Understanding The Dalit Struggle For Identity In Gujarat

gujarat dalit protest 1


The recent incidents of Dalit oppression in Gujarat has got the attention of the entire country. Gujarat though known for its development and progress is still ruled by feudal laws, where sporting a moustache, wearing goggles, watching Garba, or even riding a bike offends the upper caste pride in this day and age. In nearly 50% of villages in Gujarat, Dalits are not allowed to avail the services of a barber. Gujarat has been ranked in the top five states with the highest number of Dalit atrocity cases in India. Why has the rule of the land not been able to catch up with internet and energy friendly rural Gujarat?  These continuous incidents reek of Manusmriti and the manifestation of its oppressive mentality.

The Manusmriti ascribes very stringent rules and regulations for the Dalits, pertaining to their social status, appearance and wealth. That they should be recognizable at all times either by distinctive branding marks on their bodies or by their clothes. This description in the Manusmriti completely resonates with the present practices which are being forced upon the Dalits in Gujarat. The rules now are slightly different from that of the Manusmriti’s, nowadays there are no branding marks or mandatory rules about fashion or lifestyle.

However, Dalits are still seen as audacious if they choose to either have a fashion sense or a style statement. In the 21st century, Dalits are still considered untouchables. So what has really changed in the 70 years of independence and affirmative action? Why is Brahmanism, Casteism and Manusmriti still relevant issues in India? This paper will try to understand the multi-layered oppression and bigotry prevalent in Gujarat and why it still continues.

Narendra Modi, in his address to the United Nations paid tribute to India’s ancient traditions, telling a packed Assembly hall of delegates that India’s philosophy was  “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” or that the “world is one family” and this has guided the nation since Vedic times (Lakshman 2014). The historic oppression of the Dalits in Modi’s home state, Gujarat presents a different story though. In 2016, the state saw a 31% rise in the reported cases of atrocities. It has been ranked amongst the top five states with the highest rate of atrocities against Dalits. While Gujarat’s Dalit population is quite small at 7% compared to the national population of 17%, the increase in the atrocities in 2017 was 32.5%, a figure significantly higher than the national rate of 20.4% (News18 2017). What makes Gujarat, an industrially and economically developed state so socially and culturally non-assimilative?

A study done by the Navsarjan trust on the prevalence of caste based discrimination in Gujarat, which was carried out in 1589 villages of the state found 99 types of oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalits in the state. They varied from participation in religious activities to access to public facilities, from access to food and water to social sanctions (Navsarjan 2010).

Recently, a Dalit youth Jayesh Solanki was beaten to death for watching Garba in the Anand District of the state. In another district, boys were beaten up for sporting moustaches which subsequently started the moustache campaign across the state (Dhar 2017). There are instances where Dalits are beaten up for even sporting “Bapu” (“Bapu” a title used for the Rajput community) sign on their vehicles. With over sixteen thousand cases of atrocities in Gujarat, the conviction rate is a mere 4.87% and over thirteen thousand cases are still pending in the courts. How is it that the discrimination is so pan-Gujarat? How is it so systemic? Is the anger and hatred towards Dalits more ideological rather than being economical? (Navsarjan 2010)

A look into Manusmriti gives us a clearer picture for this contempt and anger towards the Dalits. The Dalits or the outcastes were never part of the varna system.  According to the Manusmriti, the union of a woman belonging to a higher caste to that of a man belonging to the fourth varna (Shudra) creates the Ati-Shudra (the outcastes or untouchables). This form of birth is considered most abhorring and polluted. Ambedkar cites a number of other theories regarding the origin of the Dalits, but this article won’t go into the depths of the same. The Dalits were avoided and discriminated and their interaction with society was very limited. The works which none of the four castes could do without getting polluted were given to the Dalits, like disposing of the dead – human and animal, making animal products from dead animals, tanning, disposing human excreta, etc. (Doniger and Smith 1991).

Dalits were so marginalised in society that the Manusmriti has only a few regulations on them. They are limited to pollution of a Hindu’s personal space and religion, physical appearance and the specific times in the day that they could enter the village or community. Their rules are only a few as they were officially never a part of the caste system as compared to that of the Shudras which go on and on endlessly throughout various scripture (Doniger and Smith 1991).

Manu the Hindu law-giver engineered the society in such fragmented divisions, ensuring that the entire benefit of society, the crème-de-la-creme was always enjoyed by the ruling upper castes especially by the Brahmins. The entire system seems to have been set in stone, as it continues even today. Though untouchability has been officially banned in India since 1950s, our psyche has not yet been redeemed from the clutches of the caste system. Hence the situation in Gujarat today is in line with the teachings of Manusmriti.

This article lists references in Manusmriti with regards to both the Shudras (OBCs) and the Dalits. It is implied herein that the disadvantages imposed scripturally on the Shudras were transmitted in a much more aggressive form onto the Dalits, a rung lower than the Shudras.

