Touch me not
Dalits ostracised in Hoshangabad
The Week (June 2, 2001)
If you are a Dalit, chances are that you may not get a haircut or a cup of tea in some villages in Hoshangabad. The scheduled caste people of this prosperous district have been witnessing the worst forms of social ostracism ever since Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram addressed the Bhilat Deo Fair, the biggest congregation of Dalits in the region, on April 8. "After Kanshi Ram attended the fair, an anti-Dalit wave has been gaining momentum," said Dinesh Sharma, a local journalist.
In his speech, Kanshi Ram had exhorted the Dalits to fight social discrimination. "The meeting awakened us," said Kamal Choudhry, a Dalit. "Kanshi Ram has given us the mantra to live." The mantra also had its adverse effect. The upper caste people of the area reacted strongly to the new-found assertiveness of the Dalits, breaking the hitherto peaceful coexistence of the two communities.
In Misrod village, 28 km from the district headquarters, Dalits were denied tea and snacks. The barbers refused to serve them even after police intervention. On the evening of May 9, when Superintendent of Police Anuradha Shanker Singh asked a barber, Nandu, to cut the hair of three Dalits, he protested saying there was not enough light and that he would do it the next morning. "His morning has not dawned yet," said Jagdish, a welder at Misrod village. "Whenever we go to him he asks us to wait for our turn. We are made to wait till the last customer leaves. He then demands Rs 30 for a shave."
Nandu does not deny the allegation. "I will lose my upper class customers," he said, "if I shave these Dalits."
"How can anyone force our hands?" asked Arjun Singh, a barber. "I am here to earn a livelihood and if a dozen customers object to one customer I will not entertain him." Many Dalits now cut their hair themselves or get it done in the town. But there are other prickly problems. In Bawadia Bhau, Dalits were prevented from entering a temple. In some villages Dalit children are refusing to go to school, fearing ostracism by their classmates.
The upper castes blame the Dalits for their plight. "The Dalits implicate us in false cases under the SC/ST Atrocities Act," said a school teacher. The upper castes are now planning to stop employing Dalits as farm hands. The hate campaign has spread even to remote villages in Hoshangabad and nearby Harda district.
"Our last hope was the administration, but it too seems to be biased," said a Dalit in Misrod. Even as the administration was planning awareness camps throughout the district, upper caste Raghuvansis attacked a dozen Dalits at Kalmeshra village on May 14. "Our only fault was that we were trying to unite under the BSP's banner," said Asharam, who had organised a rally of state party president Phool Singh Bariya at Sohagpur before Kanshi Ram's visit. "The upper castes are angry over the entry of BSP in the region. They had warned me against organising the rally."
Despite scheduled castes and tribes forming 30 per cent of the state's population, BSP, which thrives on Dalit support, has never been able to get a foothold in Madhya Pradesh. It could never get more than 9 per cent of the votes polled in elections since 1993, when its state unit was formed.
To find new pockets of influence BSP leaders have been targeting Hoshangabad and the surrounding tribal belt. The choice of the area was because of its prosperity: Hoshangabad belt is one of the wheat-growing areas in the state. "Educated Dalits welcomed Kanshi Ram and started talking his language," said Dr Gopal Narayan Authey, who runs an NGO for Dalits. Kanshi Ram has thrown a stone in a still pool; the ripples will widen and might eventually cause social polarisation, just as in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.