Prime Minister Narendra Modi, infamous for his silence on the suicides of hundreds of farmers, the lynching of innocent people by saffron goons, the institutional murders of Dalit and Adivasi students, and the cries of people across the country because of his fascist policies, was prompt in tweeting his condolence over the death of actor Sridevi on February 25. Modi tweeted:

President Ramnath Kovind, a member of the Sangh Parivar and a Dalit, was no different. He is supposed to represent the conscience of the nation, but has never expressed concern for any victim of caste or communal violence, or over the complicity of his own state in such acts of violence. But he had time to mourn Sridevi’s death. The president tweeted:

Of course, most Central ministers followed with their own tweets mourning the actor’s death and waxing eloquent about her acting skills. And of course, all television news channels gave the news 24x7 coverage, as though the country had come to a standstill and nothing else had happened in those four to five days. But in that period of “national mourning”, it is certain that at least 10 Dalits would have been murdered and 25 Dalit women raped – going by the historical average that two Dalits are killed and five Dalit women raped every day.

With his anti-poor and anti-Dalit policies, people have learnt not to expect much from Modi. But they would have expected better of Kovind. If he had at least symbolically showed his conscience on a few of these rapes and murders of his own people, people could have easily swallowed his sentiment for Sridevi.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi is not far behind Modi and Kovind. There is nothing wrong in condoling someone’s death but at least in death, public figures must show a sense of equity. In the BJP’s neglect of the poor lies an opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to show himself as different not only from Modi but also from his own party’s past. Many expect him to save democracy in India. Instead, he appears bent on emulating Modi, not realising that people would permanently slot him a follower and not a leader.

There were at least two deaths before Sridevi’s that were disturbing to anyone who heard of them. The first was that of Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar, who immolated himself on February 15 over the delay in allotment of land to members of his community in Gujarat’s Dudkha village. The second death was that of A Madhu, a 27-year-old Adivasi man, shortly after he was beaten by a mob in Kerala’s Palakkad district on suspicion of stealing. Both incidents were horrendous enough to make news but not worthy of follow-up by the media. Almost no one among our leaders felt it worth their while to react to these incidents, much less act on them.

Dying for a cause

Vankar’s death should have shaken the conscience of the nation. He died fighting for two Dalit labourers who wanted the titles to their allotted land but had been kept waiting by the authorities despite collecting Rs 22,236 for the transfer as far back as in 2013. The fact that Dalits in Gujarat have been allotted thousands of acres of land but have not been given possession of it has been exposed over the past decade by activists such as Valjibhai Patel, Raju Solanki and Jignesh Mevani. Mevani, a Gujarat MLA, has in particular brought this matter into the limelight in the wake of the Dalit movement triggered by the assault on four Dalit tanners by cow protection groups in Una town in 2016. I was part of one such struggle for land allottment to Dalits in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district. The Dalits had worked on these lands, of which they were de jure owners, as bonded labourers for the dominant community for nearly three decades.

Vankar and the two labourers he was fighting for, Hema Vankar and Rama Chamar, were members of the Mevani-led Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch. They had written to Chief Minister Vijay Rupani on January 17, warning him that they would immolate themselves if their demands were not met. Another letter was submitted to the district collector of Patan on February 7 but the administration failed to prevent Bhanubhai Vankar’s death. As protests spread across the state and his family refused to accept his body, Gandhinagar district collector Satish Patel and Superintendent of Police Virendra Yadav signed a letter that read: “Possession of land already allocated to Dalit community members will be handed over in the next six months.” There was no explanation for their having slept on the matter for four years or the criminal silence over the activists’ threat to immolate themselves. There is also no word from the state government on the thousands of such cases that await justice. When the act of Dalits setting themselves on fire fails to wake up the administration to the monumental injustice it is perpetrating against the community, tweets condoling their deaths by Modi and Kovind are a far cry.

Punishing the poor

The second death was a classic case of punishing a poor, hungry man for stealing bread while the rich go scot free with their loot in daylight. A Madhu was killed on February 22 for stealing a kilo of rice (which was recovered from him) whereas jewellers Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi fled the country on February 19 after perpetrating a Rs 11,400-crore bank fraud – just to cite a fresh case in an endless series.

Madhu belonged to the Kurumba tribe and lived in Chindakki colony in Attappady, one of Kerala’s most impoverished areas, infamous for the malnutrition deaths of Adivasi children. Having lost his father 10 years ago, he had become mentally ill and had been living in caves and surviving off the forest. Suspecting him of stealing valuables from the house of a resident three days ago, some people caught him from a nearby forest at around 4 pm and beat him mercilessly with sticks after tying him up with his own lungi. Some of them had the temerity to take pictures, which appeared in the media. It portrayed the horror of the incident. When he was handed over to the police at 6.30 pm, he collapsed and died in the police jeep. No tweet from Modi or any of his ministers or from Kovind!

A Madhu was tied with his own lungi and beaten with sticks by a mob in Kerala on February 22. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen)

Madhu was cremated quietly. The protests over Bhanubhai Vankar’s death resulted in Mevani, an elected representative of the people, being detained by the police. The promise from the district collector to meet Vankar’s demand within six months may prove to be just a ploy to dodge the issue; in any case, thousands of such cases remain untouched. They perhaps await more Bhanubhai Varkars to immolate themselves at the altar of the insensitivity of the republic. On the other hand, Sridevi was cremated with state honours.

Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and civil rights activist with the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights, Maharashtra.