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Struggle for acceptance

ANURADHA DUTT writes about the Dalits in Rajasthan villages, struggling for a respectable place within the Hindu fold.

Dalits in Chandigarh at a congersion ceremony. Despite the bar on discrimination, old habits die hard and the Scheduled Castes are the hardest hit.

AT Tholai village in Jamvaramgarh tehsil, Jaipur district, about an hour's drive from Rajasthan's capital, a group of Dalit men sit despondently in the courtyard of a house in the Raigar mohalla. Raigars, also known as chamars, are a Scheduled Caste, who traditionally treat cattle hide for the leather industry. Due to the stigma attached to this work by other Hindus, many have adopted other vocations, such as weaving rugs, polishing gems and making ornaments for Jaipur traders.

Those who do not know these skills work on daily wages as agricultural labour in fields. They are worried, as the revenue department has singled them out to cancel their allotments of farmland plots given 22 years ago. There were then 53 allottees. Eighteen SC families have been so affected. They appealed against the arbitrary decision to the revenue board at Ajmer, but a resolution does not seem in sight. They are certain that their allotments were cancelled because they are SCs. Other beneficiaries, who are Brahmins, Gujjars, Meena tribals and Other Backward Castes have been spared.

Old habits die hard, and caste-based apartheid is the norm in rural areas, which are rigidly bound by feudal attitudes. As per the 1991 census, SCs comprise 16.33 per cent of India's population and 17.29 per cent of Rajasthan's population. The 2001 census data is yet to be released. In towns and cities, observance of orthodox injunctions against the lower castes is rendered difficult on account of social and economic mobility and exposure to western liberalism. In villages, SCs remain largely voiceless and marginalised because they usually possess no land and are very poor, forced to eke out a living in the service of the upper castes, which enjoy economic ascendancy.

In Jaipur district, the Meena tribals are much better off than the SCs as they are landowners and possess financial clout. These tribals, a close-knit community, are reported to have appropriated the best of jobs in the coveted government services, including the Indian Administrative Service, via the 22.5 reservations quota for SCs/STs. Dalits, by contrast, lag far behind as they are generally not qualified for these posts, even when the grading is concessional, or lack the "means" to apply for them as there is a perception that one needs to be well connected. In fact, tribals are accorded a better status among Hindus as they do not fit into the caste hierarchy. Taboos on sharing food and water, use of public spaces and village temples, and free interaction are severely enforced only against the SCs. But, the tribals are allowed to extend their hospitality to the higher castes and even eat at their homes. However, Dalit localities are kept strictly separate, usually at the fringes of the settlements. Digging tubewells in their own mohallas has circumvented the problem of getting water from common water sources, often barred to them. Even their children may be spared the indignity of struggling for an equal place among other students in village schools. A primary school has been provided for them under the Rajiv Gandhi Pathshala scheme, as in the Raigar locality in Kharkhara village. The scheme facilitates the building of primary schools in different mohallas, to ensure basic literacy among all groups, by bringing education within their reach.

The Dalit mohallas are filthy — their homes are hovels and provide ample proof of their poverty. Here, pigs freely scavenge amid open drains and rubbish heaps as SCs rear them both for commerce and for food. This is cited as one reason for other castes avoiding social intercourse with them as consumption of pork, like beef, is taboo among orthodox Hindus, and the rearing of swine is viewed with contempt. Chamars and bhangis or sweepers are the two dominant groups but they also do not interact with each other on account of the differences in their work.

The new generations of both shun their hereditary vocations. This does not prevent them from being taunted with the pejorative terms "chamar" and "bhangi" by those bent on insulting them. Despite the constitutional bar (Article 15) on discrimination on the basis of caste — and religion, race, sex and place of birth — and promise of equality, ancient dictates still determine social relations. In such a case, the scheduled castes are the worst affected. This is most poignantly evident in matters of faith. In some Rajasthan villages, SCs are denied entry to temples. This is a clear violation of Article 15 (2b) of the Constitution, which states that caste should not serve as cause for restricting access to "places of public resort ... dedicated to the use of general public". The reason for such denial is that these shrines are the personal property of a specific caste. But Dalits alone are kept out.

The Lakshminarayan mandir in the Brahmin mohalla in Kharkhara village is one such place. A Puranic saying on one of its walls piously declares: "Paropkar se bara punya nahin; kissi ko dukhi karne se bara paap nahin" (There is no greater virtue than doing good to another; and no greater sin than inflicting sorrow on another). The irony cannot be missed. In Kharkhara, where the gram panchayat office is located, the Raigars have built their own little shrines: one dedicated to Lord Shiva, another to Hanuman and a third to Guru Ramdev. The Hanuman temple is located on a hill and the other two are in their locality. None, barring the SCs, visits these shrines. Since Brahmins are not willing to do pujas for them, one of them, Ramnarayan, a carpet weaver, has been officiating as the priest of the Ramdev and Shiva temples, and another man for the Hanuman temple. Ramnarayan was chosen for the job because he is "pure-hearted". He is also vegetarian. It is not the Vedic verses but simple renditions such as Hanuman Chalisa, Shiva Chalisa and Hindi prayers, which everyone understands, that he recites twice daily.

While SCs, in any case, are prohibited by the Manusmriti from either reciting the Vedas or even hearing them recited, Raigars are too unlettered to relate to Sanskrit slokas. A rendition in this classical language would constitute a mockery of their faith. In the afternoon, as is the norm, the temples are closed while the gods rest. They even installed the idols since no pandit would perform this ceremony. In the process, the Shiva shrine has errors in placing the images. But there was no one to point out the mistake, they concede, as they are the sole worshippers. And, finally, it is their devotion that counts.

Indeed, their loyalty to a system that keeps them on the margins of society is itself a great mystery. What is so compelling about their beliefs is that they are willing to accept a subservient position rather than embrace another, more egalitarian, faith? When questioned about this, the priest and his flock at the Kharkhara Shiva temple are emphatic about their Hindu credentials. It is the same in the other villages. While growing awareness of the laws against untouchability and discrimination, coupled with government schemes for their betterment, has made life easier for them, they are still at the bottom of the social pyramid. But theirs is a solitary and arduous struggle for a respectable place within the Hindu fold, and not outside it.

This series of articles has been brought out by the Press Institute of India as a sequel to the Manual of Reporting on Human Rights in India brought out by the Press Institute with the support of the British Council and the Thomson Foundation of Britain.

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