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When North Gujarat Gandhians told Dalits: Dead cattle beef eating lowered their status among "higher" castes

By Rajiv Shah
Amidst controversy surrounding flogging of four Dalits belonging to the Rohit (chamar) community for eating the beef a dead cow continues unabated, a top blogging site has published excerpts of a 1989 paper by a senior Vienna-based sociologist, who highlights how the despicable practice in Gujarat was related with the perception that cattle scavengers “remove the impurity attached to the carcass and transfer it to themselves.”
Authored by Prof Shalini Randeria, currently rector at the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna, the paper is based on her fieldwork in several villages in Sabarkantha and Mehsana districts (North Gujarat) and Ahmedabad in 1983-84 and 1987. The paper is titled "Carrion and corpses: Conflict in categorizing untouchability in Gujarat” was published in “European Journal of Sociology”, Vol 30, No 2.
Pointing out that the perception was linked with the view that “death is the most potent of all the sources of impurity and inauspiciousness in the life of a Hindu”, Randeria, who belongs to Ahmedabad, says, thanks to a queer campaign in the late 1930s by local Gandhians against the consumption of meat and liquor, carrion eating was given up by sections of Dalits, though its strong vestiges remained intact in 1980s, when the field work was carried out.
Referring to a meeting of Gandhians with Dalits in 1939 in village Ilol, Randeria says, a resolution was passed for ensuring abstinence of carrion, along with alcolohol, on a very strange ground: That “it lowered one’s status in the eyes of the higher castes.”
Giving details, Randeria says, “The text of the resolution quotes Mathurdas Lalji, the Gandhian social worker who presided over the proceedings, as having said that the consumption of alcohol and carrion were responsible for the 'untouchables' being regarded as demons (rikshas).”
Randeria quotes the Gandhian as saying: “During the monsoon rains and the scorching summer heat, we of the upper castes (waliyat-sāhukar) shelter dogs, cats and donkeys on our doorsteps and allow them to enter our houses. But we do not even permit you who drink liquor and eat carrion to set foot on our doorsteps. So you are counted as lower than even dogs and donkeys”.
Pointing out that carrion-eating in Himmatnagar and ldar Taluka of Sabarkantha district may have been given up as a result of the efforts of local Gandhians in the late 1930s and 1940s, Randeria says, till then carrion distribution was “shared” among the various “untouchable” castes in a peculiar pattern.
Thus, she says, the Garo, the “Dalit Brahmins”, who who carried out all the rituals for rest of the Dalit sub-castes, would get “the head of the animal”, while the the Valmikis or Bhangi would receive “the feet, hooves, intestines and kidneys.”
As for the middle-level Dalit sub-castes, she says, “The rest (thighs and sides) was more or less equally distributed between the Vankar and Camar, though the Vankar had a right to the liver in recognition of their leadership (mehetarāi) of the 'untouchables'.”
Comments the sociologist, “This pattern shows a striking similarity to the Purusa Sukta myth of the origin of the four varnas from the primeval man (the Brahman from his head, the Kshatriya from his arms, the Vaishya from his thighs, and the Shudra from his feet). The hierarchical division of society is reflected in the hierarchical division of the human or animal body in each case.”
During her field study, Randeria found that the practice of consuming carrion may have died down, but the scavenging of cattle and and other animals did not. Thus, cattle scavenging and tanning remained an “exclusive” chamar (Rohit) specialization, along side “the manufacture and repair of certain leather goods”.
Down the Dalit social ladder, the Valmikis performed the “tasks of dragging away dead dogs, etc.” off the village, the sociologist added.

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