In the once-sleepy village of Samadhiyala, one of several that dot Una tehsil in Gujarat’s Gir-Somnath district, the love of cows could be masking a more sinister design – land grab.
Family members of four Dalit youths publicly thrashed by self-styled cow activists for skinning a dead cow say that the assault was the result of an “upper caste conspiracy” aimed at grabbing their land and homes.
A video clip of the July 11 incident which shows the four people being flogged by members of a self-styled cow protection group went viral a day later, sparking nationwide outrage amid allegations of increasing atrocities on Dalits since the BJP-led government came to power at the Centre.
“We believe that village sarpanch Prafullabhai Korat conspired with Hindu vigilante groups to organise this attack as he had been eyeing the two acres of land that Dalits have been using to skin dead animals,” said Babubhai Veerasbhai Sarowya, father of Visrambhai and Rameshbhai, who were among the four assaulted by a group called the “Gow Raksha Samiti” on charges of cow slaughter.
The sarpanch has since gone into hiding.
The so-called activists had arrived in the village in two vehicles one of which allegedly had “President – Shiv Sena – Gir Somath” written on its rear windscreen, a fact-finding team was told. The activists allegedly used casteist abuses while flogging the youths though the four victims pleaded that they were only skinning dead cattle.
Ahmedabad-based Raju Solanki of the Dalit Haq Rakshak Manch – an organisation that works for the community -- was not surprised at Babubhai’s charge.
“Land has always been central to atrocities against Dalits. The Hindu vigilante groups which mostly comprise the upper castes have been carrying out atrocities against the Dalits in conjunction with the state administration and the police,” he said.
The family of the sarpanch, however, dismissed the charge.
“The land being used by the Dalits converges on the borders of three villages, but we are not interested in occupying it. We have enough land of our own,” said Jeenabhai Korat, father of the sarpanch.
Samadhiyala, around 300 km from state capital Gandhinagar, has suddenly turned into a garrison state -- with police vans and pickets at each corner. It has also emerged as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and intrigues.
One unconfirmed report said that a Dalit youth in a nearby village had committed suicide by consuming acid. Others warn of a bloodbath waiting to happen.
“The reason for all this is that, while Dalits have improved their economic status in past decades, the upper castes and the Patels in particular have been growing increasingly insecure,” said a veteran Gujarat-watcher.
The justification of this argument was visible at Samadhiyala.
All the 100 Dalit homes – in a village with a population of around 2,000 – have concrete homes. One of Babubhai’s nephews is a final-year engineering student, while his own daughter is training to become a nurse.
In contrast, a majority of the Patels –among the state’s affluent communities but now agitating for reservation in jobs -- living in the rural areas have allegedly lagged behind.
“Unemployment has been growing in Gujarat. That is the reason for the current social churn and political upheavals,” Solanki said.
Dalit leaders say community members, who constitute about 7% of the state’s population, are subjected to institutionalised caste bias.
Official data show that about 1,000 cases of atrocities on Dalits are reported every year in the state. Figures also reveal that 50 Dalit women are raped and 200 Dalits are murdered on an average every year in Gujarat.
(With inputs from Kulsum Yusuf in Ahmedabad)