Una/Sodhana (Gujarat): About 35 km north of Porbandar, the town in Saurashtra where Mahatma Gandhi was born, is the small hamlet of Sodhana. The seemingly benign village has a population of a mere 3,500 people, divided into two clusters. Bathed in rains and with a perpetual coastal breeze, Sodhana has two small shops at the entrance of the village where men sit and smoke bidis in an eerie silence.
Two weeks ago, on July 9, a resident of the village named Rama Singrakhiya was planting castor seeds in a small piece of Panchayat-owned land. He worked as a labourer on farms across the village, earning Rs 150 on a daily basis, but that day he was tending to a patch he believed was his land. As Rama worked in silence, a mob arrived, dragged him away and brutally beat him up. According to villagers, the mob, led by the sarpanch, Harbham Karavadra, hacked him into pieces.
In the run up to the incident, tensions had run high between Rama and Harbham over a 19 bigha plot, a small portion of an 1,800 acre open area that had been donated to the panchayat to be used as grazing land. Rama, village panch Ramesh Karavadra told me, had continued to farm on land that did not belong to him even after being warned of the consequences.
“He refused to listen to us and kept claiming the land was his. Harbham had no choice. You cannot disrespect a cow. After all it was grazing land,” said Ramesh.
Rama’s defiance upset the villagers for two reasons. He was cultivating land that did not belong him, disrespecting the panchayat’s repeated warnings, and he had scorned the cow, a sacred Hindu symbol, explained Rameshbhai.
While Harbham and two others were arrested for the gruesome murder, Rama’s family refused to pick up his body from the Jamnagar morgue for a day after his death, demanding justice for the way he was treated. By the time I visited the village, his family had locked up their house and moved away.
Even two weeks later, the seemingly placid village bore signs of conflict. Tensions ran high when we walked into the area where Dalits lived. A group of men from the ‘upper’ caste gathered at the shop outside the village, waiting for us to come out of the vaas (Dalit residential area). Everyone was curious and repeatedly asked us what we had been told.
However, inside the vaas, people refused to even acknowledge that the incident had occurred. “We live in harmony with other caste members. We have nothing to say about Rama,” everyone The Wire spoke to repeated. One man, who refused to disclose his name, hesitantly admitted that there was no breaking out of the chain of repression, “We are poor, we are Dalits, we are bound to suffer. Incidentally, what caste are you?”
Two days after the murder in Sodhana, on July 11, 200 km down the coast in the Una taluka, five Dalit men were called to come and pick up a cow that had been found dead. The men, who worked as daily wage labourers on farms, had traditionally also worked in tanneries.
They took the carcass back to their village, Mota Samadhiyala, when the Dalit family was attacked by a mob while skinning the cow carcass. In his statement to the police, Indian Express reported, one of the victims said they had bought the carcass in Bediya village. “The accused came in a white car and asked why we were slaughtering the cow. I told them that the cow was dead and that we were merely removing its skin. But they started abusing us and attacked us with iron pipes, sticks and a knife with which we were removing the skin of the carcass,” the newspaper quoted the complaint as saying.
Family members desperately begged the mob to spare their loved ones, explaining how they were chammars (tanners) and that it was their job to deal with dead animals.
After beating up the family in the village, the accused put four of the victims in a car and drove them to Una town. There, they stripped the four men, paraded them on the streets and hit them in full public view, stopping anyone from coming to their rescue. They used iron rods to beat the men, including a 15-year-old boy, with full force, laughing in apparent glee at the trembling and pleading, shouting out threats if they even let out a shriek of pain. The frenzied mob even videotaped the beating as an example of what happens to those who disrespect ‘gaay mata’ (mother cow).
This video went viral, leading the authorities to spring into action even though they had shown no concern when they had been called to the spot. In the days that followed, six police officers were suspended and six people were arrested.
