The caste shadow: Biases continue to castigate Dalits in rural Rajasthan
Wednesday, April 11, 2001 (Medikala):
One afternoon last month in the village of Medikala in Rajasthan's Pali district, Sushila angered her “upper” caste Rajput neighbours for not being sufficiently respectful. She committed the unforgivable act of walking past their house without removing her slippers or covering her face. Filled with rage, they chased the frail anganwadi worker and beat her with sticks in the small courtyard of her home a short distance away.
"They kept abusing me for wearing slippers and leaving my face unveiled. They said I was shameless. First the mother and son thrashed me. I managed to escape when Hukum Singh ran to get a sword and I locked myself inside the house. Then all the Rajput men in the village gathered outside and kept banging the door, asking me to come out," relates Sushila.
Next morning, Sushila's brother-in-law filed an FIR at the local police station. Her attackers were briefly held and released. Fearing revenge, the entire family fled Medikala and is now in hiding.
For centuries, "lower" caste men and women in this region have been easy victims of a social code of behaviour established by the upper castes. These are not recorded in any Government statistics of atrocities against the Schedule Castes. For instance, it's forbidden for men to ride horses on their wedding day. They must even get off their cycles and walk when passing a Rajput's house.
For women, the rules are even more rigid and humiliating. "Meghwal women can only wear black. I can put on bright clothes at home, but not when I go to the village. We are not even allowed to wear gold ornaments, only silver. Once they tore the clothes off my sister-in-law when she dared to wear them. I want to dress up in colourful clothes and go out but they will beat me," fears Chagni Devi, a resident of the area.
The Rajputs in villages of Jalore district are hostile toward Dalit girls from the Meghwal community attending the local primary school. "They don't want our girls to study. But we want them to be educated. So they walk to the next village and attend school. There the headmaster is from our caste," says Chagni's mother-in-law.
Change in many of these feudal strongholds has been very slow to come. Centuries of oppression has made the Dalits submissive to fate. But where members of the community have benefited from education, the search for symbols that create that all-important quality of self-respect is beginning.
Sagna Ram wanted to buy some coloured turban cloth, locally called the kesariya and panchrangi safas to wear at his brother's wedding. The village shopkeeper refused to even sell it to him since the Meghwal men are only permitted to wear white. But Sagna Ram was determined. "I had gone to Bhinmal, and there I purchased a safa of my choice. But when I wore it in the village, the Rajputs started abusing me and chased me out," says Sagna Ram. Out of fear, Sagna still wears his coloured turban only at home and a white one in the village, but he has filed an FIR against the landlords who threatened him.
For the upper castes here, Dalits are seen as a people without culture, capable only of menial jobs. So the names given to their children by the Brahmin priests either have no meaning at all or are associated with animals and sometimes even dirt -- to remind the Dalits of their humble origin. "The Brahmin priest gave the name Kadki to my daughter. I changed it to Keli Devi," says a Dalit resident of the area. By renaming their children these people feel they have scored a victory, even if it is a small one.
Those Dalits who have rejected deference to an age-old social order have been deprived of their livelihoods and very often driven away from their homes. Economic dependence on the Rajputs of the area ensures that traditional markers of caste distinction remain unchallenged.