A wave of protests sparked by the brutal beating of four low-caste Dalit men last week has left Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a state of tension. Two people have died in the past two days.
The situation is a serious setback for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been trying to reach out to Dalits, India's most under- privileged social group, formerly called untouchables.
The protests erupted after four Dalit men accused of skinning a dead cow were chained to the back of a vehicle and beaten with rods by so-called cow vigilantes in the town of Una on July 11. A video of the beating has gone viral.
Cow protection groups have become increasingly active since the BJP took power in 2014. Hindus consider cows to be sacred.
A Muslim blacksmith died after he was lynched in Uttar Pradesh last year for allegedly having beef in his house.
FIGHT SOCIAL EVIL
The atrocities against Dalits are a social evil. We must take it up as a challenge. I urge all parties to come together to fight this.
HOME MINISTER RAJNATH SINGH
Yesterday, many shops and private schools remained closed, a train was stopped by Dalit protesters and public transport came to a halt in parts of Gujarat.
In the past two days, a Dalit man committed suicide while at least four others tried to take their lives.
Some Dalit groups dumped cow carcasses in front of government offices in protest.
"Dalits are very angry in Gujarat. This is the first time in three decades that Dalits have come out to protest like this," said Mrs Nirjhari Sinha, convenor of the Jan Sangarsh Manch, a voluntary civil rights group in the state. Dalits make up about 7 per cent of the population in Gujarat.
One of the demands by Dalit groups is swift punishment for offenders. "We also want a ban on such illegal cow protection (groups). This is not the first time this has happened. They have no right to beat people this way," Mrs Sinha added.
Dalits, who are at the bottom of India's caste hierarchy, face social stigma and poverty across the country. Successive governments have made efforts to help them, such as by setting aside places in universities and jobs in government for Dalits.
Still, the Dalit community is an important voter bloc and has been wooed by political parties, most recently by the BJP.
The BJP government is scrambling to contain the political fallout in Gujarat, which is holding a state election next year.
"The atrocities against Dalits are a social evil. We must take it up as a challenge. I urge all parties to come together to fight this," Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament, noting that Mr Modi had condemned the beating. He said nine people had been arrested.
For Mr Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat until he became Prime Minister two years ago, the protests are coming just as the BJP is wooing Dalits in Uttar Pradesh, one of India's most politically important states, which also goes to the polls next year.
"This agitation that has started in Gujarat will have implications for the larger effort by the BJP at the national level to try to reach out to the less privileged sections of society," Dr Sandeep Shastri, pro vice-chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore, said. "I think it will definitely have an impact in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP is trying to retain its upper caste base but also move into Dalit territory," he added.
"Gujarat being the home state of Mr Modi, it is critical for the BJP to win next year. Ground reports actually suggest things are not as firm in terms of support for the BJP."