After a decade of growing caste violence, a new mass movement is fighting back, challenging Indian Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in his home state of Gujarat.
In August the Indian state of Gujarat was rocked by mass protests mounted by the Dalit community, which took to the streets in the tens of thousands. The new movement, which is being viewed with trepidation by both the ruling BJP and opposition Congress, is working on multiple levels to continue the mobilization. This effort is taking diverse forms, including civil disobedience, demands for land reform, and attempts to convert Dalits to Buddhism.
The nervous reaction of PM Modi and his ruling BJP to the Dalit protests is partially motivated by concerns about the upcoming 2017 Gujarat State elections. The BJP currently governs, having received 47.9 percent of the votes in the last election compared to the Indian National Congress’s 38.9. A loss in his home state could be devastating for Modi and his party.
Dalits belong to castes that have historically been discriminated against through a practice known as untouchability, under by which specific castes are deemed ritually and socially impure. Historically this has meant that Dalits are forced into the lowest professions in society, such as collecting animal carcasses, disposing of human waste, and managing funeral pyres. The main objective of the protests is to organize Gujarati Dalits into boycotting these tasks—permanently. There are roughly 200 million Dalits in India, comprising nearly 17 percent of the nation’s population, according to the 2011 census. While affirmative action programs and Dalit entrepreneurship have improved the standing of many Dalits in urban areas, in rural India the caste system is more strictly enforced, with high-caste residents controlling the village councils—called panchayat—and forcing Dalits to live outside the village itself.
The current round of protests was set off when four Dalit tanners were brutally beaten and publicly flogged in the village of Una, in rural Gujarat. The attack—which Dalit activists allege was executed with the complicity of local officials and police—was carried out by so-called gau rakshas, “cow-protection brigades” made up of Hindu nationalists often affiliated with the BJP or its parent organization the RSS. These groups frequently target low-caste people and Muslims, accusing them of consuming beef, which many Hindus abstain from. The protests have seen an unprecedented rise in activism on the part of Dalit youth, many of whom were not previously politicized.
Dalit human rights activist Manjula Pradeep visited Una in the days after the attack and recorded the testimonies of the victims and their families.
“There were so many people gathered there, nobody tried to save them,” she says.
The tanners, accused of having killed a cow they had skinned, were beaten, paraded through the streets tied to a truck owned by a local leader of Shiv Sena—a Hindu nationalist organization—then publicly flogged. The attack was recorded on a smartphone, and went viral the next day, sparking outrage across India.
“How can this happen?” Pradeep asks, raising her voice in the Ahmedabad office of her Navsarjan organization.
Statistics released by Gujarat state police in 2014 showed an increase of 300 percent in caste-related rapes and murders over the previous decade. Convictions under the Caste Atrocities Act—a law designed to address caste-based violence—were only 4 percent over the same period.
“Few get reported, it happens all the time,” says Pratik Sinha, an activist in the leftist Jan Sangharsh Manch.
The peak point of this summer’s protests was a ten-day march through rural Gujarat, which began in Ahmedabad and concluded in Una on Aug. 15, India’s Independence Day.
“The mobilization is unprecedented,” says Dr. Ghanshyam Shah, a retired professor and former national fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research. Shah’s work has focused on the role of the caste system and Dalit movements in Indian politics.
“I have never seen such a large gathering of the Dalits protesting against this kind of atrocity,” he says.
On two occasions high-caste villagers attacked the marchers with stones. Pradeep says Hindu nationalist groups organized the attacks, and that some of the attackers had firearms. On the final day of the march, a mass rally took place at Una, where Pradeep says both BJP and Congress members attempted to take the stage away from the organizers.
The protests have led to the resignation of Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, who belongs to the BJP—the same party as PM Modi, who is a former Gujarat Chief Minister himself. Modi waited until Aug. 8 to comment on the situation in his home state, in a speech which failed to address the Una incident but condemned “fake gau rakshasa,” who, he said, claimed the mantle of cow defense to advance their own self interests. In a speech a few days later the prime minister returned to the subject, again failing to address the Una incident specifically, but saying that anyone thinking of attacking Dalits should attack him instead.
The mobilization has challenged the BJP’s claim to effective governance of Gujarat and its fragile communal balance. The state is still recovering from the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots, in which at least 800 Muslims and 300 Hindus were killed in the worst communal violence in recent Indian history. The Muslim community—which makes up around 11 percent of the state’s population—and multiple local and international observers have accused PM Modi of negligence and in some cases complicity with the violence.
Many of the Hindu rioters were Dalits, who make up seven percent of Gujarat’s population and who for years were recruited successfully by the local BJP and RSS. Hindu nationalist organizations like the RSS were accused of arming Hindu mobs with knives, swords, and machetes, and encouraging them to carry out atrocities against Muslims. The current mobilization sees Dalit anger directed at the Hindu nationalist establishment, and, in a new development, Muslims have joined marches organized by the Dalit movement in large numbers, under the banner “Dalit-Muslim, Brother-Brother.”
“In the 2002 riots they [the Dalits] were the foot soldiers,” says Sinha.
The Jan Sangharsh Manch, to which Sinha belongs, provides legal aid to victims of the riots. It has been supporting the current protests through its labor wing, the Gujarat Federation of Trade Unions, which mainly works with urban Dalits, who often work in sanitation.
“They [the BJP] have been trying to create an unnatural unity between Dalits and the upper castes,” Sinha says. “Dalits are a big vote bank.”
The movement’s organizers, led by lawyer Jignesh Mevani, are focused on efforts to enable rural Dalits to abandon their traditional professions. They are demanding that all Dalit families be given five acres of land, effectively allowing them to change their professions and prospects. Mevani, Pradeep, and Sinha all say that in rural Gujarat land assigned to Dalits in the past has ended up in the hands of upper-caste farmers.
Mevani has evoked the specter of mass civil disobedience, announcing there will be rail blockages—called rail roko—on October 1 in Ahmedabad, if the movement’s demands are not met.
“The government of Gujarat is so stubborn, the anti-Dalit mentality is reflected,” Mevani said at a press conference on September 22.
“They are not accepting any of our legitimate demands so as a last recourse, as a last alternative, we have to go for this rail roko program,” he said. Mevani, speaking five days after having been briefly arrested and detained by local police, called for support from Dalits throughout India.
Dalit activists separate from Mevani’s UDALS organization are planning mass conversions to Buddhism at four rallies, planned to take place in October, November and December. Since the 1950s, millions of Dalits—the majority of whom are Hindus—have converted to Buddhism in an attempt to foster a greater sense of Dalit dignity outside the framework of the caste system. The first mass conversion occurred in 1956 in Maharashtra, and was led by Bhimrao Ambedkar, the framer of the Indian Constitution and founder of the modern Dalit movement.
It’s unclear how the current unrest will affect the election. Muslims already tend to vote Congress while the Dalit vote is more split.
“Is that [the Dalit and Muslim vote] enough to beat the BJP? I don’t think so,” says Sinha.
He believes the priority for the movement should be to come through on its demands.
“The main challenge is to sustain the movement and get results.”