Columnist, author and political commentator, Aakar Patel has long been a close observer of the political scenario. In Price of the Modi Years, he seeks to explain the data and facts on India’s performance under Narendra Modi, assessing the damage across the polity from the economy, national security, federalism, foreign relations, legislations and the judiciary to media and civil society.
The following is an excerpt from the chapter “The Devil’s Workshop” of the book.
The Tail of the Cow
On 11 July 2016, Dalit men who were skinning a cow’s carcass were assaulted and humiliated for hours in the village of Una, near the Somnath temple. Videos taken by those who participated in and witnessed the assault were watched by millions over the next few days. The police stood by. This was during the beef lynching madness India was going through. The men had not killed the cow, merely skinned a dead one.
On 18 July, it was reported that seven Dalits attempted to immolate themselves in protest. Another nine made the attempt the following day. One of the men, who had consumed poison, died.
Dalit organisations then discovered a manner of protest that was effective: they brought the carcasses of the dead cows they worked with to their protests. The carcasses were dumped outside government offices and on top of government vehicles.
On 18 July, in Surendranagar in central Gujarat, 250 kms from Una, 15 trucks of cattle carcasses were brought and parked outside the collector’s office. This was shocking for the population, which had not seen dead animals on this scale before, because the work of skinning and cleaning carcasses was always done in Dalit areas.
‘She’s your mother, you take care of her,’ the Dalits said as they did this across towns and cities in Gujarat.78 Of course, no gaurakshak was around to clean up what he had all this time pretended to revere. The Surendranagar Collectorate said it was forced to bury 80 cow carcasses because there was nobody who could usefully strip them as Dalits did. ‘The Dalit community, which usually skins the dead animals and then disposes of the carcass has been on a strike in the district for one week, so we told the municipal staff to dispose of the dead animals,’ the collector, Udit Agarwal, said.
This manner of protest was replicated and Dalit groups called on their community to act. They were led by those who had never protested before, including a Dalit businessman, Hirabhai Chawda, who traded in the by-products of dead cows. Till these carcass protests began, the mainstream media was uninterested in the Una story and the plight of Gujarat’s Dalits. Scroll reported that, on the morning of 18 July, the day the carcasses were taken to the Surendranagar Collectorate, The Times of India’s main story was about the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan. The next day, the paper took up the assault on Dalits as its main story. A day later, the chief minister finally met the victims’ families.
The turbulence produced new leaders including the 35-year-old activist and former journalist Jignesh Mevani. He likened the actions of those who had attempted suicide to the 2004 protest by Manipuri women against sexual assault by the Indian armed forces. The women had appeared naked outside Kangla Fort in Imphal—headquarters of the Assam Rifles—with banners that read ‘Indian army, rape us’. ‘Those women had to strip naked and say “Indian army rape us” in order for the nation to pay attention to their plight,’ Mevani said. ‘The suicide attempts are similar.’
In August, Mevani mobilised thousands of people for a 400 km march from Ahmedabad to Una. He used the momentum to push material changes, primarily by picking up the issue of surplus land, which had been taken from feudal landowners by the law but not redistributed to Dalits as it should have been.
In 2006, 115 landless Dalit families of Saroda village near Ahmedabad were allotted 222 bigha (around 136 acres, or about 1.1 acres per family) of land under the Agriculture Land Ceiling Act.
However, the possession remained only on paper, and the land, which had been encroached upon by people from the dominant caste, did not actually change hands. The Dalits had made representations to the government to no effect.
Mevani picked up the issue, which also impacted other Dalits in Gujarat, and affected the allotment of over 56,000 acres, forcefully. His slogan was ‘Gai nu puchdu tamey rakho, amne amaari jameen aapo’ (Keep the cow’s tail for yourself and give us our land).
On 8 August 2016, with protests mounting, Modi finally responded by saying Hindutva vigilantes should kill him rather than attack Dalits. This response did not move the protestors and they continued their agitation.
In September 2016, a rail roko was announced when Modi was to visit Gujarat to celebrate his 66th birthday. The agitation was planned at Maninagar, Modi’s former constituency, and the threat goaded the state government into engaging with the group they had previously been contemptuous of. The home minister made an assurance that their demands on land would be met. On 20 September, the government began mapping the land at Saroda.
Two days later, on 22 September, the state government announced the setting up of 16 special courts across Gujarat for the speedy trial of cases under Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, to take up cases like Una.84 Courts would be set up in 15 districts, with Ahmedabad getting two. Anand, Banaskantha, Bharuch, Bhavnagar, Gandhinagar, Jamnagar, Junagadh, Kutch, Mehsana, Patan, Rajkot, Surat, Surendranagar and Vadodara would get the rest. The notification said the courts were being established after consultation with the chief justice of Gujarat High Court. This had also been one of the long-standing demands of Dalits and it came only on the back of their protests after Una.
On 1 October, these courts began functioning. Five months later, on 25 March 2017, the first conviction came for a case that had been registered in 2013. Conviction rates under the SC/ST Act had been dropping before this. In 2012, a total of 1,026 cases were registered but saw only 65 convictions.
In 2015, of the 1,009 cases registered, a mere 11 convictions ensued.
One of the reasons for the delay in disposal of cases was the high number of vacancies in judge positions. At the beginning of 2013, Gujarat had the highest number of vacancies (794) in all of India.
It was the pressure resulting from the mobilisation after Una that brought about change for Dalits. In December 2017, only 17 months after the events of Una, Mevani was elected to the Gujarat Assembly, having become a nationally recognised figure.