Dalits, minorities cry discrimination
THE FIRST signs of caste and other forms of discrimination while distributing relief supplies have begun emerging in the rigid caste-divided society of Kutch. Dalits and Muslims have started complaining that they are being pushed to wall by vested caste interests, including those in the political and bureaucratic establishment.
The Dalit women in Rapar are an angry lot. Reason: The upper castes are cornering all the benefits of voluntary relief and the Dalits have once again been marginalized. "They physically push us out of the queue. Or threaten us of dire consequences," lamented Ahilyaben, surrounded by wiry Dalit women, visibly undernourished.
Rapar is the fourth centre after Bhuj, Anjar and Bachau which bore the brunt of the earthquake. Over 100 people died here and the casualty was more than a thousand in the 115 villages in the taluka. By rough estimates, the homes of around 35,000 people were destroyed.
Villagers all over Kutch, including Khavda, where 25,000 people have been rendered homeless and no government relief had reached even 10 days after the quake, have been complaining that there have been cases of caste discrimination with regard to relief supplies. The powerful communities usurp warm blankets, foodgrains and tarpaulins, they allege in one voice. The majority in these areas comprise Muslims, Dalits and Kolis, and it is transparent that they have been left to their fate. Even the Swaminarayan Religious Trust has only concentrated on the Sindhi Thakkars, who are its disciples.
In fact, the people and the Opposition have also alleged that the RSS and VHP activists were hijacking relief supplies.
The Gujarat Government, on the other hand, has been blamed for shown a subtle bias towards the RSS and VHP, which were active in many areas.
An RSS activist in Khavda said that patrolling was on in the razed and empty mofussil township at night because the organisation was quite sure that members of a certain minority community would indulge in looting. Muslims in Khavda, who constitute the majority population, have remained aloof and set up their own support mechanism.
In Rapar, Dalits are bitter that even voluntary groups were being manipulated. "We have got nothing. I have only this coat, and even this I managed to get after several days," said Shagun, 60, a Dalit, wearing a kid's tweed coat. But the richer communities like the Thakkars and the Jains, whose houses were also destroyed, think otherwise. Said Paras Mehta, a Jain activist, "We have self dignity. We have organized our own support systems. The Dalits are shameless. They are appropriating everything and hoarding relief material."
In Dholavira and Gaddar, which are distant, poor villages beyond Rapar which emerge after miles of no-man's land comprising saline islands of the sea, every house has been destroyed, but there is no sign of any official or voluntary relief. Even the army is not active here. Somehow, as in Bhuj, all relief trucks stop at the Taluka headquarters at Rapar.
Thanks to the Sikhs of Punjab and the Jats of Haryana, Rapar has been able to face food scarcity with dignity. Hundreds of Sikhs have gathered here and built huge tents with langars. Everyone is welcome.
"We can cook food for 50,000 people at one time," said Baba Lakhbir Singh from Ratwaria Sahib near Chandigarh. "We have huge utensils and 50 specialist cooks. About 200 trucks will be arriving soon with foodgrains. We can feed the population for as long as it takes."
However, the poor are disgusted. Once again, they are face to face with the oppressions of an entrenched caste society. There are murmurs of protests against the State Government all over Kutch. The first organized protest against discrimination in relief and total lack of official accountability was staged at the Collector's office in Bhuj. Surely, more protests are bound to happen in the days to come.
VHP criticised Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios has condemned the VHP's demand to reject the Vatican's aid for the quake victims. In a statement, the Archbishop said it was unfortunate that some organisations were questioning the integrity of those helping the victims of one of the worst natural disasters.-HTC, Thiruvananthapuram