“This still feels like rajshahi [monarchy],” said Chawda Vipul Kanji, his voice shaky with emotion. “In Gujarat, Dalits are yet to be freed from slavery.”

Kanji is one of around a 100 Dalits who has made his way to Mota Samadhiyala village in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat on Thursday to take part in a public meeting to protest the brutal assault on four Dalits on July 11 by cow-protection vigilantes. The Dalit men, all from Mota Samadhiyala, were beaten up as they were skinning cow carcasses, a traditional occupation for people of their caste. But the self-styled gau rakshaks accused them of having slaughtered the animals, which Hindus worship. This assault is the latest in a long line of vigilante crimes sparked off by the recent hysteria around cow protection.

The vigilantes were so confident of not being prosecuted that they even shot a video of their assault and posted it online. But there was a twist in the tale: the video went viral, sparking off an incredible Dalit response, with protests across the Saurashtra region of south Gujarat. In Surendranagar and Gondal, protestors even went so far as to dump bovine carcasses in front of government offices – acidly taunting gua rakshaks to come and clean them up. The protests attracted national attention. Gujarat’s chief minister Anandiben Patel as well as Rahul Gandhi have already visited Mota Samadhiyala. Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal is expected to follow soon.

The protests are remarkable for the fact that they happened in the first place. Gujarat has seen little Dalit mobilisation and caste hierarchies in this region are still watertight. Yet, the protests show that a Dalit consciousness is taking shape, driven by the ideas of the pan-India Ambedkarite movement as well as technologies like the internet.

A newly-installed Ambedkar poster outside the house of Babubhai Sarvaiya, one of the victims of the July 11 assault.
A newly-installed Ambedkar poster outside the house of Babubhai Sarvaiya, one of the victims of the July 11 assault.

Ambedkarism versus caste apartheid

Unlike states such as Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, Gujarat has seen little political mobilisation of Dalits. Unsurprisingly, caste discrimination is high in the region. A study found that a staggering 98% of Gujarati non-Dalits would refuse to serve tea to a Dalit in their house – or serve tea in a separate cup kept specifically for Dalits.

Many Dalit protestors gathered at Mota Samadhiyala are adopting Ambedkarite methods to combat this caste segregation. “In 2006, we formed the Swayam Sevak Dal in Rajkot to fight upper castes together,” said Ramesh Chauhan, 40.

Chauhan is from the neighbouring district of Amreli and had hired a pick-up truck to ensure that around 20 people from his area came in to Mota Samadhiyala to attend the protests, as well as meet Rahul Gandhi. “We need to educate people, so we need to unite,” said Chauhan, explaining why he came here. “I take one day off in the week from doing farm labour, spend Rs 50 on petrol, and go on a motorcycle to nearby villages to teach people about Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar.”

Educate and agitate

He began to discuss the recent agitations in the state by members of the Patel caste for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. “Patels are so powerful – they dominate everything from my village’s headman to chief minister,” Ramesh Chauhan points out. “Yet they agitate to demand even more. We Dalits must be like that: educate ourselves and form an ekjut samaj", a united community.

Ramesh Chauhan volunteers by teaching people about Dalit history.
Ramesh Chauhan volunteers by teaching people about Dalit history.

Mukesh Chauhan, who had addressed the gathering in Mota Samadhiyala, agreed and explained what he was doing to advance these ideas. “I fought the taluka election as a representative of the Bahujan Samaj Party,” Chauhan said proudly. The Bahujan Samaj Party is party is founded on explicitly Ambedkarite principles and is the only Dalit formation to achieve political success – it has formed multiple governments in Uttar Pradesh. In Gujarat, however, it is a non-starter. Most of the state’s 8% Dalits vote for non-Dalit led parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party or Congress.

“All of this will also stop when we bring the BSP into power,” said Ramesh Chauhan. “Now they don’t even let us use their temples or their cremation grounds. We are treated like animals.”

Conversion

The acute segregation in matters of religion has led to Dalit conversions. “Like Babasaheb, I also converted to Buddhism,” says Mukesh Chauhan. “And not only me – it was a mass conversion ceremony where one lakh Dalits did the same.”

Mukesh Chauhan has fought elections for the Bahujan Samaj Party and even converted to Buddhism.
Mukesh Chauhan has fought elections for the Bahujan Samaj Party and even converted to Buddhism.

This ceremony, held in 2013, demonstrated that the Ambedkarite movement has been spreading slowly but steadily in Gujarat. The scale of the conversion had even alarmed the Gujarat government, then led by Narendra Modi, to announce an investigation into the event. Modi’s Gujarat government also passed a stringent law regulating religious conversions.

Dalit consolidation

Recent events, though, have accelerated this Dalit consolidation. One driver for this is the widespread availability of the internet on mobile phones and, with it, the Whatsapp message sharing application. In this case, the protests became so intense since so many people were able to see the brutal video of the assault by the gau rakshaks, as outraged Dalits forwarded it rapidly on Whatsapp.

The internet – as well as television news and newspapers – has also helped Gujarati Dalits tap in to a pan-India Ambedkarite movement. Ramesh Chauhan claimed that he had even submitted an avedan patra, a petition, to his district’s collector asking for a thorough investigation into the suicide in January of Rohith Vemula. That Vemula, a Dalit student from Hyderabad who had committed suicide after facing debilitating caste-based discrimination in his university, is an issue for a grassroots Dalit activists in Gujarat is remarkable.

For now, the protests are spontaneous with no leader or organisation to steer them. Nonetheless, another speaker at the village meeting, Suresh Parmar, attested to how unique this movement is. “This is the first time I’ve seen Dalits getting involved even in small villages,” Pawar said. “Earlier only Dalits in the towns would agitate.”