Kheda— In a disturbing incident that highlights the prevalence of caste-based discrimination, Sushila Vankar, a mid-day meal coordinator at Kshetra Government Primary School in Kheda district, fell victim to casteist abuse and assault. The local Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) cell of the Kheda district police has initiated a probe into the matter, following a complaint filed by Sushila on Friday. However, the cops have arrested no one so far in connection with the case.
According to the complaint, Sushila alleged that on June 27, she heard a commotion while performing her duties at the school. Stepping out to investigate, she discovered that her husband, Surjit Singh Vankar, was engaged in a fight with Ishwar Chauhan, the village Ex-Sarpanch, and Ramesh Chauhan, a panchayat member. When Sushila intervened to defuse the situation, the accused allegedly assaulted her, using casteist slurs and inflicting injuries on her hand and back.
The abuse did not end there, as Sushila further stated in her complaint that the accused threatened to evict her from her job and harm her husband. They claimed that the students at the school belonged to the upper caste and vowed not to allow them to consume food prepared by her. Disturbingly, the two men proceeded to throw away the food meant for 130 children into a nearby lake, an act that not only highlighted their bigotry but also jeopardized the children's well-being. Sushila alleged in her complaint that the men said that the children are from upper caste and they would get spoiled if they eat food prepared by her since she is a Dalit.
The Kheda town police have booked Ishwar Chauhan and Ramesh Chauhan under various sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as well as the Indian Penal Code for causing voluntary hurt (323), intentional insult to provoke breach of peace (504), criminal intimidation [506(2)] and abettor present when crime committed (114).
Sushila Vankar has been associated with the mid-day meal program at the Kshetra Primary School since 2004. Although senior police officers have acknowledged that there may have been a personal rivalry between the accused and the complainant, the investigation is ongoing. As of now, the accused have not been arrested. The Mooknayak contacted the Kheda Police Station where the duty incharge said the case has been registered and investigation is underway. The investigation officer DySP at the local SC-ST cell was not available for a comment.
The Mooknayak spoke to Vinod Solanki, a social activist and ex-serviceman from Ahmedabad on the prevalence of caste based discrimination. Solanki said, "Compared to urban areas, the prevalence of untouchability is alarmingly high in rural pockets with Dalits often being segregated and forced to live in separate areas away from the main village.
One of the most widely practiced discriminatory customs is Rampatar, which involves serving Dalits in separate utensils." He said women from Dalit communities are often subjected to the arduous task of fetching water from distant wells, while men are prohibited from growing mustaches. In addition, many barbers refuse to provide haircuts to individuals from lower caste backgrounds.
According to the 2001 Census, the Scheduled Castes population in Gujarat accounted for 35.93 lakhs, which constituted 7.09% of the state's total population of 5.07 crore.
Tarushi Aswani, in her report for The Wire, highlights the ongoing ostracization faced by the Dalit community in Gujarat. Instances of violence against Dalits, including public floggings, murders, harassment, rapes, and other forms of atrocities, have been reported. Disturbingly, the situation for Dalits has deteriorated further since 2010, as indicated by data from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Cell. According to the National Crime Bureau's 2020 report, there were 1,313 registered crimes against Dalits in Gujarat.
On February 11, a Dalit student in Rajkot alleged that his classmates physically assaulted him due to his identity.
In another incident from Anand district in the state, a wedding procession of a Dalit groom was forcibly stopped by ‘upper’ caste members on February 23. The accused were said to have hurled casteist slurs and threatened the members of the Valmiki community, which is categorised as Dalits, for taking out the procession. Police booked three people in connection with the incident.
In June, at Mota village, Palanpur taluka of Banaskantha ditrict, in North Gujarat, a Dalit youth faced severe physical assault for his choice of clothing and accessories, while his mother was also subjected to violence when she tried to intervene.
In May, around 120 members of the Dalit community in Bhataria Village in Jotana taluka, Mehsana district alleged that they were subjected to caste-based discrimination and not allowed to participate in the village feast, during the Praan Pratishtha Mahotsav of a temple.
On April 14 this year, a momentous mass conversion ceremony took place in Gujarat's capital Gandhinagar, wherein approximately 50,000 Dalits from various cities and towns formally adopted Buddhism and renounced Hinduism. The struggle for the rights of Dalits in India is a long-standing one, dating back centuries. Despite significant progress in recent years, caste-based discrimination and inequality continue to be major challenges for these communities, and the rise of Hindu nationalism has only made things worse.
In this context, the decision by many Dalits to denounce Hinduism and convert to Buddhism can be seen as a powerful act of rebellion against the entrenched caste hierarchy and the ruling party's vision of a "Hindu Rashtra" (Hindu nation). By rejecting the religion that has historically been used to justify their oppression, Dalits are asserting their right to dignity, freedom, and equality, and challenging the dominant narrative of caste supremacy in India.