Caste

For Dalits in Rural Gujarat, Untouchability Is Still a Part of Everyday Life

“At times we get justice when we complain, but on most days discrimination is a way of life for us.”

Most often Dalit women are not allowed to take water from a common well, instead having to go further to find water. Representative image credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Most often Dalit women are not allowed to take water from a common well, instead having to go further to find water. Representative image credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Ahmedabad: It was a normal day at work for Sunil Jadav, a part-time lecturer in a college in Kalavad in Jamnagar, until he heard a colleague talking about him to his student.

“Why are taking advice from him? Don’t listen to anything he says, he will pollute you,” Jadav’s colleague was warning his student.

“Why?”

“I am Dalit,” Jadav intervened. “A colleague belonging to a ‘higher’ caste doesn’t want students to be polluted by a Dalit lecturer.”

Jadav has authored 16 books, all in Gujarati, and worked as a journalist for more than a decade before he took to teaching. He is also involved in social activism in Rajkot, where he lives with his family.

“It doesn’t matter how qualified I am, the fact that I am a Dalit still is more relevant in this society. This incident happened to me in February this year, in an educational institute in an urban setting,” he told The Wire.

The actual abolition of untouchability is still far from a reality, despite political rhetoric and the constitutional ban. Caste inequity and injustice is still thriving in the social fabric of Gujarat.

A survey was conducted by the Navsarjan Trust, an NGO that works with Dalits, between 2007 and 2010 in 1,489 villages across 14 districts. Seven years later, on August 15, 2017, Martin Macwan, the head of the NGO, has resumed the campaign against untouchability. Members of the NGO had made a handwoven national flag measuring 125 feet by 83.3 feet, but chief minister Vijay Rupani refused to receive it. Instead, the collector of Gandhinagar received the national flag, with a memorandum asking the chief miniser to declare at least one village untouchability free by the year 2047.

“In our survey, we had concluded that untouchability is not just far from being eradicated, the practice may have even intensified in rural Gujarat. We found there are 98 forms of untouchability that are practiced by ‘upper’ castes against Dalits, while 99 types of untouchability are practiced within 32 sub-castes of Dalits,” stated Macwan.

Rampatar

The survey conducted by Navsarjan Trust revealed that 96.8% of ‘upper’ caste people they surveyed practice rampatar, the practice of serving Dalits in separate utensils. This practice is still a norm in rural Gujarat.

“As a child, growing up in villages in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, social discrimination was normal. But the memory of one particular incident is very vivid. My grandmother used to work in the fields and I would accompany her almost every day. After work, all labourers would be given chapatis and buttermilk. But it was just me who would have to find the earthen set of utensils kept in some corner of the field, wash the mud off it and stand at a distance from the person who would serve us,” Jadav remembered.

“The shadow of a Dalit should not fall on a villager belonging to an ‘upper’ caste. Such is the extent of bigotry in rural Gujarat,” he added.

Village well off limit for Dalits

In Becharaji village of Rantej taluka in Mehsana, Dalit women are reminded every day that they are ‘untouchables’ while fetching drinking water. A separate water tank, strategically placed at a distance from the village well so that water spilling from the tank does not flow back towards the well, is meant for Dalits. The well is off limits for Dalits – the ‘upper’ caste groups won’t let them use it because they don’t want the water to be “polluted”. There are tube wells in the area of the village where Dalits houses are concentrated, but the water is saline and not drinkable.

“For years this discrimination has been the norm in Becharaji village. It was only last year that the water tank was placed near the well after some activists intervened. Since then, ‘upper’ caste people fill water in the tank from a distance. Dalits still can’t fetch water from the well directly,” said Kaushik Parmar, a Dalit activist from Mehsana.

This is not a story of one village. In Delwada village in Una taluka, women from the Sarvaiya family walk about a kilometre to fetch water, even though 30 m from their house is the village temple that has a government-facilitated water and electricity connection. Piyush Sarvaiya has been running between government offices for basics like water and electricity.

“Until two months ago, a kerosene lamp used to be the only source of light after dusk. Now we have a partial connection, but we cannot run the fans on electricity,” said Piyush, whose brother was burnt alive in 2012 for being in a relationship with a girl of a higher caste.

Village crematoriums not for Dalits

“You see the plot of land there?” asked Dalpat Bhatia, pointing to the piece of land separated by barbed wire and a wall from the venue of the Azaadi Kooch in Dhanera in July this year.

“That is the common crematorium, but Dalits are not allowed there,” Bhatia said. He heads Banaskantha Dalit Sangathan, an organisation working with Dalits for more than a decade.

