Monday, October 20, 2003

Bihar Dalits fight losing battle in temples

VARGHESE K. GEORGE

DHOB DIHA, NALANDA, OCTOBER 19: When it came to laying the foundation stone in 1989 for the controversial Ram temple at Ayodhya, the BJP had picked a Dalit from Bihar, Kameshwar Chaupal, to do the honours. But even as the BJP again raises the pitch on the issue ahead of polls, Dalits are excluded from Hindu rituals in most parts of Bihar.

In almost all village temples in the state, scheduled castes are barred, often violently. Recently, Ramal Ram, a Dalit, was shot dead after his son Khelaw Ram insisted on offering Durga Puja on October 4 in Baheri village of Kaimur district. ''Changing the mindset of the people is a tall order. We are often helpless,'' admits Chaupal, a BJP state general secretary and a legislator now.

In several other villages across the state, where temple entry for Dalits has become a controversy in the past five years, tension dropped only after Dalits withdrew their claims.

Six years ago in Nalanda's Dhob Diha village, a few Dalit boys claimed their right to worship in the village's Devi Sthan, the shrine of the village deity who is worshipped on occasions like marriage or festivals. Traditionally, Dalits were allowed to worship without touching or stepping inside the shrine. After clashes, the administration intervened and declared that the Dalits could enter the shrine. But nothing has changed in the village. ''The police can protect us for one day. Once they are gone what will we do?'' asks Tetri Devi.

Ironically, while Dalit men dispose of dead cattle in Dhob Diha, the women in many cases double up as midwives. But the Yadavs of the village consider the very women who assisted their births impure. ''We had threatened to stop our services as midwives if we were not allowed to enter the temple. But how can we do that? We will starve,'' says a woman. Each delivery gets them 20 kg of wheat. ''We sell part of the grain to buy potato and salt,'' she says.

But there are some tangible changes. Paswans, the more militant among the Dalits, do enter the shrine now. Even Yadavs skin dead cattle sometimes, earning Rs 500 each. ''They said we are impure because we skinned cattle. Now they do it and still enter the temple. Is there any logic to it?'' asks Samudri Devi, more sarcastic than angry. The other ''dirty job'', of midwifery, is also increasingly being performed by nurses at hospitals.

However, Upendra Prasad Yadav has another logic. ''After they staked claim to enter the Devi Sthan, curse fell upon the village...We are not stopping the Dalits from worshipping. We only say that they worship from outside,'' he says.

From village to village, the story is the same, only the dominating side may change. Ramal Ram was shot in the Baheri village of Kaimur by Brahmin youth; in the Kobil village, also in Nalanda, it is the Rajputs who stops Dalits. In many villages, Yadavs oppose Dalits entering temples.

In Dhob Diha, both the Yadavs and Dalits officially owe loyalty to Laloo Prasad Yadav's RJD, but the latter say they don't get to cast their votes. The Yadavs cast their votes as well. ''But we consult them beforehand,'' offers one of them as explanation.

''Laloo's claim that he has given honour to the Dalits is a lie,'' says opposition leader Sushil Modi, who visited Baheri last week. ''Not a single person has been arrested for killing Ram and no RJD leader visited the village.'' Modi also promises that the BJP will help Dalits enter temples, if required by force. But this is one issue Modi's upper-caste voters and Laloo's middle-caste voters will unite to oppose.

Source: The Indian Express, October 20, 2003

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