Wednesday, May 08, 2002

Social marginalisation of Dalits in Gujarat

Shikha Trivedi

Wednesday, May 8, 2002 (Ahmedabad):

The social marginalisation of Dalits has seen them take two completely different roles in the riots in Gujarat: both of protectors and attackers.

In villages of north and central Gujarat where both the dalits and the muslims have shared the impoverishment, the two communities have stuck to each other. But the picture is violent in cities like Ahmedabad where the social marginalisation forced them to take on another role.

In the Sardarpura massacre in Mehsana district, 29 people were burnt to death after being locked into a room. More lives would have been lost if it had not been for their dalit neighbours led by 70-year-old Someshwar Pandya a former sarpanch. And this angered the local VHP and Bajrang Dal activists.

Someshwar Pandya said, " A team from Taluka panchayat came to assess the damage, to organise relief for families of the dead. I was helping them. The Hindutva leaders did not like it."

Two weeks ago the frail Pandya was thrashed with sticks in a busy market place. He lives but is now blind.

The people who attacked him and the men, women and children of Sardarpura were the same high caste Patels.

In these riots across the villages of north and central Gujarat linkages between dalits and muslims of a shared impoverishment and a social marginalisation held strong, but in big towns and cities the same protectors, turned murderers.

"In previous riots very few dalits actively participated but today they are fully involved. Because earlier they had not been accepted by the mainstream hindus, but in recent years they have been completely co-opted," said a resident of the area.

The process has taken close to two decades and its origins lie behind the locked gates of Ahmedabad's textile mills.

More than half the workers in Ahmedabad's textile mills were dalits and muslims. After the industry's decline, nearly 70% of them lost their jobs. Urban anxieties of space and livelihood began to put new pressures on old neighbours forced to inhabit the edge.

Significantly, the upper caste leadership of the BJP with the help of the RSS chose this period in Gujarat in the mid-80s to expand its social base The dalits, rootless and unemployed were easy recruits into the saffron brotherhood.

Valjibhai Patel, Dalit leader said, "Today 64% of the dalits in Gujarat are literate which is only 1% less than the general category. But there are no jobs. In these riots this army of educated but unemployed dalits have been used by the VHP and Bajrang Dal.�

For a majority of the dalits communalism and rioting is only a means of livelihood or the brandishing of a new found hindu identity. The truth is that in Ahmedabad even today dalits cannot find a house in a Savarna neighbourhood or a job in a private firm. They are treated as social outcasts ironically except by those whom they have targeted.

Source: NDTV, May 8, 2002

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