In some villages that have sizeable Dalit population, a separate crematorium is allotted for Dalits. “In villages where there isn’t a separate crematorium, Dalits find open spaces at the outskirts of their village to cremate their family members. Some Dalits opt for burial too,” Bhatia said.

Ironically, the assembly panel that serves as a watchdog for government welfare schemes for schedule castes in Gujarat recommended in March this year that the state government should take the initiative to build separate crematoriums for Dalits.

“For the government, untouchability does not exist. Years of denial let it thrive and now sanctioning a separate crematorium will legitimise untouchability,” said Ghanshyam Shah, a former professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi who is revisiting the first ever survey done on untouchability by I.P. Desai in 1964.

“We are untouchable even in death,” added Natubhai Parmar, a social activist from the Surendranagar district.

Dalit community members shout slogans at a protest rally in Ahmadabad in August 2016. Credit: PTI

Dalit community members shout slogans at a protest rally in Ahmadabad in August 2016. Credit: PTI/Files

Separate seating and social boycott

In Ranipat village in the Muli district of Surendranagar, at a social function for Dalits, gunny bags were placed instead of chairs for Valmikis, who are considered to be the lowest among the 32 Dalit sub-castes.

“The people of upper caste discriminate against us, we, in turn, discriminate against the Valmikis,” said Kailashben, a resident of the area.

In a similar incident in February this year, villagers belonging to higher castes arranged for separate seating for Dalits at a village programme to celebrate placing an idol in the Sikota Mata temple in Rantej, Mehsana.

“The temple management committee invited us but arranged for a separate seating about 50 m away from the temple for 45 Dalit families,” said Amrutbhai Rathod, a resident of the village.

The villagers protested and refused to attend the function. Following this, upper caste villagers called for an economic and social boycott of Dalits in the village.

Six months after the incident, Dalits are still facing the heat for raising their voices against discrimination.

“They have even refused to sell us fodder for our cattle,” shared another villager.

Discrimination of Dalit sarpanchs

Bhabubhai Senma was the sarpanch of Nandoli village in Kheralu taluka, Mehsana district from 2006 to 2011. However, a Dalit man’s rise to a position of power did not go down well with some. Following an argument, upper caste men beat up Senma one day. Senma filed an FIR.

Following the FIR, the situation only got worse. Villagers decided to boycott Senma and five other Dalit families living in Nandoli. After Senma complained to the authorities about the boycott and the additional collector visited the village, the boycott only intensified. Fed up, Senma reached out to the Gujarat high court. At the high court, Justice G.R. Udhwani questioned how the social boycott constituted untouchability, leaving Senma’s advocate with no option but to seek time to reply with supporting precedence.

In other villages, a Dalit sarpanch is not allowed to function. “Kamalpur village of Dasada taluka in Surendranagar is a reserved seat for scheduled castes, hence the sarpanch of the village is always a Dalit. However, the sarpanch is barred from functioning in his official capacity and the deputy sarpanch, who usually belongs to a higher caste, is making the decisions and is the functional head of the village,” said Natubhai Parmar.

In another incident on August 15 this year, a Dalit sarpanch in Nagadka village in Rajkot was prevented by the husband of the deputy sarpanch from unfurling the national flag. An FIR was lodged by sarpanch Premji Jogal on August 16.

Discrimination against Dalit children

The survey by the Navsarjan Trust showed that discrimination against Dalit children is prevalent in 53.8% of government primary schools. In most cases, Dalits children are made to sit in a separate row while receiving their mid-day meal or even made to clean the toilet in the school.

“We found that Dalit kids are not allowed to participate in the morning prayers of the school. Besides, separate seating for Dalit kids or a Dalit student serving other Dalit students is not uncommon in government schools in rural Gujarat,” said Macwan.

Dalits barred from temples and pilgrimage spots 

“Ninety percent of temples in Gujarat have barred Dalits from entering the premises. Our survey showed that in 92.3% of temples or pilgrimage spots, Dalits are not even allowed to get the prasad,” said Macwan.

Such restrictions are not limited to temple premises. During the Navratri festival, Dalits are denied milk from sellers in many villages of Gujarat.

“We are also not allowed to shave in our villages,” said Kaushik Parmar.

“During village festivals, the women of higher castes maintain the purdah system while our women are not allowed to cover their heads in front of men from higher castes,” said Manjhibhai, a resident of Limdi, Surendranagar.

“Tales of discrimination are endless. At times we get justice when we complain, but on most days discrimination is a way of life for us,” he added.

Izzat ki baat karunga to pet nai bharega (If I talk of dignity I won’t be able to feed myself),” Manjhibhai concluded.

Damayantee Dhar is a freelance reporter.