India’s Dalit cattle skinners share stories of abuse

From hospital wards to skinning fields, India’s Dalit cattle skinners share stories of abuse and fears for their future.

Gujarat’s Dalit Skinners
When old cows die at the cow shelter in Jam Kandorna, Dalit skinner Valji Madhvi collects their carcasses. He is expected to pay a donation of 100 rupees ($1.50) [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Rajkot, Gujarat – There is a guarded checkpoint in the corridor outside the Male Surgery Ward of Rajkot Civil Hospital. The security officer asks to see some ID and explains, politely, that following the arrival of four new patients earlier in the week, there have been concerns about crowd control.

Until recently, the four young men – Vashram Sarvaiya, his brother Ramesh, their 17-year-old cousin Ashok, and relative Bechar – were as obscure as four young men can be. Today, they are at the centre of an uprising.

The Sarvaiyas, who hail from a village of 300 households in Gujarat’s Una district, are Dalits. Once known as “Untouchables”, Dalits remain the most vulnerable and marginalised segment of Indian society. As is typical for their caste, the Sarvaiya family’s occupation is one traditionally considered “impure”: skinning dead livestock for their hides and bones.

An industry valued at $12bn, India’s leather sector is still almost exclusively reliant on Muslims and Dalits for the “dirty work” of skinning and tanning. Skinning cows, in particular, carries a heavy stigma in this Hindu-majority country.

Until they were assaulted on July 11, the Sarvaiya family most likely didn’t know just how vulnerable their work made them.

The youths were skinning a cow on the roadside when six self-styled “gau rakshaks”, hardline Hindu cow-protection activists, accused them of slaughtering the animal. Though Vashram Sarvaiya explained it had died naturally – cow slaughter is banned in Gujarat – the attackers stripped the Dalits to the waist, tied them to their SUV, and publicly thrashed them with a metal bar.

Video footage of the assault went viral, sparking the most significant Dalit protests Gujarat has seen in 30 years. Thousands took to the streets. State-owned buses were torched; angry leather workers dumped cow carcasses outside administrative offices.

A police constable from Amreli died after being caught in a hailstorm of thrown stones. At least two dozen Dalits attempted suicide in protest; at least one succeeded.

Ashok Sarvaiya, 17, one of the four young Dalit skinners attacked by cow-protection vigilantes in Una. After their release from Rajkot Civil Hospital, the Sarvaiyas were re-admitted to hospital in Ahmedabad, where doctors treated them for depression and anxiety, according to local news reports [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]Ashok Sarvaiya, 17, one of the four young Dalit skinners attacked by cow-protection vigilantes in Una. After their release from Rajkot Civil Hospital, the Sarvaiyas were re-admitted to hospital in Ahmedabad, where doctors treated them for depression and anxiety, according to local news reports [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Rajkot Civil Hospital was transformed into a rallying point for supporters of the Dalit protest, and a backdrop in the theatre of national politics.

On successive days, the state’s chief minister, Anandiben Patel, who has since been replaced in the role, and Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous political family, were photographed at the bedsides of the Sarvaiyas. 

READ MORE: India’s Dalits demand freedom from caste discrimination

Manoj Makwana, a 28-year-old construction worker from Ambedkarnagar, a Dalit neighbourhood in Rajkot, is one of eight suicide survivors recovering in the hospital’s emergency room when I visit.

He is a dark, sharp-faced man. Three days after his suicide attempt – he drank phenyl, he says – his arm is still trailing a drip tube. Physically, he is on the mend, but he’s still “100 percent angry”, he says.

“Four people from my community were beaten like animals,” he explains. “Any one of us would get goose bumps of rage, seeing that.”

A small crowd of visitors has trickled over from the bedsides of other suicide-attempt survivors. Two men offer me their smartphones, screens playing the video of the Una attack. I wonder how often they have watched it.

Manoj’s suicide attempt followed the disruption of a rally in his neighbourhood. “They baton-charged us,” he says. “They arrested 50 of us. I was so angry.”

Construction worker Manoj Makwana tried to commit suicide after police disrupted a Dalit rally in Rajkot. In hospital, he was surrounded by friends and supporters [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]Construction worker Manoj Makwana tried to commit suicide after police disrupted a Dalit rally in Rajkot. In hospital, he was surrounded by friends and supporters [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Rajkot police say that in fact only 30 to 40 protesters were detained at the rally, and that all protesters were released within five hours.

