Friday, October 04, 2002

Dalits under siege

Praful Bidwai

It is a sour irony of this society that Dalit leader and UP Chief Minister Mayawati should move towards consolidating her spectacularly opportunist alliance with the BJP, the quintessential party of her bete noire, Manuvad, just as pro-Hindutva scales are falling off the eyes of a small but significant section of Dalits right next door, in Rajasthan.

The site is Chakwara village, in Jaipur’s Phagi tehsil, which has witnessed unrelieved tension between the Bairwa Dalits and savarna Hindus for years. This culminated in a violent confrontation between the savarnas and the police on September 21, in which more than 50 people, including 44 policemen, were injured. If you saw that episode on television, you couldn’t have missed the near-fascist inspiration of the rioting caste-Hindus, driven by base passion, visceral prejudice and a consuming lust for power and (now-threatened) privilege.

What TV didn’t show is the severe, painful disillusionment of people like Hari Shankar Bairwa, a politics-savvy village elder, president of the local Ambedkar Janakalyan Parishad, and once-proud member of the VHP, who even went to Ayodhya as a kar sevak with two other Dalits from Chakwara. (Bairwa has preserved the receipt for a recent Rs 20 donation to an Ashok Singhal felicitation fund.)

He now accuses the VHP-BJP of having cynically ‘used’ the Dalits with the high-sounding slogan of ‘Hindu unity’ only to betray that idea and contemptuously tell them they should observe maryada (prescribed quasi-sacred norms) and parampara (tradition), that is, defer to rank casteism. So much for ‘unity’!

The immediate divisive issue in Chakwara goes beyond politics and local power equations. It involves access to the common village pond, where stepped ghats have been built and maintained over the years with state funds and contributions raised by the entire village, including the Dalits. But the Dalits have been barred from using the common ghats for decades. Caste-based “purity” demands they be treated lower than the buffaloes, cows and pigs which have virtually unrestrained access to the pond. The only exception are women who too, irrespective of caste, have always been excluded.

On December 14 last, Babulal and Radheshyam Bairwa decided to defy the hallowed parampara and take a dip in the pond. All hell broke loose.

The savarnas, led by the Jats — who form about two-fifths of Chakwara’s 500-household population — held a menacing public meeting that evening. There were blood-curdling speeches. A severe social boycott followed.

The Dalits could no longer buy tea or vegetables in Chakwara or hire farm implements. The local doctor wouldn’t treat them. The fair price shop ostracised them. The local mechanic wouldn’t repair their bicycles. Filthy abuse greeted them everywhere. Their men were stalked, women abused, their main busti besieged.

The upper castes publicly threatened a “bloodbath” unless the Bairwas paid a fine of Rs 51,000 and, worse, signed a “compromise” document promising “willingly” to maintain caste apartheid in the use of the pond. Intimidation, fear and lynch-law ruled Chakwara. This was ‘terrorism in slow
motion’ for the Dalits.

That’s when the State law and order machinery finally came in — at the Bairwas’ repeated pleading. Its first response was to tell the Dalits to obey parampara and maintain village ‘unity’. (Dr Ambedkar would have squirmed, as he did in the village ‘community’-panchayat raj debate in the Constituent Assembly). They mustn’t rock the boat.

The police were amazingly perseverant with their “mature” advice and with rebukes and insults to the Dalits for breaking “tradition”. Despite this, Babulal and Radheshyam lodged their first information report at Phagi police station on December 22. The police took no action — a clear case of dereliction of duty in a cognisable offence under the SC&ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989 (POA), and the Indian Penal Code.

In less than two weeks, the case was declared closed: another ‘compromise’ had been thrust down the terrorised Bairwas’ throats by an administration that refused to physically protect them or invoke the POA to deter/punish the savarnas.

The police and the district authorities — at least until two months ago — have been studiedly callous towards the Dalits’ plight in the face of savarna oppression. Admittedly, they defended the Dalits’ right to take out a procession on September 20/21 with the declared objective of bathing in the pond. But they didn’t defuse a violent, unlawful 10-15,000-strong savarna assembly at Phagi, which wanted to attack the Dalits and “teach them a lesson”.

By and large, the authorities have seen themselves not as enforcers of the law, but as upholders of the conventional, hierarchical, caste-ridden social order.

The State Human Rights Commission, a statutory body, has in some ways been an even greater disappointment. It received a complaint from Babulal and Radheshyam on December 28. It could have initiated an independent inquiry, but it ordered the superintendent of police to investigate. Once the police reported that a ‘compromise’ agreement had been reached, HRC too closed the
file after issuing some proforma notices to the complainants, presumably through the police (which Babulal says he never received).

In each instance, an undisputed fact was brushed under the carpet — namely, the law had been wilfully breached by the savarnas.

The administration should have known better. It was only a decade ago that Rajasthan witnessed the Kumher carnage, in which 17 Jatavs were bunt alive and quartered by a lynch-mob, including public servants. (The six-year-old inquiry commission report is still secret.)

In the past three years alone, Rajasthan has recorded 15,072 cases of crimes against the SCs/STs, including an annual average of 46 killings, 134 rapes and 93 cases of grievous injury. And yet the POA’s strict provisions are applied so mindlessly — or with such deliberate sloppiness — that 60 per cent of the cases result in acquittal/closure/failure. Remarkably, Rajasthan has never prosecuted any public servant under Section 4 of the act for dereliction of duty. Nor has it invoked the cognisable sections of the law the way it should.

The issue in Chakwara is not merely access to a pond. It is systemic, systematic, entrenched discrimination against the Dalits. From land maldistribution and denial of basic services — the village barber won’t ever shave a Dalit — this extends to inequality in access to water, common
pastures and wasteland, employment and drought-relief schemes, and unequal wages.

A Dalit woman may not wear sandals in the main village. Dalit children may only sit at the back of the classroom and drink water from a separate pot. The bridegroom riding a horse at a wedding baraat risks being roasted alive. Droit de seigneur (the upper-caste landlord’s right to ‘deflower’ a Dalit bride-to-be) is prevalent.

This violence has a well-defined purpose: to keep the lowly in their place, the Hindu hierarchy secure, and conditions for rapacious economic and social exploitation intact. Crucial to legitimising the violence is casteist Hinduism and obscurantist myth-making.

The force of Hindutva tends to overpower even the Congress, certainly the party’s local MLA, himself a Dalit. It is impossible even to imagine liberty, human agency, development or social progress until Dalit oppression is combated.

Chakwara was mentioned by Ambedkar way back in the Thirties. The Bairwas then defied the savarnas by making desi ghee — a ‘privilege’ denied to them. Caste-Hindus retaliated by pouring dirt into the ghee.

The Bairwas have asserted themselves again, after decades, with greater resources: most men are literate and no longer submissive. They have the law explicitly on their side. But so long as the law’s guardians, driven by parampara-based obscurantism, continue to make a travesty of it, the Dalits’ struggle for elementary human dignity will face heavy odds.

Source: Hindustan Times, October 4, 2002


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