Death does not come as the end
One of the more intense, yet less visible, battles dalit communities are engaged in is over the right to use village burial grounds or burning ghats. This is a problem in several parts of the country, but is particularly explicit in places like Gulbarga and Bidar. Here in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region, caste is forever. Even when you are dead, says noted journalist P. SAINATH.
Badavaru sattare sudalikke soudillo
BANDIAPPA lay outside the village for a day, half-buried, half- burnt.
In this region, most poor people bury, rather than, burn their dead. Only those at the top of the caste ladder practise cremation. But Sushilabai's late husband had ended up undergoing a bit of both. He was being buried, when they were physically forced to stop. Then they tried cremating him, but the firewood and oil the family could afford was not enough.
And so Bandiappa lay, until his widow's neighbours helped dig a grave at a spot some distance away. Bandiappa was a dalit. And here in the Hyderabad-Karnatak region, caste is forever. Even when you are dead.
The trauma and humiliation still haunt his widow. The way he had died was bad enough. Injections from a local quack promising to cure him of hydroceles had caused major infection. "But to whom could I complain?" asks Sushilabai. "The 'doctor' says it was not his injection that did it."
Insult swiftly added itself to fatal injury. "We went to bury him near the nullah. There is no proper burial ground here. But the (dominant) caste people whose lands are close to the nullah took objection. They came out and physically stopped us."
"It had nothing to do with the practice of burial," says Shantabai, Sushila's sister. "Even upper caste Lingayyats follow the same ritual. Also they were going to the same place. It was just because he was a Scheduled Caste person that they raised a fuss." In short, they feel having a dalit buried near them is polluting. Untouchability persists beyond death.
Denial of access to burial grounds is something dalits face across Gulbarga and Bidar districts. It also happens elsewhere in the country. Many reports of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes list cases of such denial in other regions too. Here, it is just more explicit and stark.
Even converts to Christianity face the problem. And mostly, such converts are dalits. In Nandgaon village in Bidar district, the Christian graveyard seems to have been declared an encroachment by the Forest department. Never mind that the tahsildar had approved their use of the now disputed three-acre plot. Today, it is out of the community's control.
"The problem was not there till about two or three years ago," says Bangamma back in Mahagaon Cross. She and Shantabai are both activists and office bearers in the local unit of a women's organisation, the Janwadi Mahila Sanghatana. "There used to be 15 harijan houses here to 20 Lingayyat homes. When we grew to 30 houses, I think they got upset."
The dalit families here - all Holeyas - come from the original village Mahagaon of which the "Cross" is an offshoot. In the traditional village, dalits not only live on the outskirts, but are also barred from using the common burial grounds or burning ghats. There, they would never have even thought of taking a funeral procession through the village. That was a right reserved for the dominant castes. In Mahagaon Cross, the rules were not so clearly laid out.
"All the harijan families here are landless," says Rangamma. Her husband and son are bonded labourers and she rarely sees them though they are in the same village. They live in the master's house sleeping on a balcony. "All we have got here is homestead land. For cultivation, nothing."
Nor do they get much for working on the fields of others. Rangamma herself earns just Rs. 15 a day when she does find work as an agricultural labourer. Her son is bonded to their contractor for a lump sum of just Rs. 10,000. Her husband is merely paid an additional six bags of jowar a year. For that, they labour from dawn till late night. "They work in his fields, clean up his house, take his grain to the mills, tend his cattle and sheep, collect firewood for his house and do all other menial chores as well."
Households headed by women are many in Mahagaon Cross. Acute poverty takes the men out of the village for much of the year. All the dalits here are landless. Many of the men are out working in Mumbai or other cities. Rangamma's husband cannot even do that. Being bonded, his landlord has first call on his labour.
A cycle of low wages, unpaid feudal services to upper castes and bondage keeps the dalits insecure and hungry.
"I take rotis to my husband," says Rangamma. For the landlord gives him nothing to eat.
"I think," she says, dropping a bombshell gently, "the problem over burial began when we stopped digging graves for their dead as a forced chore."
Among the many unpaid feudal practices forced on dalits here was that of having to dig graves for the upper caste dead. As dalits began to challenge this practice in the 1980s and 1990s, conflicts broke out in several villages.
"It is true," says Nagendrappa Aurad, a teacher at a nearby high school. Himself a Lingayyat, Nagendrappa nevertheless stood firmly by the JMS activists when they protested over Bandiappa's non-funeral. And later when they fought for a proper community burial ground. His unselfish anti-caste stand has not made him popular in his own part of the village. In the Holeya basti, it has earned him great respect. "Teacher Nagendrappa is with us, never mind his caste," say the dalit women.
The teacher, himself a left-wing activist, has his own take on the revolt: education. "Earlier, there was a group within these Holeyas. They were grave diggers called Pedevars and saw this practice as part of their caste duties. But the younger generation got educated. They refused to perform this service and also got their parents to retire from it. That annoyed the dominant groups."