Societal Status of Dalits according to the Manusmriti:

  1. . Dalits should live outside of the village, they must use discarded bowls and dogs and donkeys should be their wealth.
  2. . Moreover, their clothing should be the clothes of the dead and their ornaments should be made of black iron and they should wander constantly.
  3. . Their food dependent on others should be given to them in broken dishes.
  4. . They should not enter villages and cities at night. In the morning, they may move about for their work, recognizable by the distinctive markings and branding on their bodies (Doniger and Smith 1991:242).

Whereas the Manusmriti is unclear as to the Right to Property of a Dalit, the rules for Shudras on property is understandably applicable unto the former.

  1. . A priest [Brahman] may with confidence take any possession from a servant [Shudra]; for since nothing at all can belong to him as his own, his property can be taken away by his Master (Doniger and Smith 1991:196).
  2. . No collection of wealth must be made by a Shudra, even though he be able (to do it); for a Shudra who has acquired wealth, gives pain to Brahmanas (Doniger and Smith 1991:250).

“Nowadays, Dalits are able to own bikes and cars. They are able to wear good clothes and can maintain a style statement. These acts are seen as an insult to the upper castes and the Shudras (OBCs). That the Dalits are trying to show off their new found status in society is the reason why the rate of atrocities against them is increasing in the state”, said Bhanuben Parmar, a Dalit rights activist in Gujarat in an interview with Abigail S. Kellogg in October, 2017.

Right to Education according to the Manusmriti:

A Shudra is unfit to receive education. The upper varnas should not impart education or give advice to a Shudra. It is not necessary that the Shudra should know the laws and codes and hence need not be taught (Doniger and Smith 1991:81) Shudras were strictly prohibited from listening, reciting and understanding the vedas and other scriptures, the punishment for all of which was capital punishment. This ensured the continued servitude of the shudras to the upper castes. Education of the Dalits, a rung lower than the Shudras was expectedly an abhorrent concept (Ambedkar 1990). Is it a surprise therefore that rate of education amongst the Dalits in Gujarat is significantly lower as compared to the Dalits in other states?

“Dalits in Gujarat are very backward compared to their southern counterparts, since they were not given modern english education as the South-Indian states got because of the efforts of Christian missionaries. Dalits can find liberation only by learning English!” Kancha Illaiah, an Indian political theorist, writer and activist for Dalit rights told Abigail S. Kellogg in an interview in October 2017.

Justice according to the Manusmriti:

  1. . A once-born man (a Shudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin. If he mentions the names and castes (gati) of the (twice-born) with contempt, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth.
  2. . If a Shudra insolently gives any religious or moral advice to a Brahmana, the king, shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and ears.
  3. . A low-caste man who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed. If out of arrogance he spits (on a superior), the king shall cause both his lips to be cut off; if he urinates (on him), the penis; if he breaks wind (against him), the anus (Ambedkar 1990)

The recent incidents of Jayesh Solanki’s death for watching garba in the Anand district and Dalit youths being beaten up for sporting a moustache in the Gandhinagar district are examples of caste based violence straight out of the books of the Manusmriti. These events do not occur out of the blue but only escalate from time to time when Dalits tend to challenge or show resistance to the status quo (Dhar 2017).

“More than 50% of the villages in Gujarat do not allow Dalits to get a haircut from the village barber, who gives a haircut to everyone in the village including the upper castes. Therefore Dalits have to travel about 8-10 km from their villages to get a haircut. Every time a Dalit stands up for his rights, he is instantly beaten up or oppressed in some way or the other. The situation remains the same, feudal in nature, though the forms have changed. Earlier they wouldn’t touch us, now they are beating us.”, said Kaushik Parmar, a Dalit rights activist in north Gujarat to Abigail S. Kellogg in an interview in October, 2017. Though Untouchability is banned in India, there are newer ways developed to discriminate and oppress. Making sure that the Dalits dare not place themselves in the same plane as the upper castes by forcing them to be unkempt and shabby in appearance keeps this distinction alive (Navsarjan 2010)

Even Dalit names should be such that can be are easily distinguished. Not, unsurprisingly a precedence for this can be found in the Manusmriti:

  1. . Let (the first part of) a Brahmana’s name (denote something) auspicious, a Kshatriya’s be connected with power, and a Vaisya’s with wealth, but a Shudra’s (express something) contemptible.
  2. . (The second part of) a Brahmana’s (name) shall be (a word) implying happiness, of a Kshatriya’s (a word) implying protection, of a Vaisya’s (a term) expressive of thriving, and of a Shudra’s (an expression) denoting service (Ambedkar 1990).

Even the rules and punishments for the upper castes are diametrically opposite of that of a Shudra. For example:

  • A Kshatriya, having defamed a Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred panas. A Shudra shall suffer corporal punishment. A Brahmana shall be fined fifty (panas) for defaming a Kshatriya, in (the case of) a Shudra twelve (Ambedkar 1990).

