Dalits’ economic assertion, fight for wages, land rights main causes of caste violence in Gujarat

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Excerpts from the paper “Neo-liberal Political Economy and Social Tensions Simmering Dalit Unrest and Competing Castes in Gujarat”, published in the “Economic and Political Weekly” (September 2, 2017) by Prof Ghanshyam Shah*, examining the possible factors responsible for the simmering strife attacks on Scheduled Caste (SC) tanners by gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes) on 11 July 2016 in Mota Samadhiyala village of Una block, Junagadh district, Gujarat, which outraged Dalits across the state and India:

Notwithstanding the changes in the agrarian economy, democratic decentralisation and formation of social justice committees, the village power structure has not changed in favour of the have-nots. While there are minor cracks in social structures and piecemeal political democratisation at the grassroots, the hegemony of the upper castes perpetuates and the vulnerability of the  SCs continues. In fact, the notion of graded inequality has been reinforced with competition among castes for power and economic opportunities.

In Gujarat, SCs constitute 7% of the population. Of this, a majority (56%) live in the villages where they depend on the landed classes/castes for their livelihood. There are only a handful of villages with more than 10% SC population. By tradition, SC neighbourhoods are on the periphery of villages and subject to continuing practices of untouchability. I P Desai (1976) carried out an explorative study to gauge the extent of the practice of physical untouchability in public, market and private spheres in rural Gujarat across 59 villages in 17 districts.

The study identified 85% villages as practising untouchability in the private spheres, such as barring entry to upper caste houses, temples, etc, 47% villages observed untouchability in the marketplace and exchange of services, whereas 18% villages practised untouchability in the public sphere restricting access to public roads, school, transport, gram panchayat, etc. The restudy of the same villages in the 1990s found that the change was fastest (26 points) in the market sphere and slowest (12 points) in the public sphere. The practice declined to 13 points in the private sphere, from 85% to 72% villages.

In 2006, Navsarjan studied 1,589 villages to study the perception of the respondents in 96 spheres broadly falling in the category of public, market and private. The survey yielded that the practice of untouchability is still striking in the public and market spheres.  SCs do not have access to village burial grounds in as many as 96% villages. In nearly every other village,  SCs do not get access to common grazing lands. It is diffi cult for a teacher or highly placed government officer or political leader from the  SCs to get a house in a non- SC neighbourhood.

The practice of untouchability and the phenomenon of atrocities against  SCs often go hand in hand. It involves conflicting perceptions and practices between the perpetrators and victims pertaining to one’s caste duties (swadharam) and constitutional rights. Gujarat stands fourth in the country in the number of atrocities against  SCs. On an average, around 1,100 cases of atrocities get registered annually in the state. This includes 27% cases of rape, 25% of kidnapping and abduction, and 17% murder cases every year. Out of 30 districts, three districts in Saurashtra and north Gujarat report more than 1,000 cases a year, while eight districts from central and south Gujarat report more than 600 cases (reports of National Crime Records Bureau 1991–2015).

Moreover, the proportion of social boycott cases of  SC families by non- SCs has also increased in the last three decades. This involves a refusal to provide employment and everyday requirements like milk, foodgrains, water, etc. Between 2001 and 2015, 97 villages have reportedly imposed social boycott on SC families (Navsarjan 2016).

The defiance in the form of refusing to perform caste-based duties, such as carrying dead animals, cleaning streets and toilets, and/or transgressing caste boundaries, such as entering a temple or drawing water from a common source, have led to violence in several cases. The resistance of the  SC tanners to the cow vigilantes’ order, in the case of Una, is partly because they have no alternative source of livelihood. Moreover, notwithstanding sanskritisation, a section of the  SCs in Gujarat continue to eat carrion/beef whether of a dead or slaughtered cow/bullock, partly due to traditional customs and partly, poverty.

The upward mobility and assertion of Dalits for their rights and autonomy have been a major reason for the clashes between  SCs and non-SCs. One out of 10 heads of  SC households in villages are engaged in white-collar jobs, either within the village or in nearby towns. Consequently, their lifestyles and values do not confine to caste-based etiquette and reverence. They are as individualistic as any urbane person can be expected to be. This is loathed by the non- SCs steeped in caste norms and expecting others to abide and obey them.

An  SC army soldier was killed in 2010 allegedly by the upper caste Darbar community, because he reprimanded them for making noise while gambling near his house. In the 1980s, there was an en mass exodus of Dalits from a village in north Gujarat because of everyday harassment by the dominant castes who objected to the dressing and lifestyle of young educated Dalits working in government offi ces in a nearby town. They had been told, “How dare you dress as we do?” Another instance pertains to upper caste Hindus in Chakwara village who destroyed the food prepared by  SCs for it was cooked in ghee. Vankar ( SC) women in Ahmedabad district were beaten by the upper castes for using brass vessels to fetch water. In Una, the command was reverse. The tanners were beaten because they were not willing to give up their traditional occupation, once treated as “impure” by upper castes.

