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Unprecedented Dalit protest helps unseat chief minister

Demonstrations indicate the extent of Dalit discontent with India's political powers

Unprecedented Dalit protest helps unseat chief minister

An Indian member of the Dalit community holds a placard saying 'In Gujarat, Cow Slaughter is a Sin while Killing Dalits is Pardonable' in a protest rally against an attack on Dalit members in the Gujarat town of Una on July 31. (Photo by AFP) 

Church leaders say India's political leaders should take note of the fate of Gujarat's chief minister who resigned following large-scale protests by Dalit people citing unfair treatment.

"It is indeed an uprising of Dalits and minorities and a lesson to all political parties who take this group for granted," said Bishop Anthonisamy Neethinathan of Chingleput, chairman of the Indian Bishops' Office for Dalits and Indigenous People.

Gujarat's chief minister Anandiben Patel — who has been under pressure from various quarters recently — resigned after widespread protests erupted after "cow vigilantes" attacked four Dalit youths in July who they accused of illegally trading cowhides.

The Dalit protests have been seen by many in the media as the final straw that lead to Patel's resignation on Aug. 1.  Dalits are the former untouchable castes within Indian society.

State elections are due in the state next year and ignoring the Dalit protest could damage the party's prospects, which has been ruling Gujarat for the past 15 years.

Patel took over as chief minister of Gujarat two years ago, when the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi was elected prime minister after their Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the 2014 national elections.

Media reports that the BJP leadership wanted Patel to resign to help it counter opposition criticism that she has been unable to control the violence and the party has been insensitive to Dalit violence.

Church leaders say the Hindu nationalists took their unprecedented victory as a mandate to push their goal of making India into a Hindu nation by acting against religious minorities and Dalits and forcing them to accept Hindu hegemony.

"Dalits and minority groups in India are quite aware of their rights and they can't be suppressed by force," said Bishop Neethinathan.


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Attack followed by protests

The "cow vigilantes" who attacked the Dalit youths in July uploaded a video of their actions on social media.

It showed how the Dalits were stripped, tied and flogged. Cows are considered holy by orthodox Hindus and their slaughter is banned in Gujarat and several other Indian states.

Media reports said the Dalits were transporting carcasses of dead animals, which was part of their job as they worked in a tannery.

A protest began in the area and soon spread across the state and turned violent.

Samuel Jayakumar, from the National Council of Churches in India, noted that Dalit people have never organized and challenged the so-called upper castes elements of society like this before.

"With the massive Dalit protest in Ahmedabad, finally the message has got through to the BJP brass," he said.

"Mere lip service and tokenism will not dampen the anger of the Dalits. Somebody has to be sacrificed to assuage the Dalit anger," Jayakumar continued.

As the protest spread, police arrested nine people who were part of the vigilante group.

A 23-year-old who consumed poison to protest the flogging died in hospital and at least seven others attempted suicide in protest.

The suicide attempts shows the feeling of hopelessness among Dalits who don't believe they will receive justice from the ruling BJP government, said M. Mary John, Chair of the National Council of Dalit Christians.

John noted that Dalit people in Gujarat crafted a novel form of protest: throwing dead cows in front of government offices, a powerful challenge to the upper castes who feel that they will be polluted if they touch a dead animal.

According to National Crime Records Bureau data, 47,064 cases of crimes against Dalits were registered in 2014, up from 39,408 in 2013 and 33,655 in 2012, a steady increase that correlates with the rise of BJP.

Cow vigilantism is often pointed out as an important factor in attacks against Dalits. 

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