Seven decades after Independence, India’s Dalits ask: What has changed?

Fighting back.
Fighting back.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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A storm is brewing among India’s most downtrodden community as the country gears up to celebrate 69 years of Independence.

On Aug. 15, Dalit protesters in prime minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat plan to gather in the city of Una, where four Dalit youths were brutally flogged in public by cow-protection vigilantes on July 11. Footage of the youths being stripped, tied to a car and then beaten up for nearly five hours went viral on social media, though the assault itself did not evoke any action by the local police.

The incident prompted sit-ins and blockades of Gujarat’s highways, besides several attempted suicides by members of the Dalit community. On July 31, one such person died at a government hospital in Ahmedabad.

The march to Una is the latest attempt by the community to take the state government to task for years of inaction in cases of discrimination and violence perpetrated by upper-caste groups. The timing of the unrest is significant: The state goes to polls in 2017 and continuing protests could make it hard for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be re-elected.

In fact, one BJP leader openly welcomed such attacks on Dalits. Raja Singh, the party’s legislator in the state of Telangana, posted a video on his Facebook page in which he says, “Dalits who were taking the cow meat… those who were beaten, it was a very good thing…”

No more scavenging

On July 31, thousands of protesters from nearly 30 Dalit groups gathered in Ahmedabad, calling for members of the community to stop picking up the carcasses of dead animals and cleaning the city’s sewers to emphasise their discontent with the state of affairs. Traditionally, such civic tasks have been performed by Dalits—deemed untouchables according to the Hindu caste system, till the practice was banned in 1950.

“Only our united strength will help us fight the age-old oppression,” Jignesh Mevani, the organiser of the protest, said.

Since the Una incident, hundreds of animal carcasses have been left to rot across the state with some protesters even dumping the rotting flesh in front of government offices.

The protests have also brought together the families of victims from past incidents who criticized the state government for its unwillingness to provide justice. Among those at the July 31 protest were families of the three Dalit youths killed by the Gujarat police at a September 2012 rally in Surendranagar district.

“What can we expect from this government that failed to provide justice even after four years?” the wife of one of the victims, Gitaben Parmar, said, according to the Indian Express newspaper.