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Dalits, death and the fight for dignity  

Sunday, 16 February 2014 - 7:28am IST Updated: Wednesday, 12 February 2014 - 7:28pm IST | Agency: DNA
  • Upper caste Maratha farmer Mahadeo Khandu of Mhalsapur-Zavla village in Beed district ploughs an usurped Dalit burial ground. DNA Photo DNA

The caste conflict continues to play out in villages across Maharashtra with Dalits not only being denied access to common burial and cremation grounds but also being prevented from using land specifically demarcated for them. As angry voices rise in rebellion against injustices that pull an advancing India back to regressive times, there are some victories too. Yogesh Pawar reports on the caste crisis that refuses to let go -- even in death
 
The funeral procession returned, triumphant and tearful. The group of Dalits in Maharashtra’s Thole village had cremated one of their own but the sorrow came tinged with the unmistakable victory of standing firm against powerful upper caste forces that had been denying them access to land to bury and cremate their dead.
 
It was November 26, 2013, and the Parbhani collectorate was readying to observe the 63rd anniversary of the adoption of the constitution, drafted ironically by Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar. But the protest by Dalit activists was threatening to spoil the show.
 
Alerted to the nearly 500 Dalits from the Matang community marching towards the collectorate from Thole 25 km away, police were out in full force. The group was angry, and determined that 70-year-old Girijaji Ganpati Uphade, who had died the day before, be given his due respect.
 
 “I don’t know how I got the idea,” says Ganpati Bhise, who had mobilised the Dalits against “an upper caste injustice that denies Dalitsdignity even in death”.
 
Perhaps it came from struggling for over two decades through his organisation, Samajik Nyay Andolan (SNA), for the restoration of cremation tracts to Dalits who, as part of the continuing caste system, have traditionally had separate land to dispose their dead.
 
Parbhani collector Sachindra Pratap, who had first mocked protestors, realised that the mood was quickly turning ugly when protestors refused all offers of talks, said villagers.
 
“Bhise told them if you don’t solve this problem for good, we’ll bury the body on the collectorate premises,” Vishwanath Gavare, who was part of the protest, remembers. “Within an hour, the local tehsildar was summoned and land records were traced. A document certifying the land was a cremation tract for Dalits was drawn and given to us.”
 
 “Many of us had tears in our eyes not only for the departed but also out of the joy of winning a fight against injustice,” he says. “It seems ironical that Dalits still get treated like this in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s own state. One shudders to think what happens in other places.” (SEE BOX)
 
Thole is but one chapter in a long running saga, a battle in a continuing war being fought against the backdrop of land becoming a progressively contentious resource.
 
Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes all forms of untouchability. But the reality is otherwise even when it comes to burying/cremating the dead. In hundreds of villages and hamlets across Maharashtra, Dalits are not only denied access to the common burial/cremation ground but prevented from using even the burial grounds specifically demarcated for them.
 
According to the Maharashtra ministry for social justice, Dalit burial grounds have been usurped by upper castes in 72.13 percent of the state’s 43,722 villages.
 
When Bhise asked his fellow Dalits from Thole why they should be the only ones to compromise for peace, he addressed decades of anger. And struck a chord.
 
In Maharashtra, he says, Dalit burial and cremation lands are on the eastern side so the whole village is not ‘polluted’ by the winds.
 
 “The upper castes want to usurp Dalit cremation grounds, and they also do not want us to cremate our dead anywhere else. Where do they want us to take our dead and go?”
 
“If upper castes want to usurp Dalit cremation grounds they should allow us to use the same crematoria and burial grounds they do.” Bhise says.
 
That of course does not happen in an India where caste tensions still simmer. And Thole is not an exception.
 
There have been several flare-ups and stand-offs.
 
Just four days before the Thole villagers rose up in revolt, another tragedy had played out. And there was no victory this time.
 
November 22, 2013 -- a day the Dalits of Malegaon can’t ever forget. Upper caste men led by priests of the local Khandoba temple allegedly attacked a funeral procession on the way to the designated crematorium with sticks and swords.
 
“They beat up everyone and forced them to flee with my father’s body, which then lay in our house for two days,” remembers Urmila Waghmare, daughter of Ramchandra Waghmare. “When the body began to decompose and smell, we had to cremate it on the roadside,” she adds, tears welling up in her eyes.
 
When SNA forced a reluctant police to lodge an FIR, reprisal from the upper castes was swift —the Waghmares’ home was burnt down. Urmila’s distraught mother Mandubai suffered severe burn injuries but survived. The culprits, thanks to their political patrons, move around freely, the villagers allege. And Urmila and her mother continue to be homeless. Promises that they will get a house under the Indira Awaas Yojana have remained just that.
 
“Every time I go to the social welfare officer, he asks me to come later,” says Urmila.
 
