Dalits, or “untouchables” as they are sometimes called, are up in arms in India.
Massive protests broke out after a group of Dalit youth were subject to brutal violence by Hindu nationalist cow protection groups in the Western state of Gujarat.
As Bismillah Geelani reports, the unprecedented demonstrations are being seen as the beginning of a revolt against a centuries-old caste system.
At New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar Road, a sit-in protest by hundreds of Dalit students and teachers is in progress.
Suddenly a large number of activists from Hindu nationalist groups appear, wielding batons and irons rods.
First they start hurling filthy abuse at the protesters and then they attack them physically. Dozens of policemen on duty to ensure law and order just look on.
Forty-year old Ratan Lal, a teacher at Delhi University is among the Dalit protesters.
“Attacks like these show the increasing frustration over the resistance the Dalits are now putting up. They want to keep us [the Dalits] enslaved like they did for centuries but this is the 21st century and we are no longer going to accept this bondage.”
The protest in New Delhi is part of a nationwide campaign the Dalit community has launched to demand an immediate end to the growing atrocities against them.
The protests were triggered earlier this month after members of a Hindu Nationalist group, called Gau Rakhsha Samiti, or the Cow Protection Committee, uploaded this video on YouTube.
It showed a group of Dalit youth tied to a vehicle being dragged, abused and mercilessly beaten up with iron rods for skinning a dead cow.
The video went viral within a few hours, sparking outrage and massive protests from Dalits across the country.
Nearly a dozen Dalit youth attempted suicide after watching the video – one of them is now dead.
In the Western state of Gujarat where the incident took place the Dalits responded with something unprecedented and unthinkable to the community – they threw dead cows in front of government offices.
Bezwada Wilson is Dalit community leader. He had this to say.
“You worship the cow but when it dies you throw it at us. You are asking us to clean this so we clean it. And when we do this you brand us as untouchables. What we are now doing is we are throwing it back to you saying that if you want to worship the cow do it the way you want. It is a democratic way to claim the right to equality.”
Many see these protests as the beginning of a Dalit uprising in India.
Vivek Kumar is a professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Social Systems.
Atrocities against Dalits have been steadily on the rise and there is no doubt there is simmering anger among the community, he says.
But the latest uprising, says Kumar, is different. It’s a realization among the Dalits that enough is enough, and it will have far reaching consequences for India future.
Dalits form a major vote bank in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh where Assembly elections are due early next year.
The issue has therefore become highly politicized, with representatives of almost all opposition parties making a beeline to visit the victims.
Amid frequent interruptions, Home Minister Rajanath Singh told the parliament that the government has taken action – including arrests, suspension of police officers involved and paying compensation to the victims.
But the minister said nothing about how the government plans to end the violent attacks in the name of cow protection.
The Gau Raksha or Cow Protection groups have mushroomed across the country since the government introduced a ban on the slaughter of cows last year.
And at least seven Muslims have been killed in attacks against animal traders in the past year.
Social activist Kavita Krishnan says the groups enjoy tacit approval from the ruling establishment. There is a clear pattern of using the issue to unleash caste violence, she says.
“If you can just go to YouTube you will find dozens of such videos and you can also see how it is being done with full political patronage and support from the police, and how these groups boast about it.”
While the government denies any link with these groups, the Bharatiya Janata Party
Is struggling to avoid allegations it is implicated to some degree.