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Economic issues relating to wages and land rights have also been a major cause for violence against SCs. The proportion of SC agricultural labourers in relation to cultivators has increased in the last four decades. Barring 3% elite, the vast majority of cultivators are small and marginal farmers. They depend on farm and non-farm labour and/or traditional caste-based occupations (scavenging, tanning and weaving). The government-stipulated minimum farm wages in Gujarat is far lower than most other states. In reality, that too remains on paper.

More often than not, any assertion of labourers demanding minimum wages has been crushed by landowners with the connivance of the state machinery. Land reforms, promising land rights, have raised the hopes of  SCs of securing land—the means to an independent source of livelihood. The 1950s’ land reforms in Saurashtra, otherwise successfully implemented, had a strong caste bias favouring the Patidars. The imposition of land ceiling and distribution of surplus land had been shabbily implemented. In many cases, the acquired land remained on paper. The distribution of government wasteland, too, went the same way.

Between 1960 and 1992, the government distributed 13.73 lakh acres of wasteland to “weaker sections”—23.80% to  SCs, 44.80% to Scheduled Tribes (STs) and 7.10% to others. In reality, most of these benefi ciaries did not get possession of the redistributed lands. Non-Dalits— upper castes and OBCs—who enjoy numerical majority and/or political clout retained control over these lands or encroached them illegally. In 1999, the Gujarat High Court ordered “the authorities by a writ of mandamus to hand over the possession of land” which is yet to be fully realised. In the last three decades, there have been several struggles by SCs either through local collective initiatives and/or with the support of state-level organisations, such as Navsarjan, Council for Social Justice, Dalit Adhikar Manch, etc, to fight court cases or organise demonstrations demanding possession of land.

These struggles have invariably resulted in conflicts between the landed upper castes as well as OBCs and  SCs. Moreover, in the recent years,  SCs have lost all hope of getting government land because the state, in its bid for instant industrial growth, has given priority to “progressive” farmers and entrepreneurs over the weaker sections to develop wasteland.

According to a study carried out in the 1990s, Patidars, Rajputs (Darbars), Thakors (Kshatriyas) and Kolis (OBCs) together had a major share in committing atrocities on Dalits. A cursory look into the incidents of the last decade seems that the situation has not changed substantially. The former two are peasant castes enjoying upper caste status. However, while the Patidars, comprising 12% of the state’s population, dominate the rural economy, the Rajputs, at 5%, account for a high proportion of poor peasants and farm labourers (nearly 42%) as compared to other agrarian upper castes. Castewise, they were the major losers of land reforms.

In Saurashtra, they lost land mainly to the Patidars leading to violent clashes between the two. They have not yet been able to recover from the hangover of past glories and status, real or imagined. It is diffi cult for them to reconcile with the “legal abolition of untouchability”. Group consolidation and ritual conformity among them, observed by Gitel Steed in the 1950s, have not weakened in the last 50 years. The nature of political alliances and indifference of the state towards social transformation coupled with sluggish economic growth contribute to sustaining their caste identity.  SCs are its victim as they challenge traditional rituals and power.

Kolis and Thakors belong to the socially and educationally backward castes and together constitute one-fourth of the state’s population. For the first time in 1980, Gujarat identified 82 castes as OBCs for the purpose of reservation in government jobs and education. Over time, their number has reached 146. Of them, Kolis and Thakors are numerically the largest. Most of them are small and marginal cultivators and labourers. The other agrarian–pastoral castes are numerically small (less than 5%) and include Rabaris, Anjana and Matia Patidars.

Several other numerically small artisan castes, such as Mistri (carpenter), Kumbhar (potter), Valand (barber), Darjee (tailor), Ghanchi (oil manufacturer), etc, have also managed to get listed in the OBC category. Having a marketable skill, the above groups are in an advantageous position, as compared to the agrarian social groups, to grab opportunities in the education and non-farm sectors. Moreover, the level of education in these castes has been higher than the Kolis and Thakors since the colonial period (Shah 2002). On the other hand, a quest for sanskritisation among the Thakors and a section of Kolis lead them to invoke a “Kshatriya” identity by eulogising the past and reinventing customs, attire, symbols and beliefs. Such a mindset makes it difficult for them to adjust to the new challenges and reconcile with the increasing assertion of the Dalits, whom they look down upon.

*Former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 

Click HERE to read full paper

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