When reality changed ritual

The Hindu, 17th Sept. 2000

Untouchability was once a way of life in Bidaloti village in Karnataka, and its dalits were never allowed to enter the temple. Then, a series of extraordinary battles changed caste relations dramatically in the past few years. This transformation, says noted journalist P. SAINATH, came about after the formation of a union or Sangha that has brought dignity and imparted courage to the lives of the dalits.


HANUMANTHARAYAPPA stood at the edge of his colony, confronting the goddess. In a few words, chosen with care, he told the Divine Being what he thought of her - and especially of the four men carrying her on their shoulders.

To these words he added many more - colourful, but unprintable. He then warned her and the others present about the consequences of her bypassing his - dalit - colony.

The battle for Bidaloti had begun.

It was part of a local ritual for the upper castes - Lingayyats and Vokkaligas in this case - to take the deity of Ooru Maramma on a jatra (procession) through the village. Here, Ooru Maramma has been appropriated by the elite. Her downmarket cousin Hatti Maramma is reserved for the dalits.

For the upper castes, it was also part of the ritual to assert their caste superiority over the dalits through this jatra. The method was simple. The procession led by the four men carrying the deity on their shoulders would wind its way through the village. At the border of the dalit colony, it would stop as if by magic. Maramma's four carriers would be seen struggling with an invisible barrier, an unseen boundary. Their feet rooted to the ground.

Alas, they would declare, they could proceed no further. The goddess was adamant. She would not enter this colony.

The contempt of the goddess for the untouchables thus established, the jatra would take another route. One that Maramma approved of. This time however, a cantankerous act of god was challenged by a very crotchety old man in a nasty mood.

"Shut up and get in here," he told the deity. Expanding on his intentions with a vocabulary that made everyone blush, Hanumantharayappa removed his slippers. He waved this at the goddess and her carriers. The bearers pleaded innocence. What could they do if the deity refused to let them proceed? The fearless Hanumantharayappa told them and the goddess: "You cheats. You want us to clean your roads, beat your drums, dispose of your shit. Yet you will not enter? I will see why not."

The sight of the angry old man with a hard leather chappal did cause some introspection, though. The bearers offered to yield their places to another four Lingayyats who could test Her divine will.

This was duly gone through with. With the same results. Ooru Maramma scorned the dalit colony. By this time, however, several of Hanumantharayappa's friends had shown up. The bearers now faced one god but many chappals. The ultimatum issued by the dalits - in language even the local hooch shop would have found harsh - was clear. The idol would enter their colony or a terrible fate would befall both deity and devout. Ritual had descended into a potentially unpleasant reality.

Faced with such firmness of faith, the goddess changed her mind.

"She entered our colony," says Hanumantharayappa with some relish. "What is more she entered and blessed each and every house. On our shoulders as well."

It was a miracle. A change of attitude beyond the human mind but pretty close to the mortal body.

"The upper castes wanted to 'purify' the idol after that. To wash it with water because we had handled it. I threatened them. So they got scared." So did the goddess. "Two years after the drama, she has still not come out of the temple again. Not even once."

In most other villages, the event would have elicited a swift and ugly backlash. Not in Bidaloti. The dalits here are aware and assertive of their rights and dignity. Their exuberance is startling. To the point where it downplays the raw courage and confidence that this kind of adventure requires.

This was not the first or only miracle they had pulled off.

Just last year, two teenagers here changed the rules of telephone use in Bidaloti. The public phone allotted to the village is kept at the house of Rangadamanna. His own people are listed as a Scheduled Tribe. "But that did not stop him from practising untouchability towards dalits," says B. R. Anand Kumar who has legally added the word "dalit" to his name. A youngster from Bidaloti, he became an activist with the Rural Education for Development Society (REDS) which launched the first Sangha or union of the dalits here over a decade ago.

"Whenever our people went to make calls," says Anand Kumar, "he would bring the phone outside the house on a long cord. This never happened to others. They would go into the man's house and make the calls. Only we had to stand outside and wait for him to bring the phone there. It was insulting."

It was also a mistake to try it on young Aravinda and his friend Hanumantharaj. Both are members of the Sangha. "When the phone keeper brought the instrument out to them, we called the telephone exchange," says Hanumantharaj. "We said we were standing outside in the sun being treated like this. Your man is practising untouchability with a public phone meant for all. The person at the exchange responded well. He asked us to wait right where we were while he sent someone across."

