By Rajiv Shah*
The year was 1993. I had just joined the Times of India, Ahmedabad. With very little knowledge of Gujarat then, as part of my frantic effort to know the state, its people, culture, society and politics, I would meet as many people as I could –experts, activists, politicians, others. One person whom I would often visit was Achyut Yagnik, considered then – as now –the main contact point for journalists landing up in Ahmedabad. As friend, philosopher and guide, Yagnik would also help researchers, Indian and foreign, in every possible way, sending them to Gujarat’s different parts to interact with knowledgeable individuals.
One such researcher was Shalini Randeria. An ethnic Gujarati settled in Germany, Prof Randeria is currently rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. There was a special reason why I could connect myself with her –we were in the same class in Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi, in 1960s. Yagnik handed me over a photocopy of her PhD thesis which she had just completed – it concerned the hierarchical occupations pursued by different sections of rural Dalits in two North Gujarat districts, Mehsana and Sabarkantha. The thesis mainly focused on Rohits (chamars), loosely tanners, who as part of their “duty” in a caste-ridden society were supposed to manually dispose of dead cattle. I did a story, and forgot about it, as most journalists would.
I recalled Randeria’s research soon after the news was flashed regarding the infamous Una incident of July 11, when cow vigilantes bashed up four Dalit boys belonging to the Rohit community for doing the same caste-based job – of disposing of dead cattle. As I couldn’t find her PhD thesis in my old, dilapidated files, I contacted her, and she promptly responded by sending me a paper on the same subject, published by the Oxford University Press. Called “Carrion and corpses: Conflict in categorizing untouchability in Gujarat”, reading through it gave me great insight into how the community was involved in this job in late 1980s, when she did her field work.
A sociologist, Prof Randeria wrote how the occupation involved “cattle scavengers”, who would “drag away dead animals from the village into their own settlement”, removing what is considered “impurity” in a caste society attached to the carcass, and “transferring” it to themselves. And how did they do it? She said, they, as “untouchables”, would eat carrion, thus “absorbing” what was supposed to be “it’s inherently defiling qualities” into themselves. They were obliged to distribute the carrion, as also rest of the part of the dead animal, to different sections of Dalits. After manually it clean up, they would sell the skin and the bones, earning a livelihood.
What particularly interested me in the thesis was the prevalence of the hierarchical caste system within the so-called untouchables, whom she wanted to call Dalit, but couldn’t – as the editors told her the European reader wouldn’t understand the word. While carrion eating in two towns of North Gujarat, Himmatnagar and Idar, she said, was given up “as result of the efforts of local Gandhians in the late 1930s and 1940s”, the paper suggests, it was still prevailed in in 1980s in some villages. And the pattern of carrion eating, she said, symbolized the prevailing hierarchy.
The paper said, “The Garo (topmost in the Dalits hierarchy) got the head of the animal, the Bhangi (the lowest) received the feet, hooves, intestines and kidneys. The rest (thighs and sides) was more or less equally distributed between the Vankar and Chamar, though the Vankar had a right to the liver in recognition of their leadership (mehetarâî) of the untouchables. This pattern shows a striking similarity to the Purusa Sukta myth of the origin of the four varnas from the primeval man (the Brahman from his head, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet).”
The paper is based on fieldwork in late 1980s. But has the situation changed? Early this week, I met Natubhai Parmar, a community leader from Surendranagar, about 100 km west of Ahmedabad. Belonging to the Rohit (chamar) sub-caste, I asked Parmar straight: Do they still eat carrion? “Of course”, he said, adding, “It is consumed both in towns and villages.” Then I asked him whether he was involved in the scavenging job. And he replied: “Yes, I was, I did it with my own hands. But I have left it now. I believe about 10-15 per cent of Rohits families are involved in it today”, he said, adding, “Majority of them have shifted to other jobs – industrial workers, farm workers, masons, plumbers, drivers, cleaners.”
Yet, he admitted, the scavenging of the carcass is done mainly by Rohits, though even Vankars (one bit higher in Dalit caste hierarchy) do it if they find it viable. But the pattern has changed. “Three or four families get together to form ‘bham’. The panjrapols (loosely, cattle farms), where most of the aging cattle are sent, float tenders. The highest bidding ‘bham’ has to pay a sum, which is generally around Rs 7 lakh for a year. With a pickup van at its disposal, the bham takes the dead cattle to a spot where the families separate skin from rest of the body. Every part of the body is sold after manually cleaning it up – the cow meat, the cow fat, the bones, the skin. This is how the families who form the ‘bham’ earn.”
According to Parmar, “Each ‘bham’ gets about seven to eight dead cattle daily. The meat of the cattle which dies in an accident is far better than the aging cattle which one gets from the panjrapol. It fetches more money. Cut into small pieces, carrion is dried up for consumption on a later date. Its fat is used for making ‘shira’ (sweet dish). While the best part of the meat is bought by Vankars, the part which is sold cheap (intestine, kidney) goes to Valmikis (bhangis).”
Suggesting that skinning cattle remains an unhygienic job, Parmar said, he knows one place, in Khanjri village in Kheda district (Central Gujarat), the panjrapol owners have set up a huge pressure cooker kind of thing, equal to a room, in which the dead cattle is processed. “While the machine is owned by the dominant castes, the Rohits bring the dead cattle, put it into the cooker, and process it”, he said, adding, “All that the Rohits want is subsidy from the government to set up a scientific way to dispose of dead cattle and its different parts. The Leather Industries Board, which was disbanded more than a decade ago, could be revived. It could give soft loan.”
Asked how serious is the pledge taken by Dalits that they would never pick up dead cattle, taken during the protest rallies following the Una incident, Parmar said, “Most of those involved in the job are poor. Without an alternative employment it is not possible to stop the work. Already, the panjrapol owners have refused to compensate for the loss that we have suffered after we stopped picking up carcasses. Where would we go? At some places, the job of picking up dead animals has already revived after a lull of a fortnight.” However, he was firm, “The government should stop these cow vigilantes, who harass us while we transport dead cattle or its parts. They stop us at every spot. They demand that we show them identify cards that we are tanners. They do it to extort money.”