Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Dalit dares puja ban, shot dead in temple


Patna, Oct. 7: Two things were wrong with Ramlal Ram: one, he was a Dalit; and two, he had wanted to offer puja to the goddess on Mahanavami like everyone else.

In Lalooland, this is a deadly mix and no one gets away with it. As puja festivities peaked last Saturday, the 55-year-old man was abused, thrashed and then shot dead because he dared to step inside a pandal graced by upper-caste landlords.

Accompanied by son Khelaw and three other family members, Ram had headed for the Shiva temple in their Bahera village, about 250 km from here, hands loaded with sweets and flowers for the goddess. There was no reason to fear, he had kept telling himself, so what if Dalits were banned from pandals in the village dominated by upper castes.

Besides, local leaders had assured him there would be no trouble and that Dalits deserved the same rights as anybody else. All would be well, thought Ram, as his family neared the pandal rigged up inside the temple. All he had to do was get permission and walk in.

Drawn by the sound of the aarti and the strong scent of incense, Ram had looked around for the organisers. But before he could spot anybody, a volley of abuses hit him like a bolt from the blue.

Then angry revellers got off their seats, and began pushing and shoving him and his family members out.

The cries of outrage grew louder as Ram, his 20-year-old son and another youngster, Sipahi, stood their ground and kept moving closer to the goddess. Finally, a group of about 25 revellers pounced on them and began raining blows on Khelaw and Sipahi.

Some grabbed Ram's daughter-in-law, Kaushalya Devi, and pushed her to the ground. Others began pelting stones. A while later, someone whipped out a rifle and opened fire. A bullet pierced Ram in the chest and bleeding profusely, he died within minutes.

According to a statement given by Kaushalya to police, the upper castes had asked them to leave the pandal immediately. "When we refused to budge, some Dalit villagers came to defend us. Then they began to hurl stones. And then, they opened fire," she said.

Kaushalya said that instead of the blessings of the goddess, all they had got was ignominy and death for the head of the family.

"We only demanded that we be allowed to pray. It is the people of our caste who build the deity with mud, ink and colour. But when it comes to offering puja, we are left out," said Muneshwar Chamar, a villager.

G.S. Gangwar, Kaimur superintendent of police, said 17 people had been named in an FIR filed yesterday, of which five had been arrested.

As caste tensions simmered, the police insisted the killing was a one-off incident. But villagers claimed Dalits were not allowed to enter temples in most of Bihar's northern districts.

A section of the upper castes, however, blamed the Dalits. "The Dalits backed by Naxalites created the trouble," Vanbasi Dubey said.

Source: The Telegraph, October 8, 2003


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