One senior officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that after “large-scale incidents” in the region, the decision was made to disperse rallies before protesters had the opportunity to do anything illegal.

“The strategy was made to protect the people themselves,” he said.

Manoj’s interpretation is different: “We are not the ones who are damaging people and property, but still the government thinks so.”

He doesn’t regret what he did, he says: He did it for justice for his community. “India has been independent since 1947, but we still feel we are not free.”

Protests of this scale may have been unexpected in Gujarat, a state with a disproportionately small Dalit population, but they were a long time in the making, says Martin Macwan, a Gujarati Dalit rights activist. Government statistics show that violence against Dalits is on the rise – the outgrowth, says Macwan, of growing resistance to previously normalised mistreatment.

“Things are getting worse for us,” says Raja Gora Rathod, a tall man of 65 with a broad white moustache. He rests a hand on the frame of his son’s metal hospital bed. Mahesh, 22, is another suicide survivor. We are worried for our children. What will be the future?”

His question has particular urgency for the leather-working community. As the list of assaults in the name of cow protection continues to grow, Dalit cattle-skinners find themselves at a vulnerable intersection.

The leather-working quarter: Where the mood is bitter 

Narendra Rakhasiya, 40, has been a skinner since he was 15. His family has worked in the trade for generations, but he is adamant his sons will pursue other professions [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]Narendra Rakhasiya, 40, has been a skinner since he was 15. His family has worked in the trade for generations, but he is adamant his sons will pursue other professions [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Rajkot’s leather-working quarter is difficult to find at first. The route isn’t particularly complicated, but the residents of the rundown neighbourhoods edging the Morbi Highway are hesitant to give us directions.

They are Dalits, our rickshaw driver explains, and they are worried that our presence will stir up trouble for the community.

Chamadia Para, the leather-making area”, is signposted only by the stink. Part rancid, oily ram’s wool and part rotting meat, the odour hangs diffuse in the air along the shale alleys and thickens at the open doorways of ramshackle warehouses.

Stretched sheepskins tacked to wooden boards lean, sun-facing, against outdoor walls.

Tall goats graze rubbish dumped at the lane’s edge; a detached cow’s tail traces a slack s” in the shredded plastic.

Beyond the warehouses lies a network of modest residential buildings, snack stalls and paan (Indian betel leaf) shops: For the skinners of Rajkot, this is home, as well as work.

Narendra Rakhasiya’s forebears have been skinning livestock here “since the rule of kings”, he says, but the attack in Una has confirmed what he already believed: There is no future for his family in this industry.

Narendra is 40, a big man with a level, contemplative brow, who rolls mawa, a mixed cut of crushed areca nut and tobacco, in and out of the pouch of his lower lip between sentences.

He was 15 when he started working with his father, hauling the great dead weight of felled bullocks and water buffalo, cutting and cleaning and salting fresh hides. Skinning has always been tough work, and “now they are beating us”, he says. “What if my sons get hurt?”

READ MORE: How to address the plight of India’s Dalits

The family warehouse is a relic: a flat-topped brick structure, patched with cement where the masonry has grown gap-toothed, and gated by heavy wooden doors. The building is owned by a Muslim – like many Indian leather communities, this one is a blend of Dalit and Muslim households – but Narendra’s father has held the lease for 50 years.

Indoors, a hole in the roof to one side, and a shambling fan to the other, provide crucial ventilation.

The bench we sit down on to talk straddles a runnel of gunk from a mound of wet, salted cow hides. About half a dozen community members have joined us; somebody produces a chilled bottle of Thumbs Up soda to share.

News of the Una beating reached this community on the evening of July 13. When Narendra visited the paan shop for fresh mawa, a community brother with an Android phone and access to informal Dalit networks on Facebook showed him the video.

“We called all the people who are working in our industry together,” Narendra recalls. The mood was bitter. The following morning, about 20 of the Rajkot skinners left for the Sarvaiyas’ hometown, with vague plans of retribution. In the end, they settled for supporting the victims financially and sending them meals in hospital.

If seeing their fellow Dalit skinners targeted was shocking to Rajkot’s leather workers, it wasn’t a complete surprise. Cities are generally considered safer spaces for Dalits and other marginalised minorities in India – a fact which has prompted massive and disproportionate urbanisation in the community – and yet, Narendra says, “even in Rajkot, they sometimes harass us”.

