“How can gau rakshaks torture us when we’re only doing our job – a job which is crucial to society?” asked Dalit social worker Maheshbhai Rathod angrily. “This is why we used those cow carcasses as a mark of protest. Dalits are boycotted for their work but we wanted to show them how critical our role is.”
On July 18, in the small town of Surendranagar, Gujarat, a group of Dalits led a march to the District Collector’s office and proceeded to dump cow carcasses outside the collectorate. They were protesting a brutal assault on four Dalits by cow-protection vigilantes in the village of Mota Samadhiyala in south Gujarat on July 11.
The protests electrified India. Till then, the media and political reaction to the July 11 assault had been lukewarm. On July 18, the morning of the protest, the Times of India, Ahmedabad’s headline was about Raghuram Rajan – there was no mention of the Dalit assault on page 1 at all. On July 19, the morning after the protest, the paper ran the Dalit assault on its front page. A day later, even the state administration woke up, with Gujarat’s Chief Minister meeting the victim’s families at Mota Samadhiyala.
For all the impact, the march was led by three unassuming people. Two of them – Nathubhai Parmar and Maheshbhai Rathod – are local social workers and one, Hirabhai Chawda, is a businessman who trades in the by-products of dead cows. The fact that they planned and executed this unique protest serves to illustrate a new and rising Dalit assertiveness in Gujarat, a state that still displays some of the worst instances of social apartheid seen in India.
Nathubhai Parmar animatedly describes how they organised the 1,500-strong rally. Parmar, a social worker with the Dalit rights organisation, Navsarjan, had to physically travel to villages to collect marchers for July 18.
“I took the video of the beating on my laptop and showed it to other Dalits in the villages,” Parmar explained. “People reacted angrily and promised to not only come to the rally but also donate funds.”
Chawda’s network of Dalits who sold him cow carcasses was also pressed into use as was technology: WhatsApp, Facebook and file sharing apps were used to spread the video of the beating. “We told people, if you don’t agitate now, this will keep on happening to us Dalits,” explained Parmar.
The fact that dead cows were going to be part of the march was kept hidden from the administration. “They’d never have given us permission otherwise,” Parmar chuckled. “The district superintendent of police was shocked to see the carcasses but then I just showed him the permission letter for the rally – it didn’t say you can’t bring carcasses!”
The district administration’s woes didn’t end there. After the march, Surendranagar district’s Dalits decided to boycott their traditional occupation of collecting cow carcasses. “People have been torturing Dalits who pick up cow carcasses for a long time,” said Maheshbhai Rathod, who runs his own Dalit rights organisation, Samta Sainak Dal. “So we decided to stop doing it to teach them a lesson. The gau rakshaks beat us because they think the cow is their mother. Well, then, they should take care of her and pick up her carcass when she dies.”
Surendranagar’s Collector Udit Agrawal acknowledged the fact of the Dalit boycott to Scroll.in and said that the administration is now using backhoe loaders to collect cow carcasses.
However, given that carcass collection was always something that the Dalits did manually, this stopgap measure is proving to be inadequate, especially in rural areas outside the district headquarters, with cow carcasses decaying at several places. At a cow shelter in the nearby block of Limbdi, around 20 cow carcasses rot with no Dalits to pick them up. “In the Ratanpur area of Surendranagar town, they kept on calling us to collect three dead cows but we never went,” said Hirabhai Chadwa. “Ultimately, stray dogs tore the carcass apart.”
“This boycott is hurting us too but we need to put our foot down,” said Chawda. “Gau rakshaks harass us and even the police extorts bribes from us. Why? We are not stealing – this is our job.”
Food and livelihood
Chawda explained how various industries depend on Dalits picking up dead cows. The fat is sold to soap factories in Ahmedabad, bones to bone china cup manufactures as well as gelatine manufactures and the leather to traders from Chennai and Kolkata. “This madness around cows will affects my business as well as lakhs of Dalit livelihoods,” said Chawda.
Beef is also used as food by the Chamaar community, who dry the meat to use all through the year and employ the cow tallow as a cooking medium. “Tuar dal and magh dal are more than Rs 200 a kilo and even vegetables and oil are so expensive,” said Nathubhai Parmar. “We are poor, so we need to eat boti [dried beef] and charbi [tallow]. How can we stop eating that? How will we live?”
Cows and the caste system
Rathod explained how intricately the stigma against dealing with a dead holy animal is linked with the caste system. “In the village, if a Dalit takes away a dead cow, he has to serve the upper castes for free all year long,” said Maheshbhai Rathod. “Repair their shoes, make leather ropes and harnesses for them.”
Said Parmar: “Thakurs and Patels will not give anyone who lives in Ambedkar colony [the Dalit ghetto of Surendranagar] water, they won’t let us enter their temples. Why? Because we are unclean for working with dead cows or picking up mal [faeces]?”
Rathod described the bitter Catch-22 that is the life of a Dalit. “They take so much from us, make us labour for them, yet when we actually do their work, they call us unclean, beat and torture us,” he said. “But even after thrashing us, they’ll never do the work themselves. There is 100% reservation in leather for Chamaars and in safai, cleaning, for Bhangis, isn’t there?”
Said Rathod, now smiling: “This is why we did that protest. We wanted to tell people, ‘If you don’t like us doing the work, please do it yourself.’ Then we’ll see how important Dalits are.”