But the keeper had overheard the conversation. "He was frightened," says Aravinda. "He immediately called us into his house. Then he asked us to telephone the exchange and clarify that we were now inside. He also promised it would not happen again. So we made that call."

As this drama unfolded, not only these two but several other dalit youth entered the house. "Our side was happy," says Aravinda smugly. So much so that for the next half hour the boys forgot to make any calls, fiddling instead with the television, radio and other appliances in the house of the relatively better off phone keeper.

What gives the dalits here the nerve to stand up to their old oppressors? "It is entirely because of our Sangha," says Marirangaiah of the dalit colony. And there is unanimity on that. The starting of the REDS Sangha was, for them, the turning point. Youngsters like Anand Kumar were drawn towards this group along with the others. Since then, REDS has moved further on such issues, leading to the emergence of a Dalit Jagruti Samiti (DJS) in this area.

Its impact on people here is evident. "Our bargaining power has gone up," says Ramaswamy of the Sangha. "Among agricultural labourers, men now get Rs. 50 and women Rs. 30 a day." This is much higher than non-Sangha villages where the rates for women can be as low as Rs. 10 to Rs. 15 and those for men no more than Rs. 30.

"Before our Sangha was formed," says Ramaswamy, "untouchability was rampant in this village. We could not enter the temple. Nor the teashops. There was bonded labour and other forms of oppression. But now we have liberated ourselves. If we work for the upper castes, we have a say in setting the terms."

The decisive battle in that process came five years ago, says Marirangaiah. "That, too, was related to the temple. Some of our boys had gone there, while the poojari was handing out prasadam. They also put out their hands like everyone else. This enraged the Lingayyat poojari who slapped them soundly, saying 'what arrogance'. The boys reported it to me.

"We gathered together, entered the temple and made an announcement over the mike there to the upper castes: 'you have beaten up two of our boys. If you have the guts come out now and face us. We are in the temple. Why don't you come and beat us up?' We also did not allow the temple loudspeaker to be used any more after that. No one dared confront us. We went to the poojari's father who was a gram panchayat member. We told him: 'you keep telling us (at election time) that we are all one. See what your son has done.' We also warned that if it ever happened again, we would enter the temple and deal with the poojari."

Even earlier, in 1986, Bidaloti's dalits had ceased all free feudal services to their dominant castes. This was traditionally the caste duty of the Madigas here. "Not any more," says Ramaswamy, "They insulted us once by asking us to beat the drums and then not showing up for the event. We found the temple locked when we went there. We came back and had a meeting where we decided to enter the temple, beat our drums and do pooja.

"Next morning we announced, with the beating of drums, that we would enter the temple in eight days time and assert our rights. The police actually supported us in this case."

The then Police Inspector, Sai Prakash, had a reputation for ensuring justice. He was killed some years later during a riot. While the riot was sudden, many believe his killing was planned and was the work of the dominant caste landlords in this region.

"With police protection, we went to the temple," says Ramaswamy. "Inspector Sai Prakash warned the poojari. Are you opening the temple or are we breaking the locks, he asked. Then we got into the temple and beat our drums."

"A long time after," says B. R. Anand Kumar, "the upper castes tried getting Madigas from other villages to beat the drums for them." But the Sangha got hold of the six outsiders, organised them and made them demand a flat fee of Rs. 100 each for the work. "They got paid," he says, satisfied.

"Even if we had the confidence to attempt all this," says Hanumantharayappa, "it would not have happened without our Sangha. You need backing and support. If sent to jail, who will pay your bail? Who will fight your case? The REDS Sangha did that for us." His people have drawn the lesson that "unity equals equality".

The dalits here have gone further. They have rebuilt bridges with the other castes. "But on terms of dignity and equality," says Ramaswamy. "So now we live as brothers. They also do not harbour old grudges."

"Things are very different," agrees B. C. Chandra Aradhya, poojari of the temple through much of this turbulent period. If he bears any old grudges in his mind, he conceals them well. He is not thrilled by the transformation, but accepts it. "Young people get educated and things get overturned," he says. "Also people go out as migrants and their minds get transformed. So change was inevitable. Now there is no caste." At least, not in the old ways. But the poojari does pose for a photograph at his temple, surrounded by Bidaloti's dalits. He knows their strength.He has seen them change a goddess' mind.

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