“But that day, the cops just watched and left. They didn’t even bother to stop the men who claimed to be from the Shiv Sena and said they were protectors of cows,” says Lalita, a Dalit woman whose brother-in-law was assaulted. According to her, her brother-in-law was hit hard on the head and yet the police did nothing to stop the attackers.
Since the attack, Gujarat has seen large-scale protests. Political bigwigs have been touring the area since, with promises to end caste discrimination. Cameras desperate for primetime infotainment cannot get enough. The small village, with two unpaved roads and a stream of waste running through the middle, is sprinkled with police officers to keep the “situation calm and ensure nothing goes out of hand again,” as one of them told us.
Two of the victims have been discharged from the hospital, others remain admitted with horrific injuries on their spines and backs, skin torn, bodies likely permanently damaged. While the police have arrested six people they managed to identify from the video, the rest are still absconding.
Among those who visited Una were Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. From admonishing the Gujarat government for tacitly okaying the violence to assuring the Dalit community, promises are already in place.
Over the last week, Dalit groups across the state pledged that they would no longer handle dead cows. In the last two weeks, scores of Dalits have attempted suicide in the state to protest discrimination, while more videos and stories of caste-based violence have emerged. Saurashtra refuses to sleep.
According a report by Indiaspend, in 2014, only 3.4% of crimes against the Scheduled Castes in Gujarat ended in convictions, compared to a national rate of 28.8%. “Over the decade ending 2014, the average conviction rate in cases of crimes against SCs in Gujarat was 5%; in crimes against STs, it was 4.3%. The national average was 29.2% and 25.6% respectively,” the report says.
As the uprising against anti-Dalit violence continues in the state, more such incidents have emerged out of the woodwork. Another video emerged recently, showing Dalits being flogged at a tannery in Rajula village in Saurashtra after being accused of cow slaughter.
No one in Una’s Dalit area knew the people who were part of the ‘gau rakshak’ mob. Many told me that while they might have identified themselves as “cow protectors”, none of them belonged to the area. How did a crowd gather that quickly?
“They saw the dead cow in the open tempo and, at first, threatened the men who were taking it away. When the men said they hadn’t done anything wrong, they called some people from their mobiles and a crowd gathered,” Lalita told me.
“Let them call the police instead of raising their hands at us next time they accuse us of cow slaughter. They just came and started beating them up. What was the need? They were just doing their job,” Lalita said angrily.
“We just believe in Doctor Saheb (Ambedkar). By the way, what caste are you?” she repeated, before heading off to cook.
Una and the video had unexpected consequences for the community. “We had no idea that it would spark such a movement,” Lalita admitted.
Meanwhile, barefoot and jumpy, her oldest son, 10-year-old Manish was anxious to show us around the village. He cannot get enough of the cameras and “people with phones”; the sudden glare on them and their lives. He has become something of a local tour guide since the celebrity visits to the village began. He even skipped school the day we met him.
“They beat up my uncle (father’s older brother). They even chained them to a vehicle. They wanted to drag them around Una they had said,” he repeated with horror. He dramatically reenacts the story of the flogging for me, while showing me his school notebooks, where he has scribbled ‘Jai Bhim’ on random pages.
“Actually we work on a farm. They (people from the area) call us and tell us to pick up a dead animal. We do and clean up the area also if need be,” he told me. “That’s what my uncle was doing when those gau rakshaks beat them up.”
Their home has several pictures of Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Buddha. Manish shows us a drawing he made in school – on a ruled sheet he had scribbled ‘Jai Bhim’ in colourful handwriting. “I drew it myself. We all believe in Doctor Sahab. You should talk to that grandmother (Hajjanben) before leaving. Her son drank some dawa (medicine, referring to acid) and now his insides are burnt,” he tells us before running off to get more of his books.
Later, he leads me to Hajjanben Chammar’s house, where an old woman with wrinkled skin dotted with green tattoos is sitting in the veranda. People pause every time they see her to ask how Rajubhai is doing.
“Two days after the beating there was a rally in Una and in the city there is a bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar. My eldest son [Raju] took the bottle of acid with him. He was seeing what was going on around him and was very disturbed about it. He carried a half-litre bottle and by the time he was done drinking there was hardly a few spoonfuls left,” Hajjanben explained.
Hajjanben has not stopped weeping since. A mix of police officials and media persons has surrounded her house in Una for the last week. Sitting on a jute-string bed outside, she cannot fathom the pain her family has been put through.
Her teenaged grandnephew, Ashok, was among those beaten up, she tell us. “He is a labourer as well. No school for him. What can we do? Everybody goes and works as paid labourers whenever they can and that is how we manage to fill our stomachs. He just happened to be there with them that day…” she managed to say before breaking down again.
Hajjanben, shook back forth while weeping next to her brother. His cataract-glazed eyes were hidden behind his palms, wiping his tears. “We did not even know this had happened until we came home in the evening after working all day. A son as good as gone and a grandson who will suffer for life,” he said, before he was silent again.
“His father pleaded for them to stop but it only made them more ferocious. They even threatened to rape the women in the house if he spoke again, raising their rods, threatening to strike him next,” she said between sobs.
Unlike Lalita, who is confident that the media glare and police protection will keep them safe, Hajjanben is skeptical of anything helping the situation.
“After the incident, the cops told us to shut our business down. We told them, give us five bighas [close to one acre] of land to cultivate and we will stop this business immediately. Give us land so we can grow the food we eat and there will be no need for us to do this job. Why would we want to do this job and get troubled like this? We don’t want to do this work anymore,” she sobbed to a circus of journalists who have been camping in the village square since the assault.
“And now I may lose my son also. His brothers keep asking him: why did you do this? Why did he take such a step?” Hajjanben continued. “Three hospitals refused treatment saying they did not have equipment to deal with a problem like this.” Rajubhai is now at Junagadh Civil Hospital, his insides corroded by acid. “He was conscious for a few seconds today…” she said.
“You know acid, na? It bubbles when you put it in the toilet. Imagine what this must’ve done to him,” she said.
Away from the glare on Una that sparked off the movement across the state, Sodhana is a different story. Everyone from the upper caste has the surname ‘Karavadra’ which, people in the village explained, means kharra loko or decent, upright people in Gujarati. They explained this to me inside a sitting area in the upper caste section of the village, where a small temple and barn has been made for cows.
“The first crime was Rama’s. Why did he cultivate land that did not belong to him? How many warnings could we give him?” said Rameshbhai. “We are a peaceful village. We do not have problems with Dalits and they do not have a problem with us. All stories are concocted. Moreover, Rama was a bad seed. He would file false atrocity cases to get money out of people,” he continued.
He also parroted a response several villagers repeated to me. “The fight had nothing to do with his being a Dalit. Dalits and us have very good relations. In addition, the 1,800 acres of land is not even owned by the government. It was donated to the Panchayat and has a survey number. It is the land of our ancestors given to the Panchayat to use as grazing land. This is not a Dalit issue. If you go to any of the Dalit homes and ask them, they will tell you the same thing. I can call one right now and he will come running… You can see the property: its 1,800 acres,” Rameshbhai said.
“The real ‘ashtroshity’ was Rama’s,” said another man who was listening in.
When we walked out of the Dalit residential area, several men had gathered outside, waiting to interrogate us. “What are you going to write? Don’t let the bad seed fool you, this is no Dalit issue,” they kept repeating.
Sadly, not a single Dalit from the village would go on the record. Rama’s family moved away, leaving only traces of an interrupted life: his home is locked up, his bike is lying abandoned since the family took off.
They only ask me one question: How are things in Una? “What happened in Una?” asked a woman dotted with tattoos walking by with a little boy.
“They beat up some Dalits,” a man said. When I asked him how he knew this, his only response was walking away to shut the door to his home.