- Dalits say they fear for their lives due to increasing cow vigilantism
- Charamkar community says come what may, they won’t remove carcasses again
- In Surendranagar, trucks piled with carcasses were dumped at collectorate
The white bandages on Chirag Dashratbhai Parmar’s head have become a sign of the continuing caste violence against Dalits in Gujarat.
Earlier this week, Dashratbhai, a resident of Gandhinagar district, was beaten by land-owning Chaudharys when he refused to remove dead cattle.
His refusal is a mark of protest by the “Charamkar” community — the second largest Dalit sub-caste in the state, who form the lowest rung in the leather industry, skinning dead cattle for a living – to boycott the work they have been made to do for centuries.
Dashratbhai’s protest went further. Normally a reticent man, he filed a complaint about the assault after which four men were arrested.
It was what happened at Una which changed him, he said. The atrocity, which made headlines across the country, proved the turning point for Dalits like him.
On July 11, four young Dalit men were barbarically stripped, flogged and dragged behind an SUV in Una. A video clip of the incident travelled across the state triggered spontaneous protests.
The hereditary profession of skinning dead cattle comes with a stigma as old as the caste system. Untouchability, exclusion and discrimination have been an eternal part of the community’s reality. But the latest threat — rampant cow vigilantism — brings with it a threat to life.
Hirabhai Ramjibhai Chavada, a community elder, said the mushrooming cow protection organisations walk around with swords and lathis. “They stop us at will, take money from us and often beat us. The police don’t say anything. ”
So after Una, they decided not to work. “We will not clear dead animals, nor skin them even if we starve,” he said.
The protests are peaceful, spontaneous and dramatic. In Surendranagar, trucks piled up with carcasses were dumped at the collector’s office as a symbol of the boycott.
The protest has disturbed equations in a society used to having its debris and dead animals cleared by a community it considers impure.
There’s shock that these men are refusing to do what they have been tasked with for centuries. Varsha Ben, a resident of Surendranagar, who has been calling the “Chamar boys” to pick up the dead cow that’s been lying outside her house for three days, says they keep cutting her call.
Social scientist Achyut Yagnik, a long-time observer of caste dynamics in Gujarat politics, says what is happening is unprecedented.
“For the first time in Saurashtra, all Dalit sub-castes have been mobilised and the protests have spread throughout the region,” he said.
During the ’80s anti-reservation agitation by upper castes, there were Dalit protests. But the resistance was scattered. Now, after 30 years, a protest is “spreading beyond to North Gujarat, even to Modi’s own village.”
“We hope the issue is resolved quickly as we simply don’t have the means to clear these carcasses,” says a harassed looking Girish Kumar Saraiya, chief officer of the local municipality.
Over the last 10 days, the municipality had to bury 150 carcasses. They had to hire migrant labourers as upper-caste workers find this work ‘polluting’. “Now, even the Dalit workers have refused to do it,” he said, unaware of how revealing his use of the word “even” is.