It is not surprising that the recent protests by dalits, especially the vigorous one in Ahmedabad following the Una incident in which four dalits were mercilessly beaten for skinning dead cows have evoked global attention: this is the first time in living memory that dalits have spontaeneously come together in large numbers to protest an atrocity committed over performing a caste forced occupation.
As has been pointed out by various observers and analysts, this has happened without any sort of an effort to organize the protests, and without any of the usual dalit leaders involved, particularly in Ahemdabad, the epicentre for it all, where it was the largest and most vociferous. It was largely an automatic response to the word of mouth that went out over the Una atrocities.
This is not a per se response to a specific incident, though the Una incident was certainly more of a proverbial ‘last staw’, but rather an outpouring against over three-and-half-millenia of violence, discrimnation, rape, deprivation and murder perpetrated against dalits under the caste system. These excesses increased in expanse and in content during the recent years, with aspects such as cow-protection being added to the mix.
As a result, as indicated by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data, a very disturbing number of atrocities against dalits are occurring all over the country. Religious, economic and social discrimination, alongwith caste violence against dalits has taken on monstrous, brazen proportions.
More unexpectedly, this is the first time that dalits have en masse refused to carry out caste assigned occupations unless guarantees are given by the government to protect them. This defiance holds much hope for downgrading the caste-system and eliminating casteism.
The dalits are getting beaten over skinning dead cows because they are at an caste forced occupation- an occupation that imparts to them the identity of being ‘untouchable’ and singles them out for violence and atrocities.
If casteism that leads to the plight of dalits has to be eliminated, the effort for this it will also have to preclude ending continuity of caste-forced occupations. The refusal of dalits to skin cows without guarantees is, therefore, a much needed step in the right direction.
Difficulties arise when dalits say that they will continue at the occupation if provided protection because if they do so, it would reinforce casteism. Dalits may want to continue at these occupations for two reasons. One is that most dalits know no other occupations than the caste-assigned ones. The other is that the industryrelated to cows, and cattle in general, is a lucrative one in which millions are being made from cattle skinned by dalits, while they get very little of the proceeds and should rightly want more.
Building on the present movement, a practical approach to end caste forced occupations would be to encourage those dalits who want to abandon caste-assigned occupations, and who are equipped to take on alternate ones to do so, letting society churn up a solution for the resulting cattle skinning job vacancies. If dalits don’t do it, folk from other castes will have to do it, eventually bringing dignity to the occupation, while also working against casteism.
On the other hand, those dalits who want to continue these occupations with an eye on the money should be encouraged to do it differently, with dignity and to their advantage, rather than being exploited and treated as sub-human because of it.
After an animal is skinned, the skin and other parts of the animal is not the sole property of the dalit. It is usually the property of an ever-present middleman, who puts it on the manufacturing-trading chain from where it eventually reaches the consumer in the form of leather goods and other products. The dalits involved in skinning carcasses now need to position themselves not just as those who skin the animal but also own it, so that they get a fair share of the economic activity derived from a carcass, in turn generating more income for them, more and better education for their kids and a better quality of life for their families as a whole.
For both of these to happen, there has to be an even more assertive dalit movement against caste forced occupations than the present one, in every district in the country. The campaign in Gujarat and in a few other places is not enough; it has to be a larger single-minded pan-Indian movement.
As the BJP MP, Udit Raj, has implied in his call for dalits to unite for revolution, to achieve any goal as a community they will have to unite as never before, clearly indicating that the job of dalit leaders is now clearly cut-out. For once, the dalit population has arisen against caste-forced occupations and seems to be ready for a struggle against it. The movement may be a spontaeneous one, but the reality is that it requires strong and concerted leadership to take it forward. The leaders of the myriad dalit outfits in the country need to get rid of their meaningless differences and personal corruption, strengthen the hands of the present leader of the movement, Jignesh Mewani, and work towards a common agenda of rejecting caste-forced occupations and switching to other professions, while also making themselves absolute masters of the caste related trade they may perform, along with all the economic dividends involved.
Untouchability has been banned, but for it to translate into true social equality for dalits, among other means, the state has to actively work towards a practical delinking of occupation with caste, and an enabling of dalits for non-caste occupations. The state’s role in ending caste forced occupations too is cut out.
This is a long arduous battle, the question, however, is will dalit leaders and the government step up to the plate ?
Oliver D’Souza is an author and freelance journalist. He is also the editor of Dalit Post (print and online). He may be contacted thus: email@example.com