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Dalits in a 'Hindu rashtra'

By Subhash Gatade

Everyone knows about Gujarat’s bias against Muslims. But consider the dalits in this ‘Hindu rashtra’: they are confined to ‘dalits only’ housing societies in Ahmedabad, school quotas for recruitment of dalit teachers are ignored, and dalits are buried in separate burial grounds if available and in wasteland if not

108 dalits lost their lives in the riots of 2002, 38 in the city of Ahmedabad alone

The severe earthquake that hit Gujarat in 2001 and the subsequent relief and rehabilitation programme revealed to the outside world the deep-seated caste bias in the Gujarati community, apart from the much talked about bias against the minority communities. There were reports that in some places the relief and rehabilitation work bypassed both the dalits and the Muslims.  

Similarly, the organised killing of Muslims a year later, in 2002, also saw several dalit casualties. While the co-option of a section of the dalits in the Hindutva agenda and their metamorphosis as foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade was duly reported, the media did not deem it necessary to emphasise that the riots also affected dalits. One hundred and eight dalits lost their lives, 38 in the city of Ahmedabad alone. Quite a few of these deaths occurred when dalits resisted the Hindutva goons by siding with hapless Muslims. Interestingly, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar had asked his followers to stop Hindu Raj becoming a reality at all costs. 

Discrimination against dalits in Gujarat occurs routinely -- in housing, in education, and even in death.  

No place for the dead 

When Naresh Solanki's two-and-a-half-year-old nephew died in 2001, the grieving family from Hooda village in Palanpur block of Banaskantha district buried the child in the community burial ground. No sooner had they reached home than they heard that a member of the Patel community from the village had exhumed the body with a tractor. The powerful Patels had encroached on some part of the land next to the burial ground and were offended by the burial.

It has been more than seven years since that incident took place and the dalits of Hooda village are still waiting for the collector and the village panchayat to allot them some land for burial. When a community elder died in 2008, his body had to be carried to another village, where dalits have a separate graveyard.

That the problem of burials for dalits is not limited to Hooda is borne out by a report in Mail Today in the first week of February 2009. It said that dalits are not allowed to use common burial grounds in Gujarat and are often forced to bury their dead in wastelands near villages. Absence of any legal entitlement to this land allows the dalits to be pushed out of such lands by dominant upper castes. 

A survey conducted by the Gujarat Rajya Grampanchayat Samajik Nyay Samiti Manch found that out of 657 villages in Gujarat, 397 villages do not have any designated land allotted for burial for dalits. Out of the 260 villages where land has been formally allotted, 94 have seen encroachments by the dominant castes and in 26 villages the burial ground is in a low-lying area and therefore gets waterlogged.

When the question of burying their dead comes up, dalits have much in common with Muslims who also find their graveyards being encroached upon by the dominant classes. A few years ago, the Gujarat high court had to intervene and ask the state government to post police personnel to block attempts to encroach on the graveyard of Muslims in Patan.

Disclose your caste, lose your house

If dead dalits have no dignity in a ‘Hindu rashtra’, neither do the living, and this in the state capital of Ahmedabad.

It is the common experience of dalits living here that if they approach an upper caste builder for housing, they are either directly discouraged or tacitly denied. It is immaterial if the dalit is economically well-off.

Such discrimination, deeply entrenched, received a new lease of life after the 2002 carnage. In Ahmedabad, ‘dalits only’ residential societies have come up. There are around 300 of them. An article on the subject in the Indian Express emphasised that it is “not a matter of choice, but of compulsion”:

“ ‘Even if a dalit can afford a flat in areas dominated by the upper castes, they are often denied by the builders or the seller,’ retired IAS officer P K Valera, who lives in one such dalit society in Ramdevnagar, says. Some social scientists say the alienation started since 1982, after the anti-reservation agitation, but agree that the caste and class distinctions have become more serious in recent years. This trend can be seen not only in the walled city but also in the posh areas of west Ahmedabad like Satellite, Vastrapur, Bodakdev, Ambavadi. Socio-political scientist Achyut Yagnik says, ‘There are more than 300 dalit societies in the city. In Chandkheda alone, there are 200 societies, most of which have come up after the 2002 riots when people moved out from Gomtipur, Bapunagar and Dani limda area. You will find construction contractors who only build dalit societies.’ ”

(‘A Dalit? Go Find a Dalit Society’ by D P Bhattacharya, Indian Express, Ahmedabad, June 17, 2007)

Of course this near-segregation of dalits to specific areas under the great umbrella of Hindu unity does not stop the Sangh Parivar from using dalits for their sectarian agenda during elections and riots. The list of the dead and wounded in the 2002 riots contains mainly Muslim and dalit names.

Schools flout recruitment rules with impunity

There are around 3,255 non-grant schools in the state according to the website of the Gujarat State Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board. Almost all of them violate the statutory provisions of the Education Act, 1972, when it comes to hiring teachers from the scheduled communities. There are consequently only a handful of teachers from the scheduled communities in all these schools

Under the provisions of the Education Act, 1972, it is mandatory for all grant and non-grant schools to abide by the reservation policy while making recruitments. Any school found to be violating its provisions can have its registration cancelled. Experience shows that the rule is openly flouted by the non-grant schools. The state government conveniently argues that it can't compel the schools to comply because they are not given any aid.

