A year after Una, Dalit ire may not be able to dent BJP prospects in Gujarat polls
Although anger brews in community over last year’s flogging incident, Dalits make up 7% of the state’s population, which reduces their electoral clout. In part 1 of our series on the Gujarat polls, we examine whether the flogging of Dalits in Una a year ago will impact the elections.india Updated: Jul 19, 2017 18:05 IST
Exactly a year ago, a video clip of seven Dalits being flogged by “gau rakshaks” for skinning a dead cow in Gujarat’s Una taluka went viral, sparking national outrage. The Dalit protests that followed did not stop even after chief minister Anandiben Patel stepped down within a month of the incident.
As Gujarat heads for crucial assembly elections later this year, will Una still be a rallying point for the opposition that has blamed the ruling BJP for rising crimes against Dalits? The flogging incident may be a big blot on the state’s Dalit history, but at just 7% of the state’s population they may not count for much in these polls, say political pundits.
A revisit to Mota Samadhiyala village, 20 km from Una town in Gir Somnath district, gives an indication of the flux the Dalits find themselves in.
For the last one year, 18-year-old Ashok Sarvaiya, one of the seven who were thrashed publicly on 11 July 2016, has failed to settle down as a daily wage labourer at nearby construction sites.
“Mari paase koi kaam na thi (I have no work),” says Ashok. Before the 11 July incident Ashok and his family subsisted on their traditional job of skinning dead cattle, like most Dalits in Una and its adjoining villages, for generations.
His neighbours say the teenager is yet to get over the humiliation of that day.
“Every time we talk about the July 11 incident, he gets uncomfortable and runs away,” says Balu Bhai Sarvaiya, Ashok’s uncle. Balu, his two sons, Ramesh and Veshram, and two nephews Ashok and Bechar, were among the victims.
The outburst that followed the Una flogging was seen as a turning point in Dalit politics of Gujarat, more so as it came within six months of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad University. The state’s Dalits decided to boycott all traditional cattle skinning work in protest.
“The Una protests captured the national imagination. A new generation of Dalits has emerged as faces of the protests,” says Nirjhari Sinha, convenor Jan Sangharsh Manch.
Discrimination against lower castes was always there in the region, but the anger spilled over after the Una incident. “We too want to lead a respectful life. We want to get rid of the menial jobs that we have been made to do for generations,” says Jitu Sarvaiya, 23, the only Dalit from the village to complete a BTech degree.
Post the Una episode, Dalits have also faced socio-economic blockade from upper castes for refusing to dispose dead cattle.
The government though denies this. “We have not received any complaint of boycott from the community. Security has not been an issue for any community in Gujarat,” says social justice minister Sambhaji Chauhan.
“For the present dispensation at the Centre and the state, protecting cows is an issue, they do not care about Dalits even as they scream sabka saath sabka vikaas,” says Jignesh Mevani, face of the post-Una Dalit movement .
To mark the Una flogging anniversary, Mevani’s Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch is organising a week-long march ‘Azaadi Kooch’ for land rights in north Gujarat.
Still, the Dailt disenchantment may not dent the ruling BJP in the polls: First, Dalits comprise only 7% of Gujarat’s population. Second, they have traditionally voted for the Congress.
In the local polls held in December 2016, the Congress won nine of the 11 district panchayats in Saurashtra region, under which Mota Samadhiyala village falls.
“History shows the BJP has won past elections without the support of Dalits. The Una incident was significant, but its impact on elections would be minimal,” says Ahmedabad-based political scientist Achyut Yagnik.
The Dalit consolidation may help the Congress, but several villages in Una are also looking at another option, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
“Behanji (Mayawati) is our goddess. The Una episode got national prominence because she raised it in Parliament,” says Jitu Sarvaiya.
(With inputs from Hiral Dave in Ahmedabad)
In a few months, PM Narendra Modi’s home state goes to the polls in what is being billed as one of the most important tests for the BJP before the general elections in 2019. HT travels to five of Gujarat’s most important cities and through them examines some of the issues that are shaping the poll campaign.