“When we carry dead animals, they inquire where they come from. When we carry hides or bones, we face the same questioning.”

I ask who “they” are, and Narendra reels off the names of various hardline Hindu groups – the fact is, victims of harassment often don’t know who the vigilantes represent.

A cowherd at a 'panjrapole' or cow shelter in Jam Kandorna district [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]A cowherd at a ‘panjrapole’ or cow shelter in Jam Kandorna district [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

About a year ago, Narendra’s truck was stopped and searched on the Ahmedabad highway. He was transporting cow carcasses from the Rajkot Mahajan Panjrapole – a government-supported cow-shelter – to the out-of-town field where Rajkot’s leather workers skin and dump carcasses. A group of Hindu activists had blocked the road with their vehicles. “I said I worked for the Panjrapole on a contract basis. I was asked to telephone an officer of the Panjrapole association, to confirm. They had already taken out wooden sticks, and pipes, ready.”

He made the call, and they released him. Others have been less fortunate. A couple of years ago, a Tata Matador truck carrying cow bones was intercepted on the road to nearby Bhalgam. The driver and his assistants were beaten, the truck set alight. Suresh Rathod, another Chamadia Para skinner, has kept an undated news clipping of the incident, accompanied by the picture of the burned-out vehicle.

READ MORE: Dalit Muslims of India

Vigilante harassment doesn’t happen every day, not even every month, the Rajkot leather workers agree, but it happens often enough to make them feel insecure. Elsewhere in India, police have been accused of enabling gau rakshaks, but that’s not the perception here.

In the few cases Narendra knows of which have involved police at all, officers have been helpful in working towards a nonviolent resolution.

But that doesn’t insulate this community from worry, or financial losses. A run-in with cow-protection vigilantes can swallow up half-a-day’s – even a full day’s – profits, says Narendra.

In the hot sun, any hides or carcases left in the truck degrade; tissue rots, and clings to bone. The value of both hide and bone are void.

I asked Dipak Bhatt, Rajkot’s additional commissioner of police, whether he was aware of a rising incidence of this sort of harassment. “In the city area we don’t have such kind of activists, and I don’t know of any such offences, but you see, I have only been here since February of this year,” he said, adding, “perhaps outside of the cities.”

One police constable, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that likely-looking trucks on the road between Rajkot and Chotila are subject to searches by cow-protection vigilantes nearly every night.

Additional Commissioner Bhatt also told me that he has not noticed an increase in crimes targeting Dalits in recent years. Since our conversation, Rajkot police have reportedly bid for the creation of a special court to assist in the prosecution of a mounting backlog of “Scheduled Caste” – the formal term for Dalit – “atrocity” cases.

It won’t offer much comfort to a worried father. Rather than take his cue from angry Dalit leather workers in Surendranagar who are leaving animal carcases rotting in the street in protest, Narendra is focusing on getting his boys through school. “If we give them an education, they’ll get a good job, and live a good life.” He gestures towards the hillock of cattle skins, buzzing with flies: “They don’t want to be the next generation doing this.”

The oldest boy in the Rakhasiya home, Narendra’s nephew Ajay, is at university studying mechanical engineering. He is lanky and bespectacled, with a quick grin and a comfortable command of English. In two years’ time he hopes to go to Germany for a master’s degree. “I want to go into automobiles,” he says.

Unlike their father at the same age, Narendra’s sons Jaideep, 17, and Jevin 16, are in school full-time, focusing on sciences. “They want to be doctors,” Narendra tells me.

“We will go where destiny takes us,” Jaideep says, smiling. Then, he adds: “Not into the leather business.”

But providing a good education on a skinner’s income is becoming more difficult. The salted hides on the godown floor will be picked up by a trader – a middle man who will sell them on to tanneries in Kanpur, Kolkata and Chennai – in 10 or 15 days. He will pay approximately  500 rupees ($7) for a full-sized hide, dependent on the quality. In the winter, the hides will fetch 50 ($0.75) or 100 ($1.50) rupees more, but there will be no negotiation. The prices, Narendra explains, are set higher up on the supply chain – and they are falling. “Before six to eight months, prices were nearly 1,400 rupees ($21) [per hide],” he says.

While India’s leather industry has been identified as a priority sector by Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” manufacturing initiative, it’s also facing problems. Exports were down more than 10 percent during the 2015-16 financial year.

