In August, Gujarat witnessed a mass movement of Dalits in the wake of the flogging of four members of the community by cow protection vigilantes for skinning a dead cow in Una town. During this unprecedented uprising, Dalits vowed never to pick up animal carcasses and, thereby, give up this traditional profession.

But such a decision was bound to have repercussions, and so it has in two villages in North Gujarat where the community is facing a socio-economic boycott for refusing to dispose of dead cows. They have been refused food and essentials by shops and are no longer being hired for work on the orders of upper-caste villagers. The few who have tried to help them have been punished for it. In such a situation, whole families have been forced to abandon their homes, villages and livelihoods. But the community are now fighting back.

No work, no food

In remote Par in Santalpur taluka, trouble started when Bhramar Sinh Shavji Sinh’s buffalo died in October. Sinh hails from the Darbar Kshatriya community that is considered a high caste. Like always, Dalits were called to dispose of the carcass, but they refused to do so. Angered by the refusal, upper-caste villagers decided to boycott the Dalits. In this village of 400 Darbar families and 14 Dalit families, the latter were left with no choice but to flee.

“The incident happened in October and since then, the Darbars of the village have methodically boycotted the Dalits socially,” said Narendra Parmar, a Dalit activist in the area. “Shops in and around the village refused to sell them grocery, vegetables or milk.”

He added, “Many Dalits of this village are labourers and they depend on the work they find in the village from these Darbars. The Darbars decided the Dalits of the village shall no longer be hired for any work.”

For two months after that, the Dalits managed to procure food, milk and other essentials from nearby villages. But eventually, unable to manage anymore in the face of the economic boycott, 74 community members left Par in December, moving into the homes of relatives and in-laws in the neighbouring areas.

Dalit residents of Par village protest on the footpath in front of the Patan collectorate.

However, on February 21, they gathered in Patan, the district headquarters 150 km from the village, and decided to fight the boycott. Since then, the 74 Dalits, including women and children, have made the footpath in front of the collectorate their home.

“It is not just about one incident,” said a Dalit woman from Par. “The collector may intervene and resolve the issue but we don’t want to return to Par. We are scared.”

She added, “We, Dalit women, have to endure the worst. Eveteasing has become a norm here. Whenever women step out in the village, the Darbar men pass lewd comments at them. Some of our kids are adolescents. It is embarrassing that mothers have to be at the receiving end of such lewd comments in front of their own children.”

She gave an example of one such incident of sexual harassment. “Last year, a drunken Darbar man came out of the blue and stopped me on my way home from a shop in the village, held my arm and even after repeated requests would not let me go,” she said. “Some elders intervened and I was saved somehow. I had injury marks on my wrist. We wanted to file an FIR but were refused by the local police station. The police personnel in-charge that day told me that this was a non- issue,” she added.

The protesting villagers have made the footpath their home since February 21.

Even before the boycott, Dalits in Par, like in several villages of Gujarat, lived without the basic necessities. The absence of toilets meant they had to defecate in the open. Women had to be accompanied by the menfolk whenever they needed to relieve themselves after dark for fear of their safety.

“The 14 families own about 120 bighas of agricultural land in the village,” said Parmar. “They have their house and a life they built around it. But they are so scared that they are ready to give up everything for their safety. There are two women who are pregnant among the villagers. There are children whose education has stopped. Yet, they continue to live here in tents.”

Parmar said the collector had assured the community of a solution during a meeting with the villagers. But a week later, the Darbars had also called on the collector with a memorandum, claiming that the allegations against them were untrue and that the Dalits and Darbars lived amicably. “However, they ended the memorandum in a rather threatening note, declaring that there shall be consequences if any action is taken in the matter,” the activist added.

Villagers of Par meet the collector of Patan.

Discrimination and separate seating

It is a similar story in Rantej, a village in Becharaji taluka of Mehsana district – which is the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has produced top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders such as former state chief minister Anandiben Patel and the current deputy chief minister, Nitin Patel.

On February 8-9, the Sikota Mata temple organised a community lunch to celebrate a murti sthapana (the placing of an image/idol in the shrine). The temple authorities invited everyone in the village, including the 45 Dalit families living there and also urged them to invite their married daughters and sons-in-law. But it soon emerged that the temple authorities had made separate seating arrangements for the Dalits some 50 feet away from the temple and its premises.

“This hurt our sentiments, especially since we had invited our sons-in-law who were insulted by the act,” said Amrutbhai Rathod, a Dalit resident. “When we asked them for the reason behind arranging a separate seating area for us, they told us they consider us unclean because we do the unclean job of picking up carcasses,” added Rathod, who was also involved in the profession. “So we all decided not to pick carcasses any more.”

Following this decision, upper-caste villagers called for a social and economic boycott of the community. Around eight of them publicly announced that no one from the village was allowed to give the Dalits food, milk or groceries, or hire them as labourers.

Rantej is home to some 80 families each of Darbars and Patels, 40 Rabari (a pastoralist community) households, 20 Brahmin houses and 10 Prajapati (a potter community) residences, all considered higher than the Dalits in the social hierarchy. All of them gave their assent to the boycott idea.

When some villagers helped the Dalits, they were fined Rs 2,100 for this act.

“When we started procuring food from neighboring villages like Ruppura and Rampura, which are 2 km to 3 km away, they sent a message to those villages asking them to not help us,” said Rathod. “Many were refused things of daily need by shopkeepers thereafter. Leelaben came back empty-handed after she was refused 2 kg of rice. She is 52 and has a family of six to feed. Another Dalit of the village was refused cooking oil.”

On February 17, the Dalits filed a first information report under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the eight people who had made the boycott announcement, and submitted a memorandum to the collector the same day.

In the wake of this, DD Nayak, assistant social welfare officer in Mehsana, said a group comprising the sub-divisional magistrate, Becharaji taluka development officer, a police sub-inspector from Becharaji, Nayak himself and his deputy director held a meeting with both the groups. The villagers reached a compromise after the Dalits agreed to not pursue the matter further and the other villagers agreed to take back the boycott call. But that wasn’t the end of the community’s trouble.

“They have stopped the social boycott but they have still not begun to hire Dalit labourers,” said Kaushik Parmar, a Dalit activist from Mehsana who is associated with the Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch, whose leader Jignesh Mevani was the face of the post-Una Dalit movement last year.

Mevani, who met the families of Par village recently, said “Una movement gave the Dalits a voice, but the resistance against Dalits by upper castes has also become stronger.”

Activist Jignesh Mevani addresses the Dalit community in Par village.

A long fight

The case of Piyush Sarvaiya is perhaps one such example. In September 2012, an upper-caste mob burnt his brother alive in his house in Ankolali village in Una district, forcing the family of 14 to flee. They moved to another part of the district where they remain.

But they want a place of their own. And after much struggle, the Anandiben Patel-led BJP government approved their refugee status and ordered their rehabilitation. But in every village that the government found them land to settle in, the upper-caste residents resisted the move vehemently. Patel stepped down as chief minister in August and the Sarvaiyas are yet to be rehabilitated.

In the last week of February, Sarvaiya wrote to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani, the secretariat, the governor, a few Dalit ministers and the collector of Gir Somnath district, stating that his family would have no option but to commit suicide if the government did not address the issue immediately. He is yet to receive a response to his letter.

The house of Piyush Sarvaiya in Ankolali village in Una where his brother was burnt alive in 2012.