STATUS OF DALITS IN GUJARAT
Background Information & Atrocity against Dalits
Gujarat, located on the eastern side of India, has a population of 5 crore 20 lakh people. The state is broken up into 26 districts, which are made up of 225 blocks. The current ruling party is the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power for the last 17 years and has a clear majority in the Gujarat Assembly. The BJP chief minister Narendra Modi has remained in his position for the last three terms. Over the past several years, the state has been hailed as one of the most progressive states in India, and the BJP, whose main slogan is “Vibrant Gujarat,” has played a major role in pushing for that growth.
Religion and Caste in Gujarat
Even with all of this progress, the state continues to remain deeply divided over caste and religious boundaries. Among the four major religions practiced in Gujarat – Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Christianity – there is an established hierarchical social structure comprised of a number of different dominant and scheduled castes.
Hinduism is the dominant religion in the state, practiced by over 80% of the population. The dominant Hindu castes in Gujarat are the Brahmins, Patels (Leua, Kadva), Darbars (Kshatriya), Koli Patels, Ahirs, and Mers. The Scheduled Castes (SC) or the Dalits make up 7.1% of the total population and are made up of the Vankars, Chamars, Garodas, Mahyavanshis, Senva, Turi Barots, Dangasiyas, Nadiyas, Hadis, and Valmikis.
Caste and other such divisions also play a role in the structure of the other practiced religions in Gujarat. Within Islam, Vora, Khoja, Sipai, Saiyad, and Khatki are the main castes and in Jainism, the Vhaiya caste dominates. Christianity in Gujarat includes many Dalits who have converted from Hinduism but continue to be defined by their caste. Outside of these major religions, there are also a number of Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis, made up of Vasavas, Halpatis, and Dhodiya Patels to name a few.
The government of Gujarat has implemented certain policies designed to uplift those belonging to the Scheduled Castes into higher positions. The most prominent is the reservation system, where certain seats in the government are set aside only for Dalits. In Gujarat, 7% of seats in the government and education sectors are reserved for Dalits (as opposed to 14% set aside on the national level). This amounts to 2 of the 26 Members of Parliament (MP) and 13 of the 182 Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLA) currently held by members of the SC. There are also established reservation systems in place at the district, block, and village levels throughout the state.
Even with this promise of upliftment through reservation, Dalits continue to be discriminated against throughout Gujarat. The number of atrocity cases against Dalits and the practice of untouchability continue to occur at alarming rates throughout the state, especially when compared to other Indian states.
Atrocity against Dalits
Atrocity cases against Dalits vary in severity and form, and include the following:
1. Causing injury, insult, or annoynance to a Dalit;
2. Assaulting, raping, or using force of any kind against a Dalit woman or a Dalit girl;
3. Physically injuring or murdering a Dalit;
4. Occupying or cultivating any land owned by or alloted to a Dalit;
5. Forcing a Dalit to leave his/her house, village, or other place of residence;
6. Interfering with a Dalit’s legal rights to land, premises, or water;
7. Compelling or enticing a Dalit to do ‘begar’ or similar forms of forced or bonded labour;
8. Intentionally insulting or intimidating a Dalit with the intent to humiliate him.
Acts of atrocity against Dalits continue to occur at alarming rates in Gujarat. In 1998, Gujarat ranked second highest among all Indian states in the volume of crimes committed against the Scheduled Castes, at 62 cases per one lakh of population. While this is high, it is important to note that underreporting is very common; thus this number conceals the extent to which these atrocities occur. A recent study conducted by Navsarjan demonstrated that of all of the atrocity cases that occurred across four districts in Gujarat, 36.6% were not registered under the Atrocity Act and that of the cases where the Act was applied, 84.4% were registered under the wrong provisions, thus concealing the intensity of the violence in the cases.
The police and the legal system are also often very slow in responding to cases filed under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989. In 2000, in Gujarat, there were 13,293 cases registered in courts under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989, all of which remained pending at the courts at the end of the year; none of them ended in convictions or in acquittals. In terms of police response to registered cases, in cases of murder, an average of 121.2 hours lapsed between the registration of the case and police action, while for cases of rape, the gap was at 532.9 hours.
The Practice of Untouchability
The practice of untouchability is also still very common in Gujarat and occurs in the following forms:
1. In rural areas, Dalits are often not allowed to engage in cultural and social activities with the rest of the community, including entering temples, sitting in the main spaces of villages, taking part in religious programs, and eating with the rest of the community during village ceremonies.
2. Dalits are also not allowed to use the same items as non-Dalits in the communities; they are not allowed to rent or even enter homes of non-Dalits, use the same wells, eat and drink from the same dishes,
3. In schools, Dalit children are often forced to sit separately from the rest of the students during the midday meal and are the only ones asked to clean latrines in the schools.
4. As a result of this caste-based discrimination in schools, Dalits are often less educated than the rest of the community.
5. Due to these low levels of education, the majority (78%) of Dalits are labour workers. They have limited opportunities for upward mobility and remain economically backward.
6. Attempts to set up stores in villages by Dalits are often unsuccessful. Due to untouchability practices, the rest of the villagers refuse to purchase things from their shops.
7. Dalits are forced to do some of the dirtiest jobs in Gujarat. For instance, manual scavening is still widely practiced almost entirely by women belonging to the Valmiki sub-caste, even though the government denies its existance.
8. Government authorities often deny basic needs such as electricity, and water to Dalit families, while they provide them for non-Dalits. When Dalits petition the government to provide these facilities, their requests are often ignored.
9. When Dalits do try to stand up for their legal rights, members of the dominant castes often assault them and/or practice social boycotts against the community.
10. The SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act: 1989 is often not implemented properly (i.e., cases are either not registered under the Act when they should be, or are not registered under the relevant provisions) due to discriminatory practices by government officials.
11. Dalits are often landless, as non-Dalits often own the majority of land in the villages, and government officials often do not enforce laws and policies to allocate land for the Dalits. In those cases where the government does allocate land for the Dalits, they are often denied access to that land because of the practice of caste-based discrimination in the villages.
Today, Dalits in Gujarat face a host of challenges in terms of atrocities, untouchability practices, and intra-Dalit caste-based discrimination. EC-EIDHR Gujarat has been working and fighting tirelessly for these Dalits to unite and to obtain their legal and social rights.
National Human Rights Commission. 2004. Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes: Policy and Performance Suggested Interventions and Initiatiatives for NHRC. New Delhi, India.
Government of India. 1989. The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Pub. Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi, India.