Bhanubhai's Charred Body Is Proof That Casteism Remains a Burning Issue

Bhanubhai Vankar died protesting the rampant injustice and apathy that continues against Dalits in broad daylight, re-packaged and marketed as the ‘Gujarat model.'

Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor meet relatives of Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar. Credit: PTI

Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor meet relatives of Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar. Credit: PTI

Another soldier has given his life at the border. Bhanubhai Vankar. But unlike the deaths at the western front that make decibels in the casteist corridors of corporate media, the border where Bhanubhai fought and died is different. But he too had been a dedicated soldier for 40 years.

He fought against the borders that casteism draws in the heart of our society – in every village and every neighbourhood. Borders that segregate, that humiliate, that discriminate, that deny or determine access to land or resources. After committing an entire life to the struggle against such borders, he also dedicated his death to the same.

Bhanubhai, a retired revenue clerk and a member of the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, was fighting for the rights of a landless Dalit farm labourer – an old woman named Hemaben Vankar, living in Dudkha village in Sami tehsil in Patan district. For years he had been helping the Dalit villagers of Dudhka with the documentation process. He even visited the state capital regularly to press their legitimate demands.

Despite the revenue department regularising it and the requisite fee of Rs 22,236 being paid years ago, the authorities were refusing to register or allot a piece of land to the Dalit family. This even after multiple rounds of appeals. Finally, last month, he submitted a letter to the newly re-elected chief minister, Vijay Rupani from the BJP, warning him that he, along with Hema and Rama Chamar, would perform an agnisnan (fire bath) if the land is not allotted to Dalits in Dudhka village.

Bhanubhai Vankar as he immolated himself. Credit: Special arrangement

“On February 7, Vankar had given a memorandum to Patan collector urging him to regularise the land of Dudkha village in Sami taluka of Patan. Vankar had also warned of self-immolation on February 15 if their demands were not met by Tuesday,” said Ratilal Makwana, a close relative of Bhanubhai. And that is exactly what he did on February 15 inside the Patan district collectorate compound in broad daylight.

It was an act of protest against the rampant injustice and apathy that continues in broad daylight, which then is packaged and marketed as the ‘Gujarat model of development’. His protest was not just against the denial of land to one landless Dalit farm labourer, but also against this model that has been built on the denial to thousands others.

Bhanubhai Vankar. Credit: Special arrangement

Bhanubhai Vankar. Credit: Special arrangement

Gujarat for long has been projected by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the media and the market nexus as the ideal state, a state to be emulated and replicated across the country. It is where the projects of Brahmanical Hindutva and corporate capital come together in their crudest form to make a deadly cocktail.

What Hindutva has entailed is that the Muslim minorities post the 2002 pogrom have been systematically turned into second-class citizens. While the model of “development” has meant “ease of business” for corporate giants, for the Dalits and other marginalised, it has meant a harder reality

It has meant favours worth billions for Adanis and Ambanis, and easier land grab from farmers and fisherfolk, destroying livelihoods.

Problem of landlessness

For the Dalits and tribals, the promise of land distribution has been like a mirage in Kutch. While the share of tribals in total households in Gujarat is a substantial 24.66%, their share in landownership is just 13.57%. The Dalits constitute a mere 7.75% of the population in Gujarat and their share in landownership is a mere 2.61%. Being thinly scattered across the state, they have hardly had an avenue to express themselves in unison until recently.

So effectively, the over-hyped Gujarat model has been one where the diktats of the market and the edicts of Manu have propped each other. It is model wherein, as per a study by Navsarjan, in 98.4% of the villages surveyed, inter-caste marriage was prohibited and inter-caste couples subjected to violence. In 98.1% of the villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit locality. In 97.6% of the villages, Dalits touching the water pots or utensils of non-Dalits was considered defilement. This is the reality that the likes of Bhanubhai have been up against in Gujarat.

Not that the conditions in the rest of the country are any better. By the Ministry of Rural Development’s own admission, in 2013, the pattern of land distribution across the country neatly dovetails the existing socio-economic hierarchies in the society.

“While large landowners invariably belong to the upper-castes, the cultivators belong to the middle-castes, and the agricultural workers are largely Dalits and tribals,” a report reads. Data released this month by the Census of India confirm that 71% of Dalits in India work as agricultural labourers. Beyond a few states with a larger tribal population, in rest of the country, the Dalits are more likely to be agricultural labourers than cultivators. Particularly in Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, nearly all Dalit farmers are agricultural labourers with the figure being above 90% in most of the districts.

A cursory glance at some of the data compiled in the India Exclusion Report 2016 more than illustrates the cause Bhanubhai was fighting for. Dalits by far are the highest in filling the ranks of the landless in agriculture – 57.30%.

