made little impact and we see an increase in the number of self-proclaimed vigilantes who take the responsibility of protecting cows on behalf of the Hindu religion, society and also the state. Who are to be blamed for such cold-blooded murders—the vigilantes who have proclaimed such responsibilities or the social and political system which has failed to avert such attacks by the vigilantes? The nationwide outrage that followed the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad Central University was because he had blamed the system for his death in his suicide note.

More often than not, the dialect of merit, modernity, development, and national interest has been dogged by the dominant class and caste. While Indian democracy has experienced the emergence of class-and caste-based parties to represent distinct group identities, including the lower castes, and their interests, the underlying causes of their deprivation and humiliation remain unaddressed. The nexus between the economically dominant class and the ruling parties continues irrespective of whom the political parties represent. This alliance has not only resulted in the increasing inequalities and violation of citizenship rights but also raises pertinent questions about the kind of democracy that is practised. We have seen how the glorification of Khap Panchayats that sanction honour killings has resulted in the worst form of violence and injustice against the Dalits. The return of cow protection to India’s mainstream politics saw the assault on indivi-dual freedom and democratic rights of the Dalits and Muslims in particular in Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. The perpetrators of violence need to be punished.

Pledging Continuity to Fight

In a rejoinder to the recent repeated attacks on Dalits, the Dalit Ashmita Yatra from Ahmedabad to Una saw the spontaneous participation of large numbers of common people from across the country. Individuals, groups, trade unions, Dalit Sangharsh Samitis, and workers’ unions have expressed their solidarity to resurface the increasing conflicts between the powerful and the powerless.

On July 18 and 19 hundreds of Dalits took to the streets in Saurashtra in protest against the Una incident. The Muslims joined thousands of Dalits in the protest. Mob violence led to the killing of a policeman, burning of buses, blocking of roads and highways. Many Dalits attempted to kill themselves, and two among them died. In each meeting the Dalits vowed not to skin dead cows henceforth as a mode of protest, and dumped truckload of cow carcasses outside the Collector’s office in Surendranagar. Since it has remained obligatory for certain categories of Dalits (Chamars and Valmikis) to carry corpses of dead animals, the gau rakshaks find the refusal of the Dalits to handle cow carcasses as inappropriate.

Dalits marched in big numbers and were joined by other progressive forces of Gujarat to organise a huge rally in Ahmedabad that would have reached Una on the eve of the Independence Day. The Dalit leaders decided not to include the Dalit supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Dalit Mahasammelan in Ahmedabad on July 31 addressed the deprivation of land rights and landlessness as the root cause of Dalit vulnerability. The Una Dalits demanded ‘land to lead a life of dignity’ and refused relief measures offered as compensation. They pledged to continue to fight.

The August 15 rally by the Dalits in Una has raised voices against the inadequacies of the reser-vation system, and the implementation of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act 2015 which makes it mandatory to have special courts for trial of cases of atrocities against SCs and STs.

While the Gujarat Government has arrested 16 accused and filed cases against the accused under various sections of the SC/ST (Prevention Atrocities) Act, and has also approached the High Court for setting up a designated court to ensure speedy trial of the case, the Dalit leaders from Gujarat at a more recent rally on September 2 marked the conclusion of the five-day Yatra by the Gujarat Dalit Sanman Sangharsh Manch, near the Sabarmati Ashram, and threatened to teach a lesson to the BJP in the Assembly polls 2017. They condemned the BJP Government for its delay and inadequate action against the culprits involved in the Una Dalit flogging incident.

The established order fears a strong unity among the Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Castes (OBCs), and Muslims. A protest rally has been planned in front of Parliament and this is expected to be a massive rally against cultural nationalism and atrocities committed on the Dalits by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Prakash Ambedkar, the leader of the Republican Party of India (RPI) and convener of the Dalit Swabhiman Sangharsh (DSS), stated that the rally will consolidate all pro-Dalit forces. (The Hindu, 2016: 5) Apart from the Dalit organisations, Left and socialist groups will also join the rally.

Winning Support 

The narratives of the minorities provide an explanation of the processes of deprivation that consciously saw its lineage in the exploitative structures of the past. To prevent such atrocities in future it is imperative to draw lessons from such experiences. But what is perturbing is that the political parties leave no stone unturned to cash in on such opportunities.

The BJP claims that ‘the atrocities on the Dalits are a carry over from the past that the Congress party should account for’. (M. Venkaiah Naidu, Minister of Urban Development) Opposition leaders from the Congress party, BSP, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have rushed to Mota Samadhiyala village of Una taluka after the incident to make political capital out of it. Though political groups that champion cow protection in their political campaigns have dissociated from the criminals as they fear the electoral fallout of Dalit anger, can they afford to lose the votes of the majority Hindus who show their solidarity with the protectors of cow? While the subjugations, exploitations and violence against Dalits has increased in the States ruled by different political parties, the BJP’s anxiety to win the Dalit votes has forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence on cow vigilantes in the country. After nearly a month of the Una incident, followed by public outrage, the Prime Minister in his address to mark the second anniversary of the BJP Government’s “MyGov Initiative”, has strongly condemned the actions of cow protectors as ‘anti-social elements masquerading as gau rakshaks’. He said that ‘some people indulge in anti-social activities at night and in the day masquerade as cow protectors’. Terming them as fake cow protectors he gave the signal to all the States to make a list of these self-styled gau rakshaks and take them to task.

