The anti-caste protests by Dalits in Gujarat have made national headlines for weeks now as thousands refuse to skin cows and speak out against centuries-old oppression.
But it is not the only state where such demonstrations are happening.
Hundreds of Dalit villages and activists in Karnataka have come together over the past week after alleged Bajrang Dal members thrashed five members of a Dalit family last month in a village in Chikmagulur district, famous for its coffee plantations.
The details are eerily similar to the incident in Gujarat’s Una that has rocked India: The 40-member gang acted on rumours of cow slaughter, beating up the five men – one with an orthopaedic disability – with iron rods. The police allegedly didn’t help the victims -- Muthappa, 26, Dhanush, 24, Palaraja, 56, Ramesh, 35 and Sandeep, 20 -- and booked them under Karnataka’s anti-cow slaughter law.
“30 Bajrang Dal people beat us up and police just stood there. If police doesn’t protect us, what is to be said? My hand is broken, but now they claim they didn’t do it,” said Palaraja.
The Dalit residents in Shantipura – A village with about 600 houses -- say the cow was brought legally from a local resident – a purchase the police has verified in its preliminary report.
The incident has galvanised activists, who travelled 300-odd kilometers last Friday from Bengaluru to Shantipura, and told local villagers that no caste oppression will be tolerated.
“No work in houses, fields, roads will happen without us Dalits. If you attack us, we will hit back. It is happening in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and now in Chikmagulur. We will not tolerate this,” said Dalit Sangharsha Samithi activist Sekhar said.
“The police are working for the Bajrang Dal. But we have the numbers, so the BJP and all other parties who target us better watch out.”
After activists and lawyers intervened, police registered cases under the scheduled caste prevention of atrocities act against seven Bajrang Dal members, who are out on bail.
But many activists fear the prosecution will be stuck in a stalemate in a state where the conviction rate under the SC/ST act is 4.9%, almost a fifth of the national average. The conviction rate under the act in the district is just 3%.
“Is the police following Manu’s laws or Dr Ambedkar’s Constitution?” asked Gowri, a member of the Karnataka Jan Shakti, as others condemned the incident and emphasised the right to choice of food.
The incident has also brought under focus what activists call ambiguous language in the 1964 Karnataka Prevention of Cow Slaughter and Cattle Preservation Act, which mandates certificate from a “competent authority” for killing a bovine animal.
Experts say the law effectively makes cow slaughter without certification in an unauthorised place illegal but does not make the consumption of beef illegal.
But in 1966, the Karnataka high court said as the state government hadn’t appointed a competent authority to license beef selling, such a permit couldn’t be given.
When HT asked Shantipura villagers whether there was a “competent authority” that they could approach, many appeared confused with no clear answer.
Also, the man -- Nagappa Gowda -- who reportedly sold the cow to one of the five Dalit men beaten up, hasn’t been booked for for abetment under the act. This, activists, say, indicates selective prosecution of already vulnerable Dalit villagers.