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Understanding Untouchability: Significance of ’98’ in Gujarat model

The Una incident has punctured the 'Gujarat model' narrative once again by reminding the world that 98 percent of caste atrocity cases in the western state ends up in acquittal -- the greatest evidence of the complicit attitude of the State machinery in anti-Dalit/lower caste crimes
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What is the relation with “Gujarat model” and number 98? Sounds bizzare? Feel like asking economists Arvind Panagariya or Jagdish Bhagwati who celebrate the Gujarat model of development?

The relation is simple. In 2010, Navsarjan Trust, a Dalit NGO in Gujarat, published a research report titled “Understanding Untouchability”.

The report was the product of an intense field work in 1,589 villages for years.

The report identified ‘98 forms of untouchability practices in Gujarat’. Read this along with 2013 National crime Records bureau (NCRB) statistics on caste atrocities in Gujarat which documented that accused in 98 percent of caste atrocity cases are acquitted!

But our great economic mandarins who formulate ‘development’ policies for India based on the ‘Gujarat model’ would find this simple relation as ‘out of syllabus’ or irrelevant.

The culture of denial of caste (read caste atrocities/violence based on caste) is that much entrenched in the mainstream discourses on Gujarat. Out of academic curiosity, I used to initiate conversations on caste with typical upper caste, Modi-crazy Gujaratis whenever I got a chance – say in ‘higher-class’ train compartments, airport or some conferences.

“Caste in Gujarat? Are you mad? We are only concerned about development and not narrow issues” etc. would be their standard reply.

A content analysis of Gujarati media and even national media (with honourable exceptions) would concur with this common sense.

But the NCRB data and other independent reports would tell us a different thing — tales of shocking acquittal rate and forms of caste atrocities.

However, the recent atrocities in Una in Sommnath district, where Dalits were flogged by activists of a Sangh Parivar outfit in full public view- for engaging in tanning work, which is their livelihood-has unsettled the entrenched culture of silence about Gujarat’s caste atrocities.

Apart from unsettling this hegemonic ‘common sense’, the Una incident has also demonstrated that like Muslims, Dalits are also ‘unwanted elements’ in the model state of Hindutva.

A close look into the social history of Gujarat indicates that the state has witnessed humiliating forms of atrocities against Dalits. The anti-reservation protests in the early 1980s tacitly supported by Sangh Parivar outfits saw several such instances of caste humiliations.

In her magisterial ethnographic work on Gujarat titled “Communalism, Caste and Hindu Nationalism”, historian Ornit Shani documents about a strange form of atrocity during the protests that started by December 1980. Some ‘upper caste’ students of a government medical college in Ahmedabad “performed a symbolic operation on a clay model of a Dalit student’s brain in order to show that it contained nothing but sawdust”.

The same students also “enacted a public marriage ceremony between the ‘reservationist’ bride and the ‘government’ groom”.

Apart from symbolic violence, furious upper caste mobs also unleashed brutal physical attacks on Dalit slum clusters. Properties owned by Dalits were looted and destroyed.

As Shani argues in a detailed manner, the ‘reservation riot’ was a response to two developments — some sort of social mobility achieved by a section of urban Dalits and formation of a state government by Madhavsinh Solanki who weaved the famous KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) alliance where lower caste and minorities had an important stake.

In 1985, another “bloody” anti-reservation riot broke out in Gujarat. Several accounts, including the official Commission of Inquiry, recorded the role of several Sangh Parivar oufits, especially the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student outfit of RSS, in the riots.

“They masterminded planning and its execution and, therefore, they simultaneously started damaging public property throughout the length and breadth of Gujarat,” the Commission noted.

But as Shani documents, violence on Dalits was resisted by trade unions of mill workers in cities like Ahmedabad as well as organisations like Dalit Panthers. There were also pro-reservation public marches by trade unions.

When resistance started to politicise Dalits to a different level, the Sangh Parivar changed the course of anti-reservation movement into an anti-Muslim campaign. So what started as an anti-Dalit riot ended up as clear communal violence against Muslims with provocative slogans like “Muslims have one place – Pakistan or graveyard”.

The change in the course of the riot had a serious impact in the future political trajectory of Hindutva in Gujarat.

Apart from nipping in the bud of a potential subaltern movement (consisting of Dalits, Muslims and other lower castes) that could have challenged the Brahmin- Baniya ideology of the Sangh Parivar, this resulted in creating a new common sense where ‘Muslim menace’ was constructed as the most burning internal threat of Gujarat.

The genocide of 2002, where lower castes, including Dalits and Adivasis (who are said to be natural allies of Muslims because of similarity in dietary habits and class status), participated in violence against Muslims was the high point of Hindutva’s success in dividing subaltern victims.

The Una incident has punctured this narrative of ‘Muslim menace’ by the Sangh Parivar. As several Gujarat-based activists point out, the Parivar had been using the “Muslim menace” theory to divert attention from atrocities against Dalits.

It is now clear that for Dalits, the Sangh Parivar’s core ideology that theologically justifies caste system is the real threat.

The fact that 98 per cent of atrocity cases in Gujarat ends up in acquittal itself proves the complicity of the state machinery, including police and revenue administration.

The Navsarjan report had documented the difficulties faced by Dalits to register a case against powerful upper caste sections that enjoy considerable clout in administration and ruling party.

This indicates that most of the atrocity cases are not reported to the police and must be settled ‘out of court’, where caste Hindus would set the rules.

Even in this context, a recent RTI reply from the Gujarat Director General of Police’s office said that on an average, three Dalit men are beaten up brutally in Gujarat every day.

To put it another way, the Una incident is not a new thing in Gujarat’s society. It’s part of a larger design of violence against Dalits. But it accidentally got national attention.

So, it’s the moral responsibility of all fans of Gujarat model, especially Narendra Modi, who made and sold the brand to the larger market to explain “98” in their dream model… will Modi explain?

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