On Sunday, seven Dalits who were assaulted by cow vigilante groups in Gujarat’s Una town in July 2016 officially converted to Buddhism at an event where at least 300 others from the community also gave up Hinduism. The event was organised in Mota Samadhiyala village in the state’s Saurashtra region.

But despite the heavy police presence and the satisfaction of embracing a caste-free religion, the Una assault survivors said they continue to live in fear of upper-caste groups. Their fear is not exaggerated: on April 25, days before the conversion event, two of them were attacked again, by one of the men who had assaulted them in 2016. Last year, their relatives were threatened and attacked on at least three occasions.

Ramesh Sarvaiya, one of the survivors of the 2016 assault, told Scroll.in he continues to hear about clandestine meetings in which upper-caste groups from neighbouring villages discuss plans to target his family again.

On July 11, 2016, more than 40 men from the higher Darbar caste had assaulted seven members of the Sarvaiya family for skinning a dead cow in Gir Somnath district’s Una town. The Sarvaiyas were leather tanners and skinning dead cattle was part of their traditional occupation. But the assailants accused them of cow slaughter. During the attack, four of the Sarvaiya brothers were stripped, tied to the back of a car and beaten with sticks and iron rods, while some of the attackers filmed the assault.

After nationwide protests following the incident, the Gujarat Police arrested 43 suspects. But 35 of them have been out on bail for more than a year now. The hearings in the case are yet to begin, and the delay has added to the survivors’ sense of insecurity in Una.

“We converted to Buddhism because the Hindus never accepted us,” said 22-year-old Ramesh Sarvaiya. “But the fact remains that our attackers are still roaming free and we have to live in fear, because the police and government are not really doing much to keep us safe.”

A video grab of four members of the Sarvaiya family being assaulted in Una in July 2016.

Attacks, threats continue

In the latest attack on the Una survivors, Ramesh Sarvaiya, his brother Ashok and two other family members were stopped on the highway near Una on April 25 by Karansinh Darbar – one of the accused, now out on bail – and a friend. Ramesh Sarvaiya said Darbar told him to withdraw the 2016 case and charged at him with a spade. Ramesh Sarvaiya fought back and Darbar fled the spot as a crowd began to gather. The Sarvaiyas filed a police complaint. Darbar and his friend are reportedly absconding.

For the Sarvaiyas, this was the fourth such incident they had faced since the 2016 assault.

The family had told Scroll.in last year that a group of Darbar men had threatened Ramesh Sarvaiya in March 2017 after seeing him in an auto with a woman from another caste group. A few days later, his father Balubhai Sarvaiya and four other relatives were forced out of their auto by the relatives of those arrested for the 2016 attack.

The third incident took place in April 2017, when a Darbar man related to one of the 2016 assailants allegedly hit two of Balubhai Sarvaiya’s nephews with a metal rod. While one nephew sustained a head injury, the other was hurt on his hand. Their attacker was arrested but was granted bail within a few weeks, forcing the Sarvaiyas to avoid using the highway where they were attacked.

“The Darbars are not afraid of anyone, not even the police,” said Ramesh Sarviaya. “We have heard from our friends in other villages that these Darbars keep having meetings to discuss how they will target us next. This has happened in maybe 20 or 25 villages.”

‘We no longer need to say we are Hindu Dalits’

The Sarvaiyas and the other Dalits from Una who converted to Buddhism on Sunday have resigned themselves to living in fear. But by changing religions, they say that they hope to break away from the constraints imposed on them within the Hindu caste system.

After the 2016 attack, for instance, Dalit leather tanners in Una and other parts of Gujarat gave up their caste-based occupation as a mark of protest against the discrimination they faced for skinning cattle carcasses. Many of them are now struggling to find new work. Ramesh Sarvaiya is trying to make a living as a tailor while his cousin Jitu Sarvaiya now works as an electrician at a ceramic factory in Morbi district.

“I have good employers who don’t discriminate, but many of my Dalit friends are still forced to carry separate glasses to drink water at work, and in my village we are still not allowed to go into the temple,” said 23-year-old Jitu Sarvaiya. “Babasaheb Ambedkar chose to leave Hinduism because of this untouchability and caste oppression, and now we have done the same thing.”

Within Una, Jitu Sarvaiya does not expect this discrimination to end, even after their conversion to Buddhism. “But now when we travel to other places, we no longer need to say we are Hindu Dalits,” he said. “We can simply say we are Buddhist, and hopefully no one will then ask us what our caste is.”

A procession welcoming Dalit protestors into the Sarvaiyas' village near Una town in August 2016. (Photo: Aarefa Johari)

Conversions after 2016

While the Sarvaiyas converting to Buddhism made national headlines, it is not the first group conversion by Dalits in Gujarat as a mark of protest against the Una attack. In August 2016, Scroll.in had reported that at least 60,000 Dalits were planning to embrace Buddhism and that five mass conversion rallies had been planned across the state.

“Those mass conversions did not all take place as planned, because of various reasons,” said Ashok Samrat, co-founder of the Gujarat Dalit Sangathan, one of the organisations that was facilitating the conversions. The sudden demonetisation of high-value bank notes in November 2016 disrupted some of the conversion rallies planned at the end of that year. Another reason, Samrat said, was that “in many places, Dalits backed out because they were facing indirect or veiled threats from upper-caste villagers trying to warn them against conversion”.

Then, the district authorities of some places rejected thousands of conversion applications under the Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act, 2009, he added. The Act makes it mandatory for citizens to seek government permission before converting. Samrat said, “In Ahmedabad and Junagadh, the district authorities said they have still not processed the applications of thousands of people who wanted to convert in 2009 and 2013, so they could not take any more applications.”

Despite this, Samrat claims that 5,000 to 6,000 Dalits have converted to Buddhism since July 2016. “Many more have given up Hinduism at home and are informally practising Buddhism,” he said. “Wherever Dalits have been attacked, they have started giving up Hinduism.”