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Lesson from Una attack: Since everything has changed, now it’s about cows, violence

By Gagan Sethi* 
It has been about 40 years that I have been witnessing, engaging, intervening in cases of crass violence on the Dalit community in Gujarat.
People say nothing has changed, the situation has remained the same, it is still like the old times.
I have participated in hundreds of training programmes with Dalit men and women, helping them learn law, build confidence in their identity, cajole them to stand up to their rights, fight the fear instilled in them by their upper caste school teachers as also by cops ranging from low-level police constables to PSIs serving local police stations near villages. Many of our programmes collectively help them look at self- employment opportunities, so that they are not dependent on feudal landlords’ wages.
These programmes have also helped them build cooperatives of land, forestry, salt, fish, vegetables, so that they are economically better off. They have helped them trained for jobs in banks, service industry and compete in examinations of public prosecutors and Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC) with amazing results. I have witnessed well-known Dalit rights activists like Martin Macwan and Manjula Pradeep spend their life moving across the state to get Dalits, especially young boys and girls, to help build self-belief in themselves. For this, they would organize different types of cultural activities involving dance and theatre, even training them run their own enterprises.
And still they say nothing has changed! I refuse to believe it. My thesis is: Everything has changed.
If I go from Golana in 1986 to Una in 2016, I see both acts of crass physical violence on young Dalit men as shameless acts of barbarism.
So what has changed? Earlier the perpetrators brandished their upper caste identity and saw it as their right to kill, maim, insult Dalits whenever they felt the “need” to punish the latter for acts of belligerence. Today, the same perpetrators have to find newer political tactics of creating tension between OBCs and Dalits, since the direct exploitative tactic has changed. OBCs’ caste identity has been put aside, as their superiority is no longer accepted by the Dalits. Pushed to the wall, Dalits, along with Muslims, are now sought to be called cow killers and beef eaters; hence they are dubbed anti-Hindu and, therefore, anti-national. Hence, they should be taught a lesson. In the process, the OBCs are sought to be given a chance to “prove” that they too are Hindus.
The 2002 Gujarat carnage saw Dalits and tribals being pitted against Muslims. In fact, they were almost used as canon fodder. They were the ones whose names appeared in FIRs. While some got bail, others are still languishing. I guess they provided these “services” because they were seeking a share of economic gains in an effort to take over retail trade of meat and, at some places, liquor.
Dalits today are far more empowered than they were in the 1970s. Rural middle and upper caste men are far more vulnerable. Agriculture and allied industries are no longer lucrative, as cheap labour is not available. The carcass which the scavenger community cleans up is now finding markets directly, and the local upper caste middlemen are being bypassed. The mobile phone gets them access to Kanpur directly. This empowered confidence hurts.
Hence my thesis: The violence that one sees comes out of jealousy, it is an outrage at becoming economically weak. Indeed, acting as agents of political machinations is no more the only route to survive.
All the frustration of transiting from an agrarian land-based to a commercial entrepreneurship-based livelihood needs a higher level of education and mobility. To survive, one would need to display street smartness, too. This frustrates, and so either they commit suicide, or become violent. Little do they realize that in the process they are used as canon fodder by the ruling elite.
The cops, in the process, are often left in the role of being mute, impotent and almost helpless spectators, waiting for specific orders as to how to act safe. They know, they could be dismissed or suspended for dereliction of duty at the drop of a hat.
So what has not changed is the continued violence. But the motivation behind the violence has completely changed. Earlier, coming from a sense of caste superiority, there was a clear display of right to ownership of the Dalit body.
Today, the violent acts are one of helplessness of shattered ego,misdirected at Dalits and Muslims because of continuous indoctrination of the upper castes, OBCs, uneducated or literate but unemployable youth, by misinterpreting the role of the cow in Hindu society as something to be protected with all the resources. The fallacy is to protect the cow and you will prosper; you start losing out if they kill them.
I only wish they were given a tour of the Gau Shalas of Gujarat, with someone unraveling before them the state-politician-trader nexus in the whole game.
Isn’t it time that the Dalt leadership starts working with these youth from the earlier upper castes? After all, they are becoming increasingly vulnerable. Shouldn’t one help them see their state in what is described in the Frerian language “false consciousness”? In return, all that the Dalit leadership should do it to ask them to come to have a cup of tea in a scavenger’s house!

Founder, Janvikas, Ahmedabad

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