In Gujarat, Dalits fight for land, in life and even after death

Upper-caste Patels object to land allocation for Dalit cremation sites across districts, denying them equal rights even in death

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In Gujarat, Dalits fight for land, in life and even after death
Cremation sites turn battlegrounds for Dalits in Gujarat. Photo for representation purpose only.

Dalod, a village in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district, located approximately 40 kilometers from the city, is bisected by a road. The road runs through the village, primarily dominated by Patels, effectively demarcating residential areas of upper-caste and lower-caste villagers. For many years, there has been a single crematorium within the village limits. Both Patels and Thakors (OBC), who also form a considerable number, have had access to this. However, until this year, about 1,000 Dalit families in Dalod used a patch of land on the outskirts of the village for cremations.

It was only recently that the local administration allocated seven-hectares of land to serve as a dedicated cremation site for the Dalit community. But the Dalits of the village have hardly been able to use the land. In June this year, when a local Dalit man died and his body was carried to the new cremation ground, the Patels of the village stood in the way, leading to a tense situation. For over two hours, the two communities engaged in heated arguments while the deceased’s body awaited burial. It was only after the intervention of the Ahmedabad rural police that the burial could proceed at the new site.

Cremation site: A battleground for the Dalits

The following day, a group of about 200 odd people from Patel community attacked Kishen Sendhav, a Dalit resident of Dalod, and deputy sarpanch of the village. Sendhav managed to escape but his nephew, sister and sister-in-law suffered injuries. Sendhav lodged a complaint with the local police the next day that added to the simmering tension between the two communities. For a week, local police camped inside the village to prevent further clashes.

“The burial place that we once used was by the roadside at the outskirts of the village road that has, over the time, turned into a site for sewage disposal. Adding to that, the place gets water-logged during monsoon,” said Ratnaben Gohil, an elected member of gram sabha who, in January 2023, had raised the issue of the need of a new crematorium for Dalits.

“After that, the gram panchayat passed a resolution and allocated seven-hectare barren land for the Dalits to carry out their last rites. We, however, have not been able to carry out the burial process peacefully since then. Every time a Dalit family heads for the new site, the Patels stand in protest,” added Gohil.

Dalit pyres get dismantled

Noticeably, members of the upper-caste community had fenced the area with barbed wires and blocked the road leading to the new burial ground. It was only after three notices served by the Panchayat to the members of the Patidar community that the wire surrounding the land was removed.

“Dalod is primarily inhabited by people of three communities — Patels, Thakors (OBC) and Dalits. Currently, the seat of sarpanch is held by a member of Thakor community while the deputy sarpanch is a Dalit. So, the Patels, who form the majority of the population, have been seeking representation and this village politics has resulted into a tense situation there,” said Amit Vasava, the Superintendent of Police (SP), Ahmedabad rural, claiming that the issue of cremation ground is not the bone of contention.

However, the clashes over the space allotted for Dalit-only cremation is a common phenomenon in Gujarat. In almost every village across districts, where Dalits have been allotted a piece of land to be turned into a burial site or crematorium, the local upper castes have objected.

Last month, the Vadodara district police arrested 13, people including the village sarpanch, for denying access to a common cremation ground for the last rites of a Dalit man. The incident occurred in Gametha village in Padra taluka of Vadodara district on August 6 when 35-year-old Dalit villager, Rajnikant Valkar, was abused and stopped from conducting his father’s last rites in the common crematorium of the village.

Tyranny of the upper caste

An FIR lodged by Vankar states that when his father, Kanchan Vankar, passed away, his relatives collected wood for the funeral and made a pyre at the village crematorium. Rajnikant returned home to take his late father to the cremation ground when a relative called and informed him that the upper-caste men of the village had come to the cremation ground and asked to remove the wooden pyre. He requested that he needed to use the common cremation ground as the one meant for Dalits was water-logged and unusable. However, when Vankar reached the cremation ground, he was faced with a mob of upper-caste men and the pyre was dismantled.

In May 2022, Chunabhai Valmiki, a Dalit resident of Dekavada village in Ahmedabad district, died of cardiac arrest. His sons, Rajesh and Sanjay, had to cross through neck-deep water to perform his last rites to reach the spot that was supposed to be a crematorium for the Dalit community in the village.

In January 2021, Mukti Dham, a Dalit-only cemetery in Vanthal village in Viramgam taluka, Ahmedabad, had been flooded with sewage water by the upper-caste residents. Following which, for months, the Dalit villagers had to carry the body of their dead kin five kilometers out of the village border for the last rites. The situation was sorted out only after the District Collector intervened.

“Clashes between the Dalits and the upper-caste villagers in this area (rural Ahmedabad) are common. Every time government machinery allots a piece of land to serve as a cremation ground for Dalits, the upper-caste villagers object and create trouble for Dalits. For instance, the cremation ground in Vanthal was deliberately flooded to cause humiliation and unnecessary hardship. We are humiliated by the upper castes all our lives and now even after death,” says Kirit Rathod, a resident of Viramgam tehsil and a Dalit rights activist.

“The Dalits of Vanthal had been using the cemetery, which was allocated to the community by the district collector many years back. If Dalits were allowed in the common cremation grounds in villages, there won’t be the need for a separate site. The government of Gujarat had to allot land and funds to run 40 Dalit-only cremation sites across 11 districts in 2016. Yet, the upper-caste communities have been creating issues for Dalits in almost all of these villages,” adds Rathod.

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