The brutal flogging of four Dalits in Una, Gujarat, has precipitated an unprecedented movement against police inaction, upper caste violence and the so-called cow protection campaign in the state. Members of the movement are marching through the villages of Gujarat to garner the people’s support and have pledged not to do any form of scavenging work in the future. Such is the intensity of the movement that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to break his long silence on the rampaging gau rakshaks.
The Wire spoke to Rahul Sharma, a former IPS officer who voluntarily retired a few years ago, who has played an important role in the protests in Gujarat. As an IPS officer, Sharma was credited with providing crucial evidence to the Nanavati Commission, which was investigating the 2002 Gujarat riots. His contribution helped implicate a number of police officers as well as politicians. Consequently, the BJP-led Gujarat government filed a series of cases against Sharma for alleged misconduct and leaking official secrets. But Sharma was exonerated of all charges by the Central Administrative Tribunal.
Excerpts from an interview follow. The interview has been edited for clarity.
In the past few months, Dalits have been at the receiving end of violence perpetrated by either gau rakshaks or other self-proclaimed guardians of Indian culture…How did the Una incident in particular trigger such a widespread movement in Gujarat?
Every movement is triggered by some flashpoint. It is not as if our agitation is [the] first of its kind. But Dalits in Gujarat now feel that the Una incident was the last straw on the camel’s back. Like we say in Hindi, ghada bhar gaya hai [enough is enough]. The incident in Una stands out for its barbarity and extreme atrocity. For doing something that is traditionally their profession, some Dalit youths were beaten up, stripped half-naked, tied to a car, paraded around the town, including parading before a police station. They were beaten for almost three to four hours. This is just too extreme. Someone who has watched this video would know that it was not a common small skirmish.
So you are saying that the movement is much more than an outpouring of anger against such a criminal act by gau rakshaks?
I do not see the Una violence as merely a crime. There is no society which is crime-free. I don’t expect any society to be crime-free. But, here the perpetrators of the crime have the temerity to shoot the event, circulate the video on social media – as if it was an act of appreciation. It was a self-congratulatory, celebratory exercise for the so-called gau rakshaks. Is India a Jungle Raj? They enjoyed so much impunity that they did not stop shooting in front of the police station also. It is my apprehension that the audacity of the perpetrators is driven by the expectations of political rewards, some recognition by the political class. They wanted to tell some people that ‘look how great cow protectors we are’.
The movement has already made a lot of political impact.
It seems that some non-state actors are trying to control [the] personal habits and traits of people. This has been going on for quite some time. In Dadri and so many other places, we have noticed that these non-state actors are trying to dictate what we should eat, how we should dress, what festivals we should or should not celebrate. This has particularly intensified in the past few years. Now it also gives the impression – the general feeling among Dalits I interact with also believe [this] – that it may be the state acting through these non-state actors. So it gives them the opportunity to withdraw when faced with criticism and at the same time enact what is fundamentally their goal. It is this we are opposed to. India by and large is a large-hearted country. We are opposed to these attacks on Indian values, Indian ethos.
The brutal flogging of Dalits was supported by an MLA from Hyderabad who again felt confident enough to upload a video in support of the crime. And nothing happens to him. What are the Dalits supposed to believe? There is clearly a tacit understanding between these non-state actors and the state to cause such harm. It serves their cause to target people. First, it was Muslims, tomorrow it will be students, then it will be Dalits. And then Parsis, Christians who knows?
This Una movement is not only a drive against the crime, it is a drive against what India is all about. We are fighting to have a tolerant India. My feeling is that such violence is buttressed by the reactions of the state and the police. I have been a part of the police force. And I know that the police are not incompetent. It [the IPS] knows its job well. So my question is this: is there a direction – an unwritten one perhaps – to not [act] against these hooligans? As if, ‘if you act on the cow vigilantes, you will have it’. This unwritten code has been pushed through the administrative system so that the vigilantes feel emboldened enough to ignore the police. Why else would the Una culprits take their march through the police station? The policemen were silent spectators to the incident.
