The slogan “Gaay nu punchhdu tame rakho, amne amari jamin apo” (keep the tail of the cow with you, give us our land), which roared in Gujarat after the gruesome Una incident, appears to be playing a catalytic role in the Dalit rights movement in the state.
Day by day, ever more villages are boycotting the traditional occupations imposed upon them through caste-based society systems. As expected, upper caste communities are trying to suppress Dalits' voice through violence and social boycott, with the state machinery remaining a silent spectator.
Over the last one week, around 35 families faced social boycott by upper caste communities in Randej village of Bechraji block in Mehsana district of Gujarat. This happened following an afternoon feast was organised at a “sthapana pooja” in the newly built temple of the village.
However, the upper caste community arranged for a separate sitting arrangement for the Dalits, thus discriminating against them, and violating the constitutional provisions of equality for all class, caste, and gender. The Dalit community refused to have food.
Later, the Dalit community declared that it will not dispose of dead animals, which is considered their traditional occupation. Objecting to this, dominant sections the upper caste gave a call to socially boycott Dalits, something that other villagers followed out of fear. A penalty of Rs 2,100 was imposed on all those who dared interact with Dalits.
The result was, Dalits stopped getting essential commodities from the ration shop. No one would ply vehicles to the Dalit area. Shopkeepers refused to sell milk, vegetables, and other commodities of daily needs. Dalit daily wagers were refused jobs. This created a situation of food insecurity among Dalit families, especially children and women.
The Dalits decided to fight back. They filed a first information report (FIR) with the police. However, the complainant, Amratbhai regrets, “FIR registered by the police was purposely made weak. It did not register any case of violation of Indian penal code (IPC) sections”.
Meanwhile, the Dalit community has represented to the district collector, asking the state government to provide transport facility, cash dole to those who are unable to earn because of the social boycott, and ensure smooth distribution of milk and other daily needs from shops, especially the public distribution system. All this, the representation insists, should be done under police protection.
The representation has also demanded strict action against shopkeepers and those responsible for refusing to sell items of basic necessities. It also demanded alternative employment to the affected families.
It is sad that the government machinery has been a mute spectator all the while, as it has happened all earlier social boycott cases across the state. Despite low performance of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGREGS) for providing employment in Gujarat's rural areas, the state machinery has not provided jobs under the scheme to those who have been rendered jobless due to the social boycott.
There is no clearcut instruction on steps to be taken in such cases, though such incidents have become more frequent, especially following the Una movement. Despite facing threat to livelihood and right to life, the affected families have given a clear message to fight the social boycott and insisted, they will hold government accountable for whatever happens.
*Dalit rights activist