Dalit atrocities

Ambedkar, Rohith Vemula and Whatsapp: Gau rakshaks have unwittingly spurred Dalit unity in Gujarat

Dalits in the western state have slowly been stepping up to demand for their rights.

“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.”


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.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.