India’s Dalits strike back at centuries of oppression by letting dead cows rot on the streets

No man’s job.
No man’s job.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

India’s growing band of cow-protection vigilantes and their political bosses may have learnt a lesson in the past few days: Bullying can boomerang.

Politics over the cow, deemed holy by many Hindus, has roiled India for years. In recent times, it has turned nasty, with Indians lynching or humiliating fellow Indians on mere suspicion of having killed cows or eaten beef.

In the latest instance, four young men skinning a dead cow, along with another aged person, were mercilessly thrashed by a group of cow-protection vigilantes in Gujarat’s Una on July 11. Stripped and tethered to a car, the four were paraded publicly in Una even as they were walloped for almost five hours. One woman, too, was assaulted. And all the while, despite being approached, the police failed to act.

The victims were members of the Chamaar caste, part of India’s Dalit community, that has traditionally disposed of animal carcasses by using their skin, bones, and other body parts for commercial purposes.

The savagery has caused such anguish that some 17 distraught Dalits have attempted suicide in the western Indian state in protest against the incident.

Others have pelted stones, resorted to sit-ins, and blocked traffic on Gujarat’s highways. “There was also an attack on two state buses in Amreli by a mob of 2,000 men. Nearly 90% of bus trips scheduled in Jamnagar, Rajkot, Junagadh and Amreli divisions were cancelled, affecting the movement of three lakh passengers… In all, 500 protesters were arrested from different parts of Saurashtra..,” The Indian Express reported.

The blowback is evident not just in Gujarat, prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state, but also in other parts of the country, including the Indian parliament.

While protests by aggrieved communities aren’t new to India, this time, Gujarat’s Dalits have decided to show their anger in a rather simple, but disruptive, manner: They have refused to scavenge.

India’s caste system divides the Hindu society into four major levels—Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, where the Brahmins top the pyramid and Shudras form the unenviable bottom. For centuries, Dalits were forced to abide by clear-cut notions of hierarchy and associated professions.

As sociologist Andre Beteille described the root of the current agitation, “Some people (the Dalits) had to do all the dirty work, so that others could continue with their notions of ritual purity.”

Not anymore, though. At least not in Gujarat, where Dalits who traditionally collected animal carcasses to dispose of them have simply refused to do it anymore. So, since July 11, hundreds of dead bovines have been left rotting across the state, especially in the seven districts of its Saurashtra region, leaving citizens and officials aghast.

If Dalits—untouchables, till the practice was banned 1950—in other parts of the country choose to adopt this method, India may have a severe civic crisis at hand. For, even today, the most revolting of its civil sanitary tasks such as manual scavenging and sewer management are mostly carried out by them.

Defiance is their weapon

“We do all the society’s dirty work. And then we get beaten up for it,” said Hasmukh Karsanbhai Charviah. “So, we have now decided not to take up this job anymore. Why should we?”

By “we,” Charviah is referring to the around 25 carcass-scavenging families of Mota Samadhiyala, his village near Una in central Gujarat’s Surendranagar district. The decision to quit was taken following the June 11 assault on the youths in Una for alleged cow-slaughter. Those attacked were Hasmukh’s cousin Balubhai, along with his son, nephews, and wife.

“They knew we are Chamaars and skinning dead cattle is our job. Yet they assaulted us,” Hasmukh said, narrating the incident. He recalled that some of the vehicles in which the gang arrived sported stickers of the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political outfit allied with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The move to strike work has now spread to other parts of Gujarat.

Estimates of how many carcasses are lying unattended are difficult to come by, but the following could be an indication of the scale of the crisis: In Surendranagar’s Limbdi Mahajan Panjrapole, one of Gujarat’s 230 odd cattle infirmaries, there were some 36 putrefying dead animals waiting to be removed by July 21.

“They (officials) have promised to come back in the morning tomorrow (July 22). Let’s see what happens,” said Narendrabhai Shah, trustee of the Limbdi infirmary.

Officials, including the Surendranagar deputy collector, tried to negotiate with the protesters. Persons who attended the negotiations said that when the authorities offered Rs200 per dead cow, the Dalit interlocutors made a cheeky counter-offer: Rs500 for each official who removed one dead cow.

‘Your mom, you cremate her’

Some protesters have chosen to escalate the issue. They have brought carcasses in mini-trucks and tractors and dumped them before government offices. Tweets endorsing such escalation exclaimed: “Your mother, you perform the funeral rites.”

The hint at cow-protection vigilantes, who refer to the animal as their mata or mother, was unmistakable. Across India, such groups—overtly or covertly backed by right-wing political parties—have stalked cattle traders, villagers, and truck-drivers, sometimes even killing them.

In March, two young Muslims, one of them merely a boy of 15, were allegedly hanged by one such group in the northern Indian state of Jharkhand. In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri area, one elderly person was lynched in 2015 on suspicion of having eaten beef.

Though these incidents ostensibly are law and order issues that fall under the state government’s purview as per India’s federal laws, there has been an unmistakable rise in right-wing polemic and resultant violence ever since Modi took charge in New Delhi.

His public indifference to the tumult in his home state hasn’t surprised anyone who had witnessed his pristine silence in the wake of the Dadri lynching. A compulsive tweeter of anodyne season’s greetings and birthday messages—even mistimed ones—Modi has maintained radio silence over Una’s Dalits.

This, even as the groundswell has prompted local and national-level politicians to visit the Una victims.

“He spoke so much about our Gujarat to showcase his achievements. But now, it’s been 10 days since we Dalits have been publicly mistreated and the man we sent to New Delhi hasn’t uttered a word for us,” said Manjibhai Kalabhai of the Navsarjan Trust, a Dalit rights organisation based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s capital.

Modi’s BJP is in fire-fighting mode, though. With its long-standing hold on Gujarat seemingly unravelling and an all-important election coming up in Uttar Pradesh, the state with India’s largest population of Dalits, the BJP may be ruing its indulgence in cow politics.

Someone tell the party: You fed the cows, now prepare for the inevitable: dung. Loads of it.

We welcome your comments at