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Caste

Even After a Century, Water Is Still the Marker of India's Caste Society

For Dalits, water is not a natural beauty, the nectar of life or a life-nurturing agent, but a 'caste burden'.

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On the eve of India’s 75th Independence Day, newspapers carried the news of a nine-year-old Dalit boy’s death, who was allegedly beaten up by his school teacher for drinking water from a pot meant for the teacher (an upper caste). The teacher has been arrested and booked for murder and under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

As I was reading this news, I remembered my chat with one of my students a few years ago. I had asked him about his thoughts when he came to know he belongs to the Dalit community. He told me a story of him growing up in a village in Haryana.

The 10-year-old boy accompanied his grandfather to someone’s house. They were asked to wait outside. After a long wait, he was thirsty, so he drank some water from a pot on the verandah. Seeing this, his grandfather hurled abuses at him for drinking water from the pot.

He was perplexed and did not know what wrong he had done. All he did was drink water. Only many years later, he realised that the house where he went that day belonged to an ‘upper caste’. The student had tears in his eyes and said, ‘I was just a child then, I was thirsty, so I drank water, was that a crime?’

Dalit narratives, autobiographies, and testimonies often carry painful memories of their experience of the lack of access to water and water sources. One should not assume that these are matters of the past. Even today, the water narratives of Dalits are informed by caste. Caste has been a prominent, almost inherent factor in water usage in India. The severity of the restrictions on water informed Dalit notions of themselves as human beings and their relationship with water and other natural resources.

In a 2015 article published in the Journal of Comparative Economics, Bros and Couttenier highlight that murders against the ‘ex-untouchables’ are related to the way water is distributed. Titled Untouchability, homicides and water access, the article examines the case of ‘untouchability’ rules in India that forbid sharing of water with the ‘lower’ castes.

The report says that homicide rates of ‘lower’ caste members at the district level are significantly correlated with the public access to water, showing that access to water, ‘untouchability’ norms and violence is closely interlinked.

Several stories have been reported of Dalits being beaten up, assaulted and killed because they attempted to collect or drink water.

Stalin’s 2007 documentary India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart shows a school in Gujarat where children knew where they can have water and where they cannot. For Dalit children, memories of water are of deprivation and inaccessibility to water sources. Many still live in a state of alienation, with painful memories of punishment.

Images of ‘caste-ridden’ water, long journeys in search for water, and lack of access to clean water are plenty in Dalit writings. In the eyes of the ‘upper caste’, water encompasses cleanliness, spiritual well-being, an object of worship, holy sanctity, religious rituals, and that which washes away impurities and pollutants. Such core beliefs and practices keep Dalits out of bounds of water sources and their systems.

Water, for Dalits, is not a crest of life, but constant pain and segregation. For Dalits, water is not a natural beauty, the nectar of life or a life-nurturing agent, but a ‘caste burden’. Prominent Tamil Dalit playwright, K.A. Gunasekaran, in his biography Scar writes: ” If thirsty, we would kneel down and drink water from the Thovur canal. We did not know if the right of access to the canal water was reserved for any particular caste. If it was upper caste water, then we would be tied up and beaten for drinking it. So, we just drank quickly and ran away immediately. In the villages… even inert water bodies threaten us in the name of caste.

Water, therefore, is the marker of our caste society, says Mukul Sharma, author of the book Nature and Caste. One of the chapters is titled Dalit Memories and Water Rights where he notes that in some regions, people are broadly divided into two groups:

Pani chalne jati (castes from whom drinking water can be accepted)

Pani na chalne jati (castes from whom drinking water cannot be accepted)

Also read: People of the Flag: A New Way to View the Tiranga

Ambedkar’s water satyagraha

There have been touching narratives and struggles on water that shaped B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s hardships and deprivation of drinking water began as a child. One summer, he and his brother set out to meet their father. As their father did not receive their letter, he did not turn up at the railway station. After waiting for long hours, they persuaded the station master to get them a bullock cart and started for Goregaon.

Soon the cartman came to know that the well-dressed boys were ‘untouchables’, and he threw them out on the road. He felt they had polluted his wooden cart and destroyed the purity of his domestic animals. From the evening till midnight the boys travelled with their mouths parched with thirst, but nowhere could they get drinking water on the way. Every time people either pointed to the filthy water or asked them to go away. This was the first rude shock to the young Ambedkar. That day he knew that he belonged to an ‘untouchable’ family, degraded to drink and eat filthy things.

The Mahad Satyagraha in 1927 was one of the defining moments in Ambedkar’s political thought and action. He launched a satyagraha to assert their rights to use water in public places. The site was located in the Kolaba district of Bombay Presidency. Mahad town had a population of 7,000-8,000, of which around 400 were ‘untouchables’. The Chawdar tank was an old public tank owned by the municipality. This was the only public tank from which an outsider could get water, though the ‘untouchables’ were barred from fetching water.

In 1923, the Bombay Legislative Council passed a resolution that the ‘untouchables’ be allowed to use all public water places, wells, and dharmashalas. On March 29, (close to a century earlier), the ‘untouchables’ for the first time drank water from that tank. The centrality of water for Dalits, and the abuse and misuse of public water bodies, became a converging point for democratic agrarianism.

In 21st century India, one of the prevailing forms of ‘untouchability’ practices and discrimination is the denial of drinking water to Dalits. A vast majority of Dalits depend on the goodwill of the ‘upper caste’ community members for access to water from public wells. This applies to natural resources, food, land, and water.

According to Ambedkar, all aspects of people’s relationship with the environment, whether water, land, or farms, was necessarily mediated through the ties of caste. Even the man-made environment like schools, offices, houses, streets and subways is no different. These places continue to be used for caste oppression. For Ambedkar, nature was shaped by caste. Water, for instance, had a definite caste, as it became ‘polluted’ as soon as a Dalit touched it.

The death of the Dalit boy recently is a cruel reminder that water still has a caste in today’s India.

Ambika Aiyadurai is an assistant professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar. She teaches Politics of the Environment.