It being a relatively new colony, the revolt just came late to Mahagaon Cross. Last year, in fact.
In Kudumud village of Aland taluka, not far from here, it came much earlier. There the Ambedkar Sangham, inspired by the Dalit Sangarsha Samiti (DSS), has challenged a whole range of dehumanising practices. The village's dalits fought their burial ground battle about eight years ago. And they won.
There too, curiously, one of the leaders goes by the name Nagendrappa. He, though, is a dalit. "A three-year-old girl had died. When we tried to bury her in the usual place - a spot only harijans use - we were stopped. The brahmin who owned the land allowed us to use it for years. But after he sold the plot to a Lingayyat from nearby Ambalagga village, the new owner stopped us.
"He wanted cash. 'There are government funds for Scheduled Caste burial grounds,' he told us. 'So if you want to bring your dead here, you get that money to me.' And he blocked the burial."
The man from Ambalagga was also the biggest landlord in the region with over 200 acres, 100 of them in Kudumud itself.
But the Ambedkar Sangham did not buckle down. "We agitated. We went to the police and raised hell," says elder Hanumanthappa. "The girl's body still lay there." Finally the pressure they exerted forced officials to take a stand. "The girl was buried under police protection."
The Nagendrappa here echoes the idea of his namesake in Mahagaon Cross. "When we got educated, we simply refused to give in to these feudal attitudes and practices. That is how it started. In fairness, it must be said that some of the enlightened upper caste people were on our side. They felt we had a right to bury the girl as we had been using that place for a long time."
It was not always that way. That welcome enlightenment itself was made possible at least partly by earlier battles. One spectacular round being over the 'two-glass' system in the village's teashops. "I did not want to have separate glasses for the dalits," says Ravindra Pandevgere, owner of one of those shops. "Of the 100 customers I get each day only about 20 are harijans. The rest, dominant castes, threatened to boycott my shop if I used the same glasses for all."
The DSS-inspired agitators smashed the glasses and Ravindra spent three days in jail. Later, in a settlement negotiated by DSS and Communist agricultural labour activists, the dominant castes were made to withdraw such customs. A relieved Ravindra came out of jail and the dalits dropped the case against him. Things are obviously better, for we met him in the dalit colony, hanging out with his friends there.
The chumminess stops at the upper-caste controlled Hanuman temple though. There, pooja is strictly for the elite castes. "He (Hanuman) does not trouble us," jokes Kalavati in the dalit basti. "So we leave him alone." Yet, the burial battle was a huge victory against the old customs.
In Vagdhari village of Aland taluk, Lingayyats sitting at the Hanuman temple insist, "some barriers must be retained." Equality is seen as a threat. "If we invite them to our houses," says Rachaiah, "they will go straight to our kitchens." There is no temple entry for dalits even today in Vagdhari. The barriers are firm.
Back in Mahagaon Cross, the battle, though protracted, was won. "The tahsildar promised us money to buy land for the burial ground," says Shantabai. "He said he would get that done within seven days of our protest over Bandiappa's death. Then he just turned around and told us the Government had no money." The dominant castes had got through to him.
But the women stuck it out. The authorities, forced into a corner by the JMS agitation, coughed up some money with which the dalits tried buying two acres from a Lingayyat.
He, a member of the priestly class in that community, was willing to sell them land. But as a Lingayyat, Malleya Swami came under acute pressure from his caste peers.
Teacher Nagendrappa and others had smartly taken a letter of consent from him, though. "We thought there might be such trouble," says the teacher. Later the dalits and communist activists from Gulbarga persuaded the Swami that he would be in deep trouble if he went back on his letter.
The beleaguered Swami found himself trapped between angry caste peers and outraged dalit women. In balance, he saw the militant JMS activists, by now raising hell in his village, as the more formidable adversaries. He went ahead with the sale. "What is done is done," he said when contacted. "No more words." The Swami made it clear he wanted "no publicity" for his good deed.
"He broke with their ranks," laughs CPI-M Gulbarga Secretary Maruti Manpade. "And he sold the land. The amount given by the Government fell short by some thousands. So every dalit in Mahagaon Cross contributed Rs. 150-200 and made up the rest."
The village then witnessed an unusual event. A deeply embarrassed Lingayyat Swami being publicly felicitated by exuberant dalit women. A reluctant hero, but "we honoured him for what he had done," says Bandamma.
The dalit households mostly headed by womenhad pulled it off. Their collective strength centred on the JMS saw the basti get a clearly demarcated burial ground. And the same group rallied around Sushilabai to help her give Bandiappa a decent burial. "Now," says Bandamma, "we want a community hall. A place where we can meet and discuss things."
And if the authorities think they can deny them that, they'd be smart to consult the Swami.