Young Rameshbhai Chavda is stoic but determined as he raises his right hand to take a vow that will put an end to his traditional occupation: skinning dead bovines.
The 36-year-old Gujarati is among thousands of Dalits who are rattled by the July 11 Una incident, and has sworn to discontinue with what has been an age-old means of livelihood for the marginalized community.
Chavda lives in Polarpur off the state highway 36 in central Gujarat. The village, with 1,200 families, is in a state of frenzy amid a 350-km march led by a social activist from the state capital to Saurashtra region’s Una, where cow protectors thrashed four Dalits last month.
The 10-day ‘Dalit Asmita Yatra’ (originally named ‘Azadi Kooch’) under Ahmedabad-based lawyer Jignesh Mevani halted at Polarpur, where ‘abharchhet’—untouchability in Gujarati—is prevalent.
Having seen videos of the July 11 Una atrocity, Chavda—along with several of his fellow Dalits—has decided to stop doing what had been his forefathers’ profession for generations.
Chavda was 11 years old when his father took him to a patch of barren land near the stream on the outskirts of their village in Barwala taluk of Ahmedabad district. The boy felt like throwing up on seeing cattle carcasses all around, but he was left with no choice.
“We have been chosen to serve people,” Meghjibhai Chavda told his son. “Do the task that none else can do.”
Meet Rameshbhai Chavda: A cow skinner from Gujarat who left his profession
In the subsequent weeks, Ramesh would be summoned every time a cow or buffalo died in the locality. “They used to even come to my school to call me. And I would go running to the place,” he recalls. “In fact, I felt indispensable. That gave me a high.”
A quarter century thence, Chavda is one of the three cow skinners in his village. The profession has become a source of livelihood for his family. “The skin of one bovine will fetch me Rs 300 to 500 in the local market,” says the father of a 17-year-old boy.
In recent times, he also works as a farm labourer in nearby villages. “Cow-skinning became my supplementary source of income,” he adds.
That was till late last month when he saw a video of the Una incident. The footage of cow-vigilante men flogging four half-naked Dalit men who skinned a cow continues to go viral on social media.
“It is fine if you consider us inferior and don’t care us. But don’t torture us,” says Chavda.
What they had kept silent about all these years has become a subject of prime-time TV debates across the nation. The community has found numerous representatives and spokespersons. Multiples videos of Dalit atrocities before and after Una are being circulated on social media.
As the ongoing agitation penetrates into villages of the state, Dalits such as Ramesh are in a flux. Now when they have declared the decision to discontinue their traditional occupation, what is in store for Chavda and fellow members of the community? Will the government give them alternate livelihood?
Chavda is not sure, but prefers to live in the moment. He has high hopes from the upcoming convergence of Dalits at Una on August 15. “I will go there and mark my presence,” he avers. “It is another matter no one is certain about the form the movement takes in the future or what result it would yield.”
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