They enjoy complete impunity, indicating a complete state of lawlessness. A lawlessness with a purpose to impose your thoughts in other people’s lives. It is this slavery of the mind that we are protesting against.
What do you have to say about the prime minister’s response on gau rakshaks?
The prime minister showed his anger. He said, ‘shoot me but not Dalits’. So if I am a cow vigilante, am I scared now? No.
Is that a solution? You distract the public from the real issue; you try to distract attention towards the personality [of] Modi, who is pained.
The least the PM could have done is expel the MLA from Hyderabad from the party. You don’t have the courage to do that. Dalits who are engaged in the lowest of the professions – cow skinning, scavenging and the like do not want to move together in a country where they have no hope of a better future.
Yes, the cow they skin is also their food because it is nutrition for them. If they don’t do that they get hit both in the pocket and stomach. What is the solution. How do they sustain?
All that the PM has to offer is to say that ‘shoot me, but not Dalits’. Such a crude example of immaturity; nothing less than a knee jerk reaction – as if you are Gandhi who went on fast and the nation stopped. Nothing would stop in India. I would like to tell the PM that our demand is for inclusive growth. Bring in economic security for Dalits. A society [in which] a large section [of the population] looks down upon another section of the population is not what we want. Or else, Una will keep on repeating.
How did you get associated with the movement?
I got associated because of the brutal incident in Una. Since then I have been there to help them out. We are proceeding in a march and met with great responses. The participants are fantastic people. They are so creative. It is more a question of opportunity than ability. They are combining great research with creativity.
For instance, Jignesh Mevani who is leading the movement, and presided over the pledge not to do menial jobs, found out that in 2009 Modi said that Dalits find spiritual calm in skinning a cow. It is contemptuous. First you make us do [that] which is looked down upon by the society, and then you give it a flavour of spirituality. It is this kind of indifference that hurts me.
Everyone has limitations. But at least take half a step forward.
What kind of support has the movement received?
We have made it clear that we will maintain distance from political parties and let it (the movement) remain the way it started off – as a spontaneous movement. Now [we] are getting support and representation from all over – Hyderabad, Tami Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and tremendous [support] from Dalit Sikhs in Australia and the US. No one can justify the Una incident. A lot of Muslims are supporting the movement. They see rich possibilities of solidarity with Dalits.
And the people participating also cut across gender and age. Everyone is supporting our march.
That is why we are receiving so much support from all over India. I am really overwhelmed with the support.
Our movement is strictly apolitical. Everyone is welcome but please shed your caste. Having said that, this movement in itself will generate political concerns. No AAP. No Congress. No BJP. But I am sure our movement will have political impact. Our slogan is Jai Bheem. So Ambedkar is our rallying point. He is our unifying force, he is our strength. They [the supporters] have the right to choose.
What are the immediate demands of the movement?
We have a 10-point charter. Apart from the immediate police action on gau rakshaks, the broader demands are that every Dalit family should get five acres of land. The pledge that we have taken is never to do any kind of scavenging work. We want long term social reforms.
But some BJP insiders suggest that the movement is targeted at them and is therefore politically motivated?
If I have to ask for land reforms, whom should we ask? If I have to complain against police inaction, who should I go to? The party is at both the Centre and the state. Their response is immature.
We will ensure that the gau rakshaks shut shops. Right now, anybody who volunteers can become a gau rakshak. All he needs to do is to hold a stick in [his] hands [and] the job is done. You don’t need a qualification.
I am absolutely sure of this that the BJP is mobilising its electorate through them. No one cares about the cow. It is a sacrificial lamb even though it is a mata. They are polarising in the name of cows.
Through the movement, the success of the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ has taken a hit.
Let me tell you – the Gujarat Model is a hoax. We have been walking for a week to generate support and garner strength. We have already walked 350 km. Come and look at the filth that is present in the villages of Gujarat. Slogans like Clean India are at the top, nothing happens on ground. It is high time people realise that. Come and see how the place is – where we are staying now.