Protesters burn a car at Vadaj, Ahmedabad on February 18. Credit: Twitter

Protesters burn a car at Vadaj, Ahmedabad on February 18. Credit: Twitter

Only 2.08% Dalit households own more than two hectares of land. Among the large land holders who have more than ten hectares of land, 95% are OBC or belong to another category, and a mere 3% are Dalits.

Out of the total households in rural India, 20.2% of Dalit households own only 8.95% of the total productive land. If one looks at the two states that boasted of Green Revolution, they, in fact, fare the worst in this respect.

For instance, in Punjab, 39.8% Dalit households own only 2.6% of land and in Haryana, 17.5% Dalit households own less than 1% of the land. Even in the national capital, 41.6% of the Dalit households own 7.4% of the land. And whatever little is in the possession of the Dalits, 58% of it has no irrigation facility.

Finally, if one were to speak of the land reforms or redistribution that was supposed to benefit the landless Dalits, studies reveal that the share of land redistributed was limited to start with and remained mostly a promise on paper with no real efforts towards its implementation. The cultivable wastes thereby continue to be under the grip of the dominant caste landowners while the proposed Dalit allottees are either forcefully evicted or not even allowed to take possession with active collusion of state functionaries, bureaucrats and the feudal dominant caste groups with political clout.

Dalit agitation

This, in fact, had been one of the areas of struggles of activists like Bhanubhai, Jignesh Mevani and others in the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. In 2016, Mevani explained that there are two provisions of land allotment in the Gujarat, the Land Ceiling Act – whereby surplus land taken from feudal landlords in the past were to be distributed among landless; and the Agricultural Land Ceiling Act, whereby wasteland were to be distributed.

But the acreage allotted to the Dalits under both these Acts remained only on paper. The process of measurement and sanad had not been initiated anywhere and hence there was no actual possession of land by the rightful owner across the state. In a series of affidavits, the district administration had accepted more than once that the allotted land for Dalits remains illegally occupied by the dominant castes. But, as Mevani pointed out, not a single FIR had been lodged against such encroachments under the Atrocity Act. Across the state of Gujarat, this is a matter of a rightful allotment of more than 50,000 acres of land to landless Dalits and tribes.

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These were the issues that were being fore-grounded by the likes of Bhanubhai and Mevani during the historic Dalit agitation that followed the public flogging of Dalit youths in Una. They painstakingly connected the issues Dalits face of indignity, humiliation and brutalisation with the material issues of access to land, resources and employment.

Decades ago, the Dalit Panthers in their manifesto had emphasised that “the Dalit is no longer merely an untouchable outside the village walls and the scriptures. He is untouchable, and he is a Dalit, but he is also a worker, a landless labourer, a proletarian. And unless we strengthen this growing revolutionary unity of the many with all our efforts, our existence has no future.”

The Una agitation as a social movement could to some extent articulate the spirit of such a unity. Many who participated in the Azadi Kooch on the anniversary of the Una struggle, still remember Bhanubhai’s energetic role as an organiser in Unjha as they marched in unison demanding annihilation of caste and five acres of land for each landless Dalit. Today, what we have is a haunting image in our minds of a charred body.

But probably that is what he wanted – to haunt us. Huey P. Newton, one of the founder members of the Black Panthers, had once spoken of the idea of revolutionary suicide. He said, “revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.”

Bhanubhai chose to suffer excruciating 80% burn injuries and die a painful death in order to point towards the systemic denial that the Dalits are subjected to till date. It was a message against the established order propped on the edifice of Brahmanism that far from annihilating caste has, in turn, perpetuated and reinvented it. It ought to be yet another message for those in plenty who believe caste in our “digital age” is merely a relic of the past.

Unfortunately, even many of those in the Left who, in fact, claim to believe in an emancipator politics have for long suffered or still continue to suffer from the same delusion. An invisibilisation, that is a product of their own casteist bias or privileges. For all those, the charred body of Bhanubhai should, in fact, serve as a proof of the fact that casteism has remained and continues to remain a burning issue. The act by Bhanubhai may thus be characterised as an act of revolutionary suicide.

His entire life was one of a soldier confronting the status quo that condemns millions to a life of despair, a life that is bereft of dignity and self-respect. And even in his death he wanted to keep alive the spirit, the possibility, if not the probability, of changing the status quo, much like Rohith Vemula.

Soldiers like him are either being forced to resort to the noose or to fire. Some are being shot dead like Gauri Lankesh. While others, like Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar, are being put behind the bars as a “threat to national security”. All that they are a threat to is power.

Anirban Bhattacharya has a PhD in history and is currently working as a senior researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi. He is also a member of the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation.