Ahmedabad: Alarmed by the manner in which the brutal assault on seven Dalit youths by ‘gau rakshaks’ in Una last year had triggered a resurgence of activism within the community in Gujarat and other parts of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said he would rather be killed than allow Dalits to be attacked. Six months later, the plight of Dalits on the ground in his home state suggest those dramatic words were mere rhetoric.
In Una itself, on December 25, a pregnant Dalit woman and her husband were beaten up by a group of Bharwads – a community of cowherders considered a higher caste than Dalits. Rekhaben, 30, and Babubhai Sankhat, 35, were attacked with pipes and sticks.
Rekhaben, six months pregnant at the time, suffered severe injuries on her legs and shoulders, while her husband suffered injuries on his face, ribs and legs. The couple was admitted to the Una civil hospital and later transferred to Rajkot civil hospital after Babubhai’s condition deteriorated the next day.
The incident took place barely six kilometres from Mota Samadhiyala, the village where the seven Dalit youths were flogged in July 2016. Residents of Ugala village, Babubhai and his wife had refused to allow cattle belonging to some members of the Bharwad community to graze in their field.
Premji Sankhat, Babubhai’s elder brother narrated the whole tale in disbelief, “He (Babubhai) drove out the cattle belonging to the Bharwads from our field lest they destroy the standing cotton crop. The cows’ owners first abused the couple verbally with casteist slurs. When he protested, both husband and wife were beaten up.”
“A non-cognisable offence has been registered and a further enquiry into the matter will be done by the deputy superintendent of police (SC-ST cell),” said M.A. Vala, a sub-inspector with the Gir Gadhara police station.
On December 16, just 10 days before the assault on Rekhaben and Babubhai, a Dalit man was beaten up for twirling his moustache. Mahesh Parmar, 24, did not know a Dalit has no right to even sport a big moustache.
The incident happened just 80 kilometres from Ahmedabad in Memadpur village in Mehsana district. Mahesh was at a local dhaba when a few people from the Darbar community standing there objected to him twirling his moustache.
Mahesh tried to explain that he was wiping off buttermilk from his moustache and not twirling it. Some elders intervened and the matter was settled, or so he thought.
The next day, four men belonging to the Darbar community came to Parmar’s house. Not finding him there, they started hurling casteist abuses. When Naresh, Mahesh’s 27-year-old brother, came out, he was beaten by the four. Their 75-year-old grandmother rushed to the rescue and was also beaten by the Darbar youths.
Both victims were admitted in a government hospital in Mehsana. The grandmother suffered fractures on her legs and had to undergo surgery.
Following the incident, a few local activists apprised Chaitanya Mandlik, the Mehsana superintendent of police, of the incident. Four men were then arrested – Indrasinh Jaswantsinh Zala, Dharmendrasinh Vijaysinh Zala, Mehul Sinh Zala and Hiteshsinh Zala – only to be bailed out two days later, a Dalit activist from Mehsana, Kaushik Parmar, told The Wire.
In a third incident, also in December, a Dalit RTI activist was brutally beaten up in broad daylight in the main market of Kodinar in Gir Somnath district. Mahesh Makwana, 35, had filed several RTI applications in connection with illegal sand mining in the region. He had been attacked five times before but always managed to get away.
On December 12, however, he was not so lucky. Four men brutally assaulted him with iron pipes, leaving him with eight fractures – including both his hands and legs.
“The officials of the Kodinar police station initially refused to register an atrocity case. They have still not registered an offence of attempt to murder under Section 307 [of the Indian Penal Code], said Malabhai, Makwana’s uncle. “After a memorandum was submitted to the district collector under the initiative of a local Dalit organisation, Bhim Sena, Section 120 was invoked.”
Makwana was first rushed to the government hospital in Veraval, where doctors said he was fine and discharged him after some basic treatment. Later, he was taken to Rajkot civil hospital where he underwent surgery in one leg.
The RTI activist was discharged early from Rajkot civil hospital despite his family wanting to continue treatment at hospital. He is now at his home in Kodinar. In an interview to The Wire, he said that he had irked Dinu Solanki, the former BJP MP from Junagarh who is said to control the entire mining business in the Gir region.
Makwana claimed Solanki and his nephew Boga orchestrated the attack. When named the duo in his FIR, “the police initially did not note that down,” he said.
It was after Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani held a press conference in Ahmedabad on December 19 to support Makwana that the higher echelons in the state administration nudged the police to act. Mevani had claimed that the police was not taking adequate measures because of the alleged involvement of Solanki.
Consequently, the minister of state for home in Gujarat, Pradeepsinh Jadeja, denied the Gir Somnath police had gone soft on naming the accused.
Solanki had earlier been arrested by the CBI in a case relating to the murder of environmental activist Amit Jhetva. He was later given bail. Solanki is also said to be close to BJP party chief Amit Shah.
Hitesh Kumar Joysar, SP of Gir Somnath, told The Wire three people were arrested the very next day. Asked about the alleged involvement of the BJP MP, he said, “The facts and evidence are being examined. If they implicate a person, nobody will be spared.”
Gujarat and caste violence on Dalits
In most non-Dalit households in rural Gujarat, a separate vessel – ‘rampatar’ – is kept aside for Dalit guests. With such deeply ingrained prejudice, sociologists say it is no surprise that Dalits have been subjected to vicious caste violence for years in the state.
National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data records the fact that the all-India number of crimes against Dalits – ranging from rape, murder, beatings and violence related to land matters – increased from 33,655 in 2012 to 39,408 in 2014. Data collated from the NCRB, the SC/ST cell of the additional director general of police (ADGP) office, Gandhinagar, and gathered by the NGO Navsarjan Trust shows that cases of atrocities against Dalits have shot up to 6,655 in 2015 (including murder, rape, arson, social boycott, other kind of threats causing migration from native village) from 1074 in 2012.
As per data received through an RTI by Navsarjan Trust – a Dalit rights organisation in Gujarat whose Foreign Contributions Regulation Act registration was recently cancelled by the Modi government – 45 Dalit women were raped every year while 20 Dalit men were murdered between 2010 and 2014. As many as 110 villages in Gujarat have instances where Dalits have been affected due to social boycott and had to migrate. In another 100 villages, Dalits live in fear under police protection following threat or violence from higher caste people.
An analysis of the data from 2000 further reveals that there is an average time lapse of 12.20 hours between the registration of a case and police action in murder cases and an average time lapse of 532.9 hours in rape cases.
According to NCRB data, Gujarat had an average rate of crime against SC/ST persons – defined as the number of crimes against SC/ST per one lakh population of SC/STs based on the population census of – 29.21, higher than national average of 19.57 in 2013, while the state’s average rate was 27.7 against the national average of 23.4 in 2014.