The May 26, 2008 edition of the Indian Express, Vadodara edition, carried an expose on this scam entitled ‘Government looks the other way as schools flout recruitment norms for teachers.’ According to the social justice and empowerment department, which is supposed to supervise the implementation of the reservation policy, the reason the statutory provisions of the act are not being implemented is the absence of a roster reservation act under which it is mandatory that a certain number of seats – say every third or fourth seat -- be reserved for SCs and STs. 

It was an application filed under the Right to Information Act by a leading social worker of Gujarat enquiring about the number of teachers who have been recruited by non-grant schools under the reservation policy that led to the expose of these details. Expressing concern over the state of affairs, the social worker has demanded two things: cancelling the registration of errant schools and punishing the officers who have been responsible for subverting the policy.

Atrocities cases

The rate of conviction of cases under the Prevention of Atrocities Act against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SC/ST) in Gujarat is a mere 2.5%, while the rate of acquittal is 97.5%. A 23-page confidential report submitted by the state social justice department to the state chief secretary and legal department provides glaring examples of “mishandling of cases registered under Prevention of Atrocities Act against SC/ST.” (Indian Express, September 15, 2006).

The report provides details of how cases are not investigated properly by the police and the hostile role played by public prosecutors during trials. It revealed other anomalies.

- The Act clearly stipulates that offences that are registered under this Act cannot be investigated by an officer below the rank of deputy superintendent of police but more than 4,000 such cases have been investigated by a police inspector or sub-inspector.

- Acquittal of the perpetrator because the victim is not identified as a member of SC or ST community. The reason for this is that the caste certificate of the victim is not attached to the case papers.

- Public prosecutor’s false claims before the courts that the Act has been modified by the state government although it is known that it is a central act.

- Granting of anticipatory bail although there is no such provision in the Act. Interestingly, the Parliamentary Committee on SC and ST affairs had also expressed concern over such anticipatory bail granted “in atrocity cases in the state of Gujarat”.

It was a detailed and systematic study of 400 judgments by Vajibhai Patel, secretary of the Council for Social Justice that compelled the government to work on this 23-page report. According to the study the utterly negligent police investigation at both the higher and lower levels coupled with the distinctly hostile role played by public prosecutors is the main reason for the collapse of cases filed under the Atrocities Act. Patel has meticulously documented the judgments delivered under this Act since April 1, 1995 in the Special Atrocity Courts set up in 16 districts of the state. His study also blasts the common perception that the inefficacy of this law is due to false complaints being lodged or compromises between the parties; in actuality, it is a complicit state that has rendered the Act toothless.

Such a situation has existed for some time. The National Crime Records Bureau had made an observation a few years ago that went unnoticed. It said that Gujarat ranks third in the country after Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in atrocities against dalits (Asian Age, April 11, 2003). An earlier report by the Bureau, in 1998, also revealed a disturbing picture of ‘Vibrant Gujarat’. According to this report, the total number of atrocities against dalits in the country was 25,617. Of these, 8,894 cases were registered in Gujarat alone, including 28 cases of rape of dalit women, the seventh highest in the country.

Nothing was done by the Bharatiya Janata Party government to check offences against SCs and STs. The special dalit courts envisaged in all districts under the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 exist in only 10 of Gujarat’s 26 districts, and none of these 10 courts accord special status to dalit issues, according to dalit activists.

Ambedkar’s prognosis

One can go on belching out statistics about the situation of dalits in the first ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in secular-democratic India. Two main issues need to be addressed:

- Why has the near secondary status of dalits not become an important issue in the anti-communal movement?

- Why is a section of dalits still enamoured of Hindutva? Is it a sign of the upward mobility of dalits within the Hindu religion or is it a marker of the accumulated hatred towards the minority communities and getting ready to play out the Hindutva agenda on its own?

It needs to be emphasised here that all over Gujarat one finds thousands and thousands of boards put up at prominent places by one of the affiliates of the Sangh Parivar saying ‘You are entering this or that locality of Hindu Rashtra’. This is completely illegal and an open proclamation of secession from the rest of society.

At this juncture one thinks of Ambedkar’s prognosis vis-a-vis Hindu Rajya. In his book Pakistan or Partition of India written before the partition of India, he clearly prophesises: “If Hindu Raj becomes a reality then it would be the greatest menace to this country. Whatever Hindus may say, actually it does not make a difference that Hinduism is a danger to Independence, Equality and Brotherhood. Thus it is an enemy of democracy. We should make all-out efforts to stop Hindu Raj from becoming a reality.” (page 358).  

It doesn’t look like anybody is listening.

(Subhash Gatade is a social activist, translator and writer whose writings appear regularly in Hindi and English publications and occasionally in Urdu publications. He edits a Hindi journal Sandhan) 

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009