Whether fake or real, cow protection has become a threat to the freedom, dignity and lives of the Dalits and Muslims. It has become business for many who claim themselves as supporters of the ideology of Hindutva. Armed men of the self-proclaimed vigilantes seize vehicles transporting animals or raid slaughter houses suspecting slaughtering of cows. The tragedy in Una and Dadri shows that both the Dalits and Muslims are victims of oppressions and exploitations by the upper-caste Hindus. The fear of the coming together of the Muslims and Dalits has become worrisome for many political parties across ideological divides. However, this fear is not because of their failure to curb crimes against the former, but because the Muslim and Dalit votes will swing the election results. Irrespective of the rule by the Congress party, BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP), and Communist Party of India (CPI), the Dalits, tribals, and Muslims continue to battle to survive.

One cannot let go the Una incident as isolated, which has been followed by the Dalit uprisings in Gujarat and across the country. It not only raises important issues about the upsurge of minority politics, but also about the historical injustice to the Dalits for centuries.The message of Dalit assertions is clear—it is time the political parties realise that the Dalit communities can no longer be used as pawns in the electoral strategies.

Paradoxes of Development

Despite the guarantees in the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy to protect the weaker sections which prohibit discrimi-nations on the ground of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, and provide equality of opportunity to abolish untouchability and prohibit its practice in any form, the development policies across the country has seen increasing inequalities and disparities. Certain individuals, groups and communities are vulnerable to the processes of discriminations, deprivations, subjugations, and exclusions.

The Una tragedy shows that the Gujarat model of development has failed the most deprived and exploited. The claims of the Gujarat Government that it is the best governed State and ranks first in terms of the indices of development, without the practices of manual scavenging and untouchability, has been disproved by the findings of several studies. The 2010 report on ‘Understanding Untouchability’ which is based on a survey conducted in 1589 villages by the Navsarjan Trust, an organisation that promotes the rights of the Dalits, has documented some of the ancestral practices of discrimination. It finds that the prevalence of untouchability in the State is widespread and in more than half of the villages surveyed, Dalits did not have access to wells, temples, tea stalls, panchayat offices, barbers, non-Dalit mid-wives, and Mid-Day Meals...due to non-implementation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989. (Understanding Untouchability: A Report, January 29, 2010)

The campaign ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ is a majoritarian narrative that has discomfited large sections of the Dalit population. India still has two lakh manual scavengers (nationwide survey by the Safai Karmachari Andolan) despite the 1993 Manual Scavenging Prohibition Act and the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that all States should ban manual scavenging.The Dalits have been reconstituted as subjects of domination and control as land acquisition and encroachments have become integral to the strategies of the development of the contemporary state. Squeezed in the legacy of the colonial structures of power and compressions of the neoliberal ideology, the state has made no serious attempt to reverse the trends towards deprivation, marginalisation and exclusion of the large majority of people. Despite the inspirational and appealing slogans such as Make in India, Swachh Bharat, Stand-up India, Start-ups and Entrepreneurial Ventures, Cyber Security and Digital India to build Smart Cities, the promises of achhe din for the majority of the people are yet to be realised.

Development should not be an end in itself but means to a more sustainable, equitable and democratic growth. A development strategy needs to focus on the vision of transforming society, which should include transformation of institutions, the creation of new social capital and new capacities, and even at times alteration of the old traditional institutions. The values demo-cracies espouse are far from the ground reality that discriminates, marginalises, and deprives the vast majority from basic resources of livelihood. This has ignited a powerful Dalit resistance. Therefore, alongside rapid economic changes and political transitions, structural and attitudinal changes are important to transform societies.

The ruling parties must not only condemn violence by the self-claimed cow vigilantes, but also ban them across the country. While the concern of political parties about the Dalit assertions is understandable, protecting the life, livelihood, dignity, and freedom of the Dalits needs intervention in the redistribution of basic productive resources, failing which there will be further backlash from the Dalit community. The Dalit agitation against the ills of the caste system as well as the state will loom larger than ever before. In fact, one can see the seeds of a blaring revolution germinate.


Shepherd, Kancha Ilaiah (2016), ‘Cow Democracy: How Protection of Cows Has Come To Mean Oppression of Dalits’, in The Indian Express, August 1, page 12.

The Hindu (2016), ‘Dalit Groups Plan Anti-RSS Protests’, August 27, page 5.

Understanding Untouchability: A Report (2010), January 29, prepared by Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) USA, and Navsarjan Trust, Gujarat.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray66@yahoo.co.in