Imagine an Indian village where an ‘uppercaste’ beggar enters a Dalit slum unknowingly. The beggar is thirsty and hungry. Now a question for you. Do you think the beggar would ask for food?
Growing up in Kerala, I have personally witnessed uppercaste beggars eating from Dalit households in villages. But what if the situation that I asked you to visualize is in a Gujarat village?
A blind believer in the development gospel of Narendra Modi would say “there are no beggars in Gujarat”! To be honest, I have heard Modi fans boasting how beggars ‘disappeared’ from Gujarat after the boons of neo-liberal development ‘trickled’ down to them. After all, for some believers of Modi’s Gujarat gospel, the Muslim genocide of 2002 was largely an ‘illusion’ created by “pseudo secularists”.
But scientific data would always be at loggerheads with irrational gospels. Social science has a clear answer for the question I asked you in the beginning. According to the Navsarjan report (arguably the most exhaustive documentation of untouchability practices in Gujarat) titled “Understanding Untouchability”, “non-Dalit beggars might go to Dalit houses to beg, but will not accept food from Dalits”.
Navsarjan, a Dalit NGO in collaboration with reputed scholars from premier US universities like Wisconsin, Maryland and Michigan, conducted field work in 1,589 Gujarat villages to prepare this document in 2010.
The report identifies 98 forms of untouchability practices in Gujarat. The recent atrocities against Dalits in Una is just an example of one of these practices.
“Understanding Untouchability” is a chilling document which completely punctures the gospel of Gujarat Model as well as Hindutva, that calls for political unification of all ‘Hindu’ castes, including Dalits. The relevance of the document is more so as the then Modi-led state government did its best to belittle the Navsarjan study soon after it was published.
In fact, the Modi government reacted to the Navsarjan report by appointing a team of ‘experts’ from CEPT University, Ahmedabad, with a mandate to “review” the report.
A team led by R Parthasarathy came up with a report in 2013 that pointed out that the untouchability practices identified by Navsarjan report were mere “perceptions”. The CEPT study also subtly justified several instances of untouchability by attributing it to “social transactions” and social norms.
Thanks to the media clout of Modi, he did not have to face a media trial for the CEPT study that justified caste violence as “perceptions”.
A content analysis of media reports would tell us that Modi’s earlier infamous statement that manual scavenging is an “experience in spirituality” was also not properly scrutinised. Compare it with the case of Rahul Gandhi, who was widely criticised for his equally-insensitive statement that “poverty is a state of mind”.
Modi had consolidated his Gujarat empire by openly espousing Hindutva and shrewdly mixing it with pro-business economic policies.
Hindutva was presented as a project that could encompass all castes. But the Navsarjan report reveals that during Modi’s tenure as Gujarat chief minister, Dalits in the state had to face several forms of caste discrimination in the name of religious practices and rituals.
For instance, the report documents that if articles (wood, cloth, utensils and incense) used for religious functions in temples are touched by Dalits, these articles would be segregated. This is “due to a belief that if a Dalit touches an article, it is defiled”, report says.
To put it differently, if Modi visits a temple in Gujarat for doing pooja, the temple authorities would ensure that he does not use any article touched by a Dalit.
Similarly Dalits are not allowed to sit with uppercaste Hindus at feasts associated with the construction of new temples. Modi’s tenure had witnessed the construction of several such new temples throughout Gujarat. It has also been documented that Dalit priests are not allowed to perform religious ceremonies for non-Dalits and vice versa.
Another strange form of untouchability practice is called “melo”.
“This practice refers to the delivery of bad news. Dalits are required to deliver bad news because of a belief that only bad or unclean people should deliver bad or unhappy news. In order for bad news to reach other villages, a Dalit will be sent to deliver the news. In repayment for delivering the news, it is a tradition for the message bearer to spread a towel on the ground. The community will throw food on the towel for the message bearer,” the report explains.
On disposal of carcass, Navsarjan report states: “It is considered a caste-based duty for Dalits to remove carcass whenever an animal is died. When an animal dies, non-Dalits will come to a Dalit community or area and tell Dalits that there is a carcass to be removed. Dalits must comply and provide the carcass removal service for the non-Dalits.”
When it comes to eve teasing, caste discrimination is really strange. “When untouchability is practiced, Dalit women cannot react to eve teasing. If they report it, they are told that they should be flattered or take pride in the harassment, because they are lower caste women being taunted by upper classes,” the report states.
One can find more bizzare cases of untouchability practices in Gujarat from the Navsarjan report.
In public transport, “Dalits must enter last and must give their seat to non-Dalits”. In pubic distribution shops (PDS), “Dalits must wait for non-Dalits to make their purchases, which often means that certain items have run out”.
The report also documents more violent forms of untouchability practices like “social and economic boycott” of Dalits. Intercaste marriages are also violently dealt with.
What do these documented cases and the Una incident from the heartland of Hindutva tell us? It’s quite simple — there are fundamental contradictions in the Hindutva dream project to incorporate Dalits into its fold and Gujarat is a clear evidence of this contradiction.