A new zeal in Dalit resistance against caste violence
“Is there a problem if we are good-looking?” asked a young Dalit man, who was thrashed by Rajput men of his village for sporting a moustache. This cheeky throwaway defiance by 24-year-old Maheriya is matched by Parmar, an electrician from the same village in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district. He too was beaten by the Rajputs, convinced that men from his lowly cleaning caste had no right to sport a moustache. He is determined that whatever happens, he will continue to keep his moustache. His 17-year-old cousin, also attacked and with 15 stitches on his back, cannot wait for his facial hair to grow. Soon, social media exploded with Dalit men flashing their moustaches. The police report that the attack on the 17-year-old was fabricated, but other similar attacks are under investigation.
During the travels of Karwane-e-Mohabbat, an initiative seeking justice and livelihoods for survivors of mass violence and lynching, through eight states in September, it was found that Muslims everywhere were overwhelmingly the largest community targeted by hate violence. They were resigned to live with the everyday fear of hate attacks, with little expectation of justice or protection by the State. Dalits too were attacked, but there was a difference. Everywhere they were fighting back — angry, unbent.
In April, the Dalits in Shabbirpur, in western Uttar Pradesh, decided to erect a statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar on land owned by the community, within the premises of their Ravidas temple. They commissioned a statue of Ambedkar in his standard posture: holding the Constitution in one hand and pointing his finger with the other. But the Rajputs in the village were furious. “It is our government now” they are reported to have said after the BJP government led by Yogi Adityanath took power. “How can we accept that Ambedkar should point to the public road on which the upper-castes of the village also walk?”
In retaliation, on May 5, the Rajputs from surrounding villages descended on the Dalit enclave in tractors, jeeps and motorcycles, brandishing swords and knives. They set aflame the Dalit basti, thrashed the men and molested many women. Some Rajput men were ultimately arrested, but the police filed grave charges against the Dalit leaders, many of who were sent to jail.
The Dalits united in their rage and determination to fight back. The upper-castes imposed an economic boycott, refusing to employ the mostly landless Dalits who worked on their fields and brick-kilns. It was hard now to light their kitchen fires, but this had not crushed their spirit. The Dalits retaliated by turning their backs on their Hindu faith, emptying their homes of idols and pictures of Hindu deities, and collectively converting to Buddhism. The women spoke openly of the sexual violence they had suffered. Even children defiantly wore lockets embossed with Jai Bhim, knowing that this infuriated both their teachers and Rajput classmates.
In the Dangawas village in Nagaur, Rajasthan, the attack on Dalits in May 2015 was ignited by their fight to reclaim their land, and led to the loss of six lives. Some 40 years earlier, the Dalits had mortgaged their land to a Jat landlord. Despite repaying the loan and interest many times over, and a lengthy battle fought and won across many courts, the Jats refused to return the land. They finally occupied it forcefully, but for barely a month. The Jats crushed them under tractors, mutilated their bodies, and assaulted the women. The police switched off their phones, and later registered criminal charges against the Dalit men. Two years of boycott had impoverished them, threats and intimidation continued, but again their spirit was not crushed.
In Gujarat, in Kashor village in Anand district, class 10 educated Shailesh Manibhai earned his livelihood by skinning cattle. Whenever an animal died in a farmer’s home, it was left at a designated site in the village. However, heavy rains swamped this site and Shailesh had to move to another site to skin the dead cows. To teach him a lesson, furious Rajput men thrashed him and even his mother who tried to mediate. Resolved to fight back, Shailesh registered police complaints under the SC and ST atrocities Act against his attackers, and announced that he was renouncing his caste profession. Now the villagers would have to lift animal carcasses on their own.
The Dalits have long endured unspeakable violence and cruelty from privileged castes. Today everywhere they are signalling that they will fight back. The BJP can ignore India’s Muslims and still win power. But they can ignore mounting Dalit anger against upper-caste hate violence and injustice only at their own peril.