The friction had reached boiling point in November 2011. About 150 km away from Parbhani town, violence erupted over the cremation of aDalit woman the demarcated ground. Upper caste men stopped the funeral procession, brutally attacked the pall-bearers and flung the body of 39-year-old Shevanta Pawar to the ground. The pall-bearers, including Pawar’s husband, Mahesh Pawar, 42, barely escaped with their lives.
 
Recalls a bitter Mahesh, “Upper caste men attacked us and threw my wife’s body into the bushes nearby. After we lodged a complaint with the tehsildar, the police arrived, and only then could we recover the body from the bushes and do the last rites.”
 
There are just so many instances in so many places, reducing death to a macabre farce. Like in Madalmoi village of Georai tehsil in Beed, where the 0.275 acre crematorium (Survey No 357) was first given to the Dalits by the Nizam in 1354. It was encroached upon by a wealthy Maratha, Sonaji Bhopale, in 1965, and subsequently sold to a local money lender, Sitaram Govind Harkut.
 
Complaints from the Dalits led to a law suit, which is still pending in court. So, after every death, the Dalits take the dead body and lay it in the middle of the busy highway. “Once we create a traffic jam, the cops and the tehsildar scurry to the spot, and only then are we allowed to perform the last rites on the allocated land,” says Sarjerao Shinde, a resident of the village.
 
The Marathas are calling it blackmail. “Why can’t they wait for the case to be decided by the court if they know they are right?” asks an angry Harkut.
 
He says there is nothing wrong in what they are doing and ask the Dalits to leave the villages if they don’t like the situation.
 
“With each of these tracts allocated as Dalit burial grounds now selling for between Rs 45-60 lakh, upper castes who’ve usurped the lands for farming don’t want to give them away,” points out Bhise who is trying to galvanise community support to stop this practice across the state.
 
He, like other activists, is aware that this is a long haul war. In the Thole protest, for instance, no action has been taken against the upper castes or the officers who looked the other way but police are yet to withdraw cases “of insulting the dead” against Bhise and 19 others.
 
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Gopinath Munde, who represents Beed constituency in the Lok Sabha, admits there is a problem that needs to be rectified
 
“I’ve myself raised this issue several times, in the state assembly and parliament, but the government is not serious about addressing it,” he says. Asked why the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did nothing during the Shiv Sena-BJP rule in the state, Munde told dna: “Undoing what the Congress had allowed to fester for 45 years is not an easy task… If the Dalits unite, mobilise and take to the streets on this issue, I will gladly join their fight.”
 
“The level of friction over the issue is the highest in Marathwada, where over one-fifth of the population is Dalit,” explains Eknath Avhad of the Manavi Hakk Abhiyan, which has been fighting for Dalit rights in the region. The state’s Marathwada region comprises Beed and Parbhani among other districts.
 
“Dalit youth of today do not want to wait endlessly for justice to prevail. Their increasing aggression is seen by upper castes as a challenge to their social and economic status,” he adds.
 
 “The government’s inability to resolve this issue six decades after Independence has only created another reason to keep the caste cauldron on the boil,” says Ghise.
 
Clearly, the more things change in an India on the rise, the more they remain the same – at least for some sections of the people. High time then, for the caste cauldron to be taken off the fire. And the Thole story is replicated.
 
 
It’s the same story all over
 
Punjab: A paradox of Sikhism

 
Dalits form 30 percent of Punjab’s population and Sikhism frowns on discrimination in the name of caste or creed but untouchability against the Mazhbis and Ramdasias, the two Dalit castes among Sikhs, is well established. They have been forced to live in separate settlements, contemptuously called thhattis or chamarhlees, and forced to reside away from the main area of the villages so that the winds blowing over them don’t pollute the upper castes. All Sikh organisations, from Sikh temples to political parties, are under the control of the Jat Sikhs, who refuse to consider Dalit Sikhs equals even after death. The former disallow cremation of the latter’s dead in the main cremation grounds. Over the years, such harsh discrimination has forced Dalits to establish separate gurdwaras, marriage places and cremation grounds. This, in many ways, is the biggest paradox of Sikhism, which is often characterised as emancipatory and revolutionary.
 
Tamil Nadu: Evidence of atrocity

 
A study by the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF) shows problems relating to burial and burning grounds in over 75 percent of the state’s over 30,000 villages. The NGO Evidence found that Dalits had faced atrocities over burial/cremation in 208 of the 213 villages covered by their survey. In 153 villages, Dalits were not allowed to carry their dead through areas where the dominant castes lived. In 132 villages, Dalit graveyards do not have water, power or a cremation shed.
 
Gujarat: It’s a ‘wasteland’
 
Of the 18,100 villages in the state, 5,000 have no legal burial grounds for Dalits, according to the Ahmedabad-based Behavioural Science Centre (BSC). Though the Dalit custom of burying the dead is an age-old one, the government doesn’t recognise it. As a result, the unregulated lands are classified as wasteland. Despite the fact that the revenue department had in September 1989 said that 1972 be considered as the year for earmarking land for burial, nothing has been done so far.


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