A carnival gone wrong

In true carnival-inspired disturbances the existing norms of society are supposed to undergo thoroughgoing reversals... Instead, in Jhajjar, the deepest and most established biases of dominant castes came to the fore.

ACCORDING TO textbook versions of a carnival, the Dalits should not have died the way they did in Jhajjar, Haryana. Historians, inspired by Rabelais, have given us the impression that a carnival arouses a rebellious spirit among the participants and that this usually has a way of inverting established norms and mores.

It did not happen that way on the night of Dussehra this year in Jhajjar. If anything, prevailing prejudices and dominant authority structures violently asserted themselves against members of a vastly subjugated group. A tractor load of young Jat men were returning home after the Ram Lila fireworks in the district town of Jhajjar. Jats are the most powerful agrarian community in the region, with a very noticeable swagger about themselves. These men were surcharged with religious fervour awakened, no doubt, by the Ram Lila and the symbolic demolition of Ravana. In a sense they were doubly bonded. First, as Jats, who share kin, clan and village ties, and now as aroused Hindus. It was in this carnival spirit that they chanced upon the five hapless Dalit youths busy skinning a cow by the roadside.

For the carnivalised Hindus the sight was pure abomination. Though the Dalits showed proof that they were skinning a carcass they had legitimately purchased, the Jat boys thought otherwise. According to them, the cow was a stray that was killed by these Dalits for crass commercial reasons. The police intervened soon enough, which was not very difficult as their chowki was barely 500 yards away. But crowds soon poured in from neighbouring villages and they got the better of the police, broke open the room in which the Dalits were locked, and then brutally killed them. As a participant in the mob told me: "Even if each of us just slapped those people only once, four thousand slaps would kill anybody." This is popular participation with a vengeance.

While many aspects of this hideous drama fit classical carnival descriptions, the end was clearly way off the script. In true carnival-inspired disturbances the existing norms of society are supposed to undergo thoroughgoing reversals. Nothing of the kind happened that fateful Dussehra evening. Instead, the deepest and most established biases of dominant castes came to the fore and were expressed in the full. Instead of a carnival-bred rebellion against existing order, this was an instance of order being reaffirmed, and how.

There is an attempt now underfoot by the elders of the Jat community in Haryana to cast the youths involved in the mob killings as good Hindus and devout cow worshippers (or `gau bhakts'). If they took the law into their own hands, they argue, it was not as Dalit killers but as cow protectors. On November 2, a very large Mahapanchayat was held in Jhajjar that was attended almost entirely by Jats to make precisely this point. Speaker after speaker, many of them saffron-clad Arya Samajis, asserted that it was not as if the young men had killed Dalits, they had merely killed butchers. The latter could have been Dalits, Muslims, or caste Hindus, and that would have made not an iota of difference to these `gau bhakts'. There were also attempts during this meeting to give the impression that the `gau bhakts' may have mistaken the Dalits for Muslims.

Interestingly, there are very few Muslims in the villages that surround Dulina where the Dalits were killed. Dulina itself is hardly a village. It has only two Jat households, comprising seven nuclear families. In the neighbourhood, there are more populous villages such as Kaloi, Sura, Aurangpur, Munimpur and Kukrola. But even here there are very few Muslims. For example, in village Sura there are probably only four Muslim families. In addition, it might be mentioned that not 300 yards from the Dulina village signpost there is the grave of a Muslim Sayyid which attracts devout Hindus who come there every Thursday to offer prayers. The Muslim diversion that the Jat leadership was busy manufacturing was clearly a plain and simple ruse. But what is significant is that once again the carnival was not playing according to rules. Even when the Muslim card was being hinted at, another dominant prejudice was being activated. No question of an alternative worldview, no hint of structural inversions. Was this an instance of a carnival gone wrong?

The fact is that carnivals do not always release energies that are antithetical to the establishment. Sometimes they get out of hand, no doubt, but most often they are kept in control. In some cases, as the Jhajjar incident showed, they can become occasions for a ruthless demonstration of upper class power. Though the police are also of the view that the Harijans had legitimately purchased the carcass, they did nothing when faced by the predominantly Jat mob. The Pradhan of the nearby Faroukhnagar gaushala also told me that the cow was already dead when it was bought from one of his Baniya friends.

While the Pradhan was explaining to me how the Harijans had bought the carcass and of their search for a place to skin the hide, his wife was deeply uncomfortable. After a while she could contain herself no longer and cautioned me not to take her husband's word too seriously as he had recently been hit on the head and was consequently quite disoriented. This angered the Pradhan considerably for he turned to me and said that not only was he coherent but that he was also speaking the truth.

There was no doubt in my mind about his coherence. What impressed me was his wife's anxiety. I believe she was worried lest I leak what her husband had just said to me to the Jats in the neighbourhood. She obviously wanted no trouble. Incidentally, the Pradhan of the Faroukhnagar gaushala is a Saini (a gardener caste), and the Jats do not think very well of this community. Come to think of it, Jats believe that they are the best by far and, accordingly, rate all other castes poorly.

The carnivalised Hindus in Jhajjar did not care as much for the law of the land as they did for their primordial and ascribed sentiments that guide their every day interactions in their families and in their villages. Fortunately for them, the law of the land was in effect on their side as well. Not even a tear gas shell was fired by the police to disperse the mob.

The Jat response to police inaction that evening was also quite interesting. Instead of berating the police for not being able to protect the Dalits in their custody, most of them concurred that the police did the wisest thing by not firing at, or lathi-charging, the mob for the situation would then have gone completely out of hand. This was the point of view of even the minority of Jats who were not sure about the status of the cow that was being skinned. But out of hand for whom? For the five Dalits nothing could have been more extreme. They were done in for good in full public view.

So no matter which way one looks at it, the Ram Lila carnival in Jhajjar certainly did not bring about a reversal of fortunes for the dominant communities. In fact, it was the Dalits who were cannibalised by a carnivalised Hindu mob. Had this carnival really gone wrong, or had we, for all this time, read carnivals wrong?

(The writer is Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU.)

Recommended for you