The current dissemination of justice in Gujarat points to a similarity between a Manusmriti based justice system with a 4.87% conviction rate in the cases of atrocities against the Dalits (Navsarjan 2010).

Sub-Human and Animal Like treatment of Dalits:

  • .A Kandala (Chandalas), a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat.
  1. . Manu has declared that the flesh (of an animal) killed by dogs is pure, likewise (that) of a (beast) slain by carnivorous (animals) or by men of low caste (Dasyu), such as Kandalas.
  2. . When he has touched a Kandala [Chandal], a menstruating woman, an outcast, a woman in child bed, a corpse, or one who has touched a (corpse), he becomes pure by bathing (Ambedkar 1990).

Several media reports have pointed out that caste based distinction and discrimination is not uncommon in Gujarat with Dalit children bringing their own plates to eat the midday meal in government schools to having to clean up the toilets of the schools. Even government school teachers are categorised explicitly and publicly by their castes, said Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust to Abigail S. Kellogg in an interview in October, 2017.

Double Disadvantage of being a Dalit Woman:

Women in these situations often face double disadvantage on account of being both Dalit and a woman. Over 950 cases of rape have been filed under the atrocities act. Although rape is used as a common weapon to suppress Dalit women, most cases do not get reported out of fear from the dominant community (Navsarjan 2010) “There have been incidents wherein a rapist has freely entered the house of the Dalit victim, raped a member of the family while the entire family of the victim waited outside of their house for the rapist to finish and leave the premises. This is the kind of pressure that the Dalits live in everyday in Gujarat. With little to no help available to them by the state machinery, they have simply no option but to suffer in painful silence”, said Bhanuben Parmar, a Dalit rights activist in Gujarat in an interview with Abigail S. Kellogg in October, 2017.

How does a state which is so industrially developed and successful with even its villages having access to modern amenities act in such a feudal and casteist manner? Jignesh Mevani, a Dalit Leader and an MLA from the Vadgam constituency in Gujarat in an interview with Abigail S. Kellogg in October 2017 said, “Gujarat is a feudal and caste based society, where the members of the upper caste feel that they can do anything and get away with it. This is a testament to the conviction rates in the state’s atrocities’ cases. Gujarat’s unwavering focus on economic and industrial development has left it intellectually and culturally bankrupt. With little to no investment on caste reconciliation by the state machinery and the civil society, Gujarat is now mangled with caste based discrimination and oppression erupting violently”.

Seeing that most of the above mentioned verses from the Manusmriti talk about the Shudras or the OBCs, why do they, themselves oppressed by the upper castes, oppress the Dalits in return? The Shudras or the OBCs are in the lowest rung of the caste system. The Manusmriti, supposedly written a couple of millenia ago mandated their oppression at the hands of the upper castes, and there is no reason to believe that over the centuries, the situation has been otherwise. Psychologists world over agree that an individual or community, when oppressed by one entity needs to oppress another entity as an outlet of its pent up frustration. The OBCs, oppressed by the Upper castes have been historically conditioned to use the Dalits as a social ladder to elevate their own status in society: by oppressing them.

The OBCs and the Dalits account for 50% and 17% of the total population of the country. What prevents them from harnessing their joint electoral strength to fight caste based discrimination? What has kept these two very vulnerable and oppressed groups at each other throats? No other answer comes to mind than that of an extremely clever social engineering at the hands of Manu, which was performed several centuries ago. The country might have woken up to Independence and an equal Constitution in 1950, but the hangover of that which was the religious code of conduct for 2000 years is still being felt.  Commenting on the current status of caste based violence, Martin Macwan, the founder of Navsarjan Trust and the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, said in an interview with Abigail S. Kellogg in October, 2017 “Caste based discrimination and economic disparity has made it clear to me that we are a country with no nation”.


Lakshman, N. (2014).  ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ is India’s philosophy: Modi, The Hindu, September 28. Accessed from:


New18, (2017). Gujarat Among 5 Worst States in Atrocities Against Dalits, October 6. Accessed from: http://www.news18.com/news/india/gujarat-among-5-worst-states-in-atrocities-against-dalits-1538909.html

Navsarjan Trust and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights [Navsarjan], (2010). Understanding Untouchability – A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1589 Villages, Ahmedabad: Navsarjan Trust.

Dhar, D. (2017). In Gujarat, Dalits Under Attack for Watching Garba, Sporting Moustache, The Wire, October 4. Accessed from:


Doniger, W. and B.K. Smith. (1991). The Laws of Manu. Gurgaon: Penguin Books India.

Ambedkar, B.R. (1990). Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches. Vol.-7. Pune:

Education Department, Government of Maharashtra.

Abigail Shannon Kellogg, an alumnus of St. Stephen’s College, has been a student of Philosophy and History. Having worked in the social sector for a few years, she understands the social-political climate of India. Her core focus is on discrimination, exclusion, sexuality, identity and gender concerns. She could be contacted at [email protected]



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