In Kanpur, 98 tanneries were closed last year when a national environmental tribunal found that they were dumping pollutants into the Ganges. Earlier this year, an investigation by Indian journalism outfit, The Wire, found that here, too, the threat of Hindu cow protection mobs is having an impact.

The skinning field: An apocalyptic exhibit of decay

Sokra, the out-of-town dump that serves as the Chamadiya Para skinners' main work site, is overrun by stray dogs who feed on the dumped animal remains [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]Sokra, the out-of-town dump that serves as the Chamadiya Para skinners’ main work site, is overrun by stray dogs who feed on the dumped animal remains [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Suresh Rathod, 36, has received a callout: a 10-day-old calf has died in the city. The carcass is tiny: Suresh’s nephew lifts it with one arm, and drops it into a plastic grain sack. The calf’s owner, a dairy-seller called Ajaybhai, points to the five cows tethered in the street in front of his home: He had 20 more, he says, but the municipality confiscated them.

Like many urban cowherds who can’t grow their own fodder, and struggle to buy it, Ajaybhai had turned them loose to scavenge in the city. Once the city had taken possession of them as strays, he could have paid a fine to get them back, but the fine was too steep: 1,000 rupees per cow, plus an additional 700 rupees for each day they spent in the holding centre.

The municipality’s stray cattle policy is a major reason why the urban cow population is plummeting. Dr B R Jakasaniya of the Animal Nuisance Control Department estimates that Rajkot’s current cow population is 25,000, down from 40,000 in 2013. Last year alone, he says, the Rajkot Municipal Corporation picked up 13,000 cows, and fewer than 2,000 of these were bailed out of detention by their owners. Increasingly, Jakasaniya observes, these poorly nourished, haphazardly bred urban cows simply aren’t productive enough to warrant the investment. 

Stray cattle are an inevitability in a state that has outlawed cattle slaughter, says Jakasaniya. Who has the money to furnish an old cow with a comfortable retirement, or to care adequately for an unproductive bull calf? It’s Jakasaniya’s job to move them off the streets, and, ultimately, send them to registered cow shelters across Gujarat. For families such as the Rathods, who profit only when the old cows and sick cows die within the city confines, the implications are stark.

This dead calf is small enough to make the journey out of town and to the skinning field tied to the back of a motor scooter.

This old bull was either picked up by city authorities or surrendered, with a donation, by its owners. Workers at this shelter say it has looked after about 3,000 cattle [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]This old bull was either picked up by city authorities or surrendered, with a donation, by its owners. Workers at this shelter say it has looked after about 3,000 cattle [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

The skinning field is a tip called Sokra, and it is the most apocalyptic place I’ve ever seen. Hundreds of stray dogs swarm the rubbish embankments, and wade hip-deep in a sewage lake to cool off. Years ago there would have been vultures wheeling on updrafts, perching on sun-blanched rib-cages. A horde of vultures could pick clean a bull’s carcass in half an hour, say Chamadia Para’s older skinners. But India’s vulture population has been in crisis since the 1990s, so the carcass dump is a grim exhibition of the stages of decay.

For Suresh, however, Sokra is a place worth fighting for. Since 2004, he and his brother Navin, 39, have been leading a campaign for legal recognition of the leather workers’ rights to this land. “We’ll give them rent if they want us to – we just want the paperwork,” Suresh says. Now, their industry is entirely unlicensed, and unregulated – five or six years ago, the community staged a strike to demand licences. “The government gave licences even to paan stalls,” Suresh says. Recognition of their work at Sokra would offer them legitimacy, he hopes: an important step towards a secure future.

It would also give them back control. For the past seven years, Rajkot Municipal Corporation has paid a non-Dalit partnership 5,800 rupees ($87) daily to collect animal carcasses from the streets of the city, and dump them at Sokra, explains NR Parmar, an environmental engineer at Rajkot’s Solid Waste Management Department. The workers are not leather makers: They neither skin the carcasses nor extract their bones. It’s a sore point: Suresh feels that his community has a customary right to the work. “We are the ones who have been doing this for ages,” he says, “but the government is supporting another caste with the contract.”

Parmar says that the Dalit skinners were ineligible to apply for the disposal contract on the basis of a number of formal requirements: Ownership of a closed vehicle, for instance, or an Employees State Insurance number. 

