On our third day in Gujarat, we drove to the site of a communal conflagration that happened earlier this year but was barely registered in the national consciousness. The incident, however, led to one death, several injuries and the burning down of 140 houses.
We drove to Vadavali, a village in the Patan district, and sat with Naseem Ben, the widow of Ibrahim who had been killed in the violence.
The official story was that the “riot” followed an altercation between students of different faiths. A Rajput boy was seated next to a Muslim student as they wrote their Class 10 Board examination. The instructor found that the Rajput boy was cheating, and turned him out of the examination hall. The boy was convinced that his Muslim neighbour in the exam hall had complained about it to the instructor. When he came out of the hall, the Rajput attacked him.
An elderly Muslim man tried to mediate between them, but the furious Rajput student beat him up as well.
The Rajput boy then went to his village, which neighboured Vadavali, and returned with 15 older Rajputs who argued with the Muslim boy. Elders intervened and said that hot-blooded youths should not be encouraged to escalate a small matter. The Rajput boys left.
A couple of hours later, a crowd of around 2,000 Rajput men from surrounding villages arrived on tractors, cars and motorcycles, armed menacingly with daggers, rods and a few rifles. They also carried with them petrol and a white chemical to burn down cement walls and roofs. They went on a rampage, vandalising and burning each of their homes in the Muslim neighbourhood, and thrashing the men. Terrified women and children ran out and hid in the fields, the men remained in their homes or on terraces.
The villagers claim that the police stood by and watched. [Representaional image]
Naseem Ben spoke of how her family members were sitting outside their house when the enraged mob of Rajputs appeared suddenly. Her husband Ibrahim, a labourer, panicked when he heard the roars of the rampaging mob, and sent out the terrified women and children from the back door. His sons ran outside and hid on rooftops. Ibrahim locked himself inside his house. The crowd came to his house, shouting out his name. They broke down the door, found him cowering in a corner. They dragged him out and lynched him. Through all of this, the villagers claim, the police stood by and watched.
This official version of the events – that it was a spontaneous clash between the two communities sparked by the squabble between the students from the two communities – does not explain how within two or three hours of the scuffle, such a large mob of Rajputs from several villages could gather, and how they could have collected such large quantities of petrol and incendiary chemicals, and an array of weapons. The incident strongly suggests a pre-planned conspiracy, in which the fight between the students was not the flashpoint but an excuse for the assault on the Muslims of the village.
The Muslim villagers agree. They believe that the reason for the assault was quite different from the official claim. The panchayat elections were under way. The Muslims and Patels of the village had sizeable populations, but neither commanded enough votes to elect “their” sarpanch from their religion.
The leaders of the two communities reached an unprecedented agreement to join hands, and agreed to have a Muslim sarpanch for half the term, and a Patel sarpanch for the other half. The Muslim sarpanch was elected unopposed.
The Rajputs were reportedly furious as their village had never elected a Muslim sarpanch. According to this version, the Rajputs resolved to teach the Muslims a lesson that they would not forget. It is for this reason that they shot the newly elected sarpanch’s husband (the bullet entered his groin, but he survived) and killed Ibrahim who was one of his main supporters.
The police surprisingly seemed to support the latter theory, by registering a case under Section 120A of the Indian Penal Code against the Rajput mob. This section deals criminal conspiracy. But as we have seen in virtually every case of hate crime that we looked at during this Karwan, the police also registered criminal charges against the victims, charging them with causing grievous hurt with dangerous weapons. They charged all the leaders of the Muslim community, including the sarpanch’s husband, with this fictitious crime.
Also as seen in most other cases, no one from the administration ever visited the family that lost its loved one in the communal assault, or offered any assistance. And no one from among their non-Muslim neighbours came to their aid.
We drove a few hours from there to a village Kashor in Anand district. Here we met Shailesh Manibhai, of the Dalit Rohit community and his mother Maniben. The caste occupation of the Rohit community is the skinning of dead cattle.
Although he has studied up to Class 10, Shailesh still could find only this socially demeaning work. His father had been bedridden for 15 years. His untouchable “unclean” caste occupation thrust on him stigma, but helped bring food for his family. He worked in partnership with a couple of Rohit brothers from a neighbouring village who owned a tractor. Whenever a cow or buffalo died in any household in the village, they sent a word to Shailesh. He would call his partner, and they would lift the carcass in the tractor and transport it to a lowland of the village designated for disposing dead animals.
On August 11, 2017, a Rajput of his village sent a word that his cow had died, and Shailesh arrived with his tractor and hauled the dead animal on to the tractor. Heavy rain in the village had turned the designated lowland for skinning into a swamp, so Shailesh drove his tractor to another waste patch of land adjacent to the funeral ground of the village. This angered the upper-caste residents of the village. They reached the spot with the sarpanch to rebuke Shailesh for polluting the site with the dead cow. Shailesh agreed to continue to use the swampy lowland to skin animals in the future.
The matter should have ended there. But the next morning, a group of around 150 enraged Rajput men stormed into the Rohit enclave, and began thrashing Shailesh for his “mistake”. His mother tried to intervene and they beat up her as well. They cursed them with caste-laden insults. His mother spent a few days in hospital.
An earlier generation would have accepted the beating and insults passively as part of their caste burden. But not Shailesh. He went to the police station, and filed a detailed complaint naming the upper-caste men who had attacked him. The police registered a case under the Scheduled Caste and
Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the upper-caste men of the village listed in Shailesh’s complaint. He also announced that he would refuse to lift or skin animal carcasses in future.
The upper-case people of the village are irate, incensed that a low-caste boy could challenge them in this way. The charge of committing atrocities against a Scheduled Caste family is a grave one, which if proved could result in long jail terms. And they now have to lift the polluting dead cows and buffaloes themselves, digging a shallow grave for them.
The upper-caste people of the village have unanimously decreed a complete boycott of the Rohit caste. Since they are the landowners, the Rohit community is out of work. For fear of caste-taunts and retaliation, they have shifted their children to schools in more distant villages.
A man who worked in a factory for 11 years was suddenly told to resign by his upper-caste managers because he belonged to the village which had the audacity to file charges of caste atrocities against upper-caste men. “Who knows when you may use the same law against us?” The man has challenged the development in labour courts.
We found the spirit of the Dalits in the village high because they had defended their self-respect before the upper-caste people of their village. “Jai Bheem,” they would shout at every step of our journey in the village. I said to them that when they fought for equality, they fought not just for themselves.
They fought for all of us.