10/03/2016, 17.25
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Tired of burying dead cows, Dalits go on strike in Gujarat

The beating of four Dalit youths sparked the peaceful protest. They were accused of killing a cow, but the authorities show their innocence. In India, Dalits represent 16.6 per cent of the population, or almost 200 million. They perform the most menial jobs, and are denied access to culture and temples.

Ahmedabad (AsiaNews) –  Dalits have been on strike for more than two months in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own state of Gujarat after the brutal beating of four Dalit youths accused of killing a cow, which is considered sacred in Hinduism.

The silent protest has been peaceful and is bound to embarrass all government authorities. Dalits are at the bottom of India’s social hierarchy, and traditionally perform the dirtiest jobs, like removing human waste from upper caste homes, collecting and burying dead animals, skinning cattle for leather and fat, and selling hides to tanneries and fat to soap makers.

Although caste discrimination was abolished in 1947, Dalits still have to endure it. Once known as ‘untouchables’, they represent 16.6 per cent of India’s population, roughly 200 million people.

The protest began in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, following the violent beating of four Dalit youths by self-styled cow vigilantes, Hindu nationalists who act as the animal's protectors.

In July, a video of the public flogging went viral, triggering outrage across the country.

Nationalists beat the youth for skinning a cow, but the authorities concluded that a wild lion, not the four youths, killed it. The boys were thus beaten because they actually performed a task to which they have been entitled for centuries in accordance with the Hindu religion.

Now Gujarat Dalits, who are refusing to collect carcasses, represent 7 per cent of the state’s population (more 4 million) and are courted by politicians as the state prepares for next year’s vote.

“I would rather starve to death than collect the dead cows,” said one cow skinner. “The fight now is about our dignity. We will not sit quietly now.”

Dalit activist Natubhai Parmar agrees. “We will not bow down this time. We are prepared for a long fight,” he said.

Anti-Dalit discrimination is rooted in Indian culture. Reported crimes against Dalits increased 44 per cent between 2010 and 2014.

Some 27 per cent of Indians reported regularly carrying out “untouchability” – such as refusing Dalits entry to their kitchen, or setting aside different utensils for them.

Oppression also affects education and culture. The literacy rate among Dalits is 66 per cent nationally. They are not allowed into temples, get water from public taps or drink from the same cups at tea stalls.

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