However, he clarifies that informality did not mean illegality. Asked why leather work hasn’t been licensed, Parmar says he can’t think of a reason that would disqualify it. Perhaps there were concerns about pollution. Was the problem a lack of political will to formalise a Dalit cow-skinning business, I ask. Parmar pauses, and then answers: “I think there is no political problem. I think the problem is lack of knowledge about how to do it.” He adds: “I think that procedure – it is not hygienic.”

On a cleared patch between the bones and the bodies, Navin Rathod makes an incision along the calf’s hind leg, and works the skin loose from the white muscle beneath. The work is quick, and – surroundings aside – clean. Within five minutes Navin yanks the hide free and holds it up for me to see. It will sell for just 50 rupees ($0.75).

Just an hour and a half south of Rajkot, it would sell for even less.

Valji Madhvi’s godown, on the main street into the village of Jam Kandorna, is small and windowless. The pile of hides inside is just inches deep. Jagdish Solanki, Valji’s younger relative, tells me the large hides will go for 200-300 rupees ($3-$4.50) during the monsoon, 100 rupees ($1.50) more than that in winter. For the calfskins – larger than the one Navin cut – the trader will pay 30-40 rupees ($0.45-$0.60). I remark that the hides are surprisingly cheap; Jagdish assures me that it’s the standard sum throughout Gujarat.

READ MORE: Dreaming of equality in India

Jam Kandorna is an oversized village, swollen to 2,000 households, but it still feels rural, and more distant from the city than it actually is. The price of hides is not the only difference. In Rajkot the exclusionary practices of “untouchability” are associated mostly with old people, while here they are a day-to-day reality. The Dalits of Jam Kandorna would never drink water or tea from a non-Dalit house, I’m told, as I sit with about 50 members of the Dalit community on Valji’s verandah. They can enter higher-caste homes only if they are there as labourers.

“We cannot stay at a reputable inn, or eat at a reputable cafe,” says Rajesh Solanki, a 42-year-old leather-worker. “We cannot greet non-Dalits, ‘Ram, Ram’. They consider us untouchables, as we are skinners, and they will not respond.” I notice he calls my interpreter, a man nearly 20 years his junior, “sir”. A 2010 study of untouchability in rural Gujarat found that in 53 percent of villages, Dalit children ate midday meals separately. In more than 90 percent of villages, Dalits were refused access to temples.

I recognise Kishore Solanki from Rakjot Civil Hospital. After seeing the footage from Una, he too had swallowed poison: “I thought, this could be any one of us being beaten, and we would also not get justice.”

Kishore Solanki, Valjibhai Madhvi, and Rajesh Solanki in Jam Kandorna's skinning field. Generations ago, this was a remote wasteland. As the village has grown, this space has come under increasing pressure [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]Kishore Solanki, Valjibhai Madhvi, and Rajesh Solanki in Jam Kandorna’s skinning field. Generations ago, this was a remote wasteland. As the village has grown, this space has come under increasing pressure [Maya Prabhu/Al Jazeera]

Lately, non-Dalit villagers have been complaining that the skinners’ work sites are like rubbish dumps; that they are polluting the town, Rajesh tells me. When the panchayat (the village council) allocated it for leather work, Jam Kandorna’s skinning field was a wasteland beyond the town periphery. But that was four generations ago, says Rajesh. The village has grown: Along with bones, and dogs, the field is now home to a huddle of migrant workers’ improvised tents. There is construction ringing its edges. A year ago, the panchayat announced plans to construct a courthouse directly on the skinning site. The Solankis and Madhvis filed an objection to the project, and construction has been shelved – for now. But the ownership dispute has not been resolved.

The precise legal status of this particular field is difficult to establish with certainty, but the story fits a familiar pattern, according to activist Martin Macwan, whose work with the Dalit human rights NGO Navsarjan has centred on Dalit land rights. After India’s independence, an ambitious land redistribution programme earmarked 3.75 million acres for dispossessed Dalits in Gujarat. Fifty-five years of implementation later, and barely one-third of that land is actually in Dalit hands. As land value rises, so do the challenges: “Marginalised people’s land is being taken – by one method or another,” says Macwan.

“They used to accept [our work],” Rajesh tells me. “Now the village is against us.”  Thinking of Narendra’s sons, I ask whether his children will follow him into the trade. He raises his palms. “We don’t have any other option. So …”

Source: Al Jazeera


More from Features
Most Read