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Parliament in tumult over attack on Dalits in Gujarat

india Updated: Jul 21, 2016 00:36 IST
Rahul Singh and Amit Cowper

Members of Dalit community block traffic during a protest in Ahmedabad.(PTI Photo)

Opposition lawmakers shouted slogans and disrupted parliament repeatedly on Wednesday, accusing the government of doing little to protect Dalits after four members of the community were thrashed for skinning a dead cow in Gujarat.

Last week’s beatings by self-styled cow protectors have sparked the most serious protests by Dalits in Gujarat, posing a political challenge to Prime Minister Modi’s party ahead of a string of elections in states where the community accounts for a substantial size of votes.

The attack’s fallout continued to reverberate in Gujarat, where a strike called by Dalit groups on Wednesday evoked overwhelming response in Saurashtra and north Gujarat.

In Delhi, Congress president Sonia Gandhi led the opposition charge, accusing the government of “snatching the rights” of Dalits, many of who earn a livelihood by skinning animals that die naturally.

“The recent shocking incident in Gujarat… is just one example of the social terror the government condones,” Gandhi said, addressing party lawmakers.

But home minister Rajnath Singh sought to douse the political fire, calling the July 11 Dalit beatings as “unfortunate” and a “social evil”. “The prime minister was sad and hurt (about the Gujarat incident),” Singh told parliament.

Opposition parties, however, competed to take credit for championing the cause of the Dalit, who account for 32% and 21% of the population in politically crucial states as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has been trying to reach out to the community as part of its efforts to expand its support base beyond upper caste voters.

Violence against Dalits is not unusual in many parts of India, and the Gujarat incident has given opposition parties a potent weapon to attack the BJP-led central government, which has been struggling to tackle weeks of violent street protests in Kashmir. Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal are due to visit the state later this week.

In Gujarat, the government struggled to placate Dalits. Some 50 people were detained in Rajkot, and in Ahmedabad protesters were seen forcibly trying to shut down markets and schools during Wednesday’s strike.

Chief minister Anandiben Patel, who tried to calm tensions by visiting families of those assaulted, said nine people had been arrested so far.

Faced with the opposition onslaught, Home minister Singh sought to argue that incidents of atrocities against Dalits were far higher in Gujarat before Modi took over as chief minister in 2001.

He also defended the state government, saying it had acted “swiftly and effectively”. He said authorities were also working to set up a special court to try the men, who are said to be members of a local cow vigilante group.

Congress MP K Suresh sought a joint parliamentary panel probe into the matter attack.

“Violence is RSS agenda. RSS is trying for ‘Dalit-mukt Bharat’. The government has totally failed. It was a BJP-sponsored attack. What is going on? Is this the Gujarat model,” Suresh said, as tempers ran high in the Opposition benches. Later, Congress and Trinamool Congress (TMC) members walked out of the Lok Sabha.

In Rajya Sabha, main opposition Congress, BSP and TMC sought to outdo each other to raise the Dalit issue more forcefully. The BSP had raised the issue on Monday too, forcing an adjournment.

At one point, opposition MPs stormed to the well of the house, shouting slogans against the government and its “anti-Dalit mindset”.