In India, low-caste Dalits put dignity before livelihood, by leaving cows where they die

In India, low-caste Dalits put dignity before livelihood, by leaving cows where they die

In India, low-caste Dalits put dignity before livelihood, by leaving cows where they die

Updated 28 January 2017, 7:10 AEDT

When India's revered cattle die, it is usually low-caste Dalits who remove the carcasses — but fed-up with being attacked by "cow-protection" vigilantes, they are abandoning the task that has long defined them.

On a highway in Gujarat, western India, two of India's revered cattle lie dead.

Traffic skirts around the carcasses, and some people stop and stare.

Usually, someone like Somu Bhay Solanki, a Dalit man, would have come along to remove them by now.

But following out of principle, he has vowed never to do so again, no matter what the cost.

"I will not do this work. I will die of hunger, but I'm not going to do this work anymore," he says firmly.

A vicious beating prompts a line in the sand

Mr Solanki's decision to abandon one of the few sources of income available to him came after a video surfaced in late July which triggered outrage in India.

It showed four Dalit men, tied to the back of a car, while a group of men took it in turns to beat them with sticks, in the district of Una.

The self-proclaimed "cattle defenders" accuse people caught with carcasses of having killed the animals.

Cows are considered sacred by Hindus, and cattle slaughter is illegal in most Indian states.

Muslims and Dalits are typically targeted by vigilantes, because disposing of dead cattle is a job "reserved" for them, which upper-castes refuse to do.

Discrimination persists

Officially, caste discrimination is banned in India, but at village level, it remains commonplace.

Mr Solanki says that in his village of Bhuvaldi, not far from Ahmedabad, he and his family are still considered "untouchable" by neighbours and shopkeepers, who will not hand them things directly.

"People don't touch us," he says.

"They hand things to us without touching us, sometimes they even throw things at us — they abuse us because of our profession."

Dalits have long endured this kind of treatment, but after the Una incident, tens of thousands turned out to protest.

Mr Solanki and others took a stand — risking their livelihoods by pledging to never again collect cattle.

With a family of five, he admits it is proving difficult to sustain, but sees little alternative.

"At the moment we have no income," Mr Solanki said.

"There is no security for us; so, even if we want to continue this work, how do we do it?"

Even Dalits protesting the injustice have since been set upon, said organiser Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer who has become a leader of the protest movement.

"When society is displaying such casteist mentality, the state has to come into the picture, and take the side of the victims — which is not happening," he said.

Fearing a backlash in key states, PM responds

Mr Mevani's latest campaign is to send postcards to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has condemned the vigilantes twice since the attack.

It was a major step for the Hindu-nationalist leader, because it risks provoking the ire of his right-wing supporters.

Mr Mevani said it was recognition of how important the Dalit vote will be in forthcoming state elections in populous Uttar Pradesh and, next year, Mr Modi's home state of Gujarat.

State elections help determine the makeup of India's upper house, so the outcome matters federally.

Bloc voting by caste remains common in India, so a Dalit backlash could prove costly for Mr Modi's Government.

"We have prodded him awake," Mr Mevani said.