Sidhi, Satna, Rewa (Madhya Pradesh): Sitting in a sunny patch outside his one-room house and using a machete to make baskets from bamboo sticks. Munna Bansal, a 60-year-old Dalit man, spoke of how he could not enter the homes of the upper-caste people who bought his wares.
“Whenever I sell my baskets, I put them on the ground from where they pick them up, and then they pay for the basket from a distance without touching me,” said Bansal, who lives in Ward number 21, a Dalit colony in Sidhi city in eastern Madhya Pradesh.
“Brahmins, Banias, Thakurs and everyone else use the baskets made by our community, but they won’t touch us,” he said. “We feel bad, but we can’t do anything.”
His 25-year-old nephew, Ravend Bansal, like his uncle, is from the Besvaar caste, which has traditionally made baskets from bamboo.
“People in Sidhi will touch faeces, but they won't touch a Dalit,” said Bansal, a 6-ft tall man, who sports a tattoo along the length of his arm and paints houses for a living.
“Upper caste people will use these baskets my uncle is making for religious rituals during birth celebrations and death rituals,” said Bansal. “But we can neither go to the home of any upper caste person nor touch them.”
“Whenever they come into our area, they put a cloth on their nose and try to maintain a distance,” he said. “My brother is a graduate, and some of our people have studied, but education has not changed anything for us. I have never touched a Brahmin in my life. Upper caste people tell us that Besvaar are lower caste and they will stay lower.”
Both Bansals complained about the local civic body, alleging it was staffed with Brahmins and Rajputs. They did little to keep the Dalit colony clean; residents had to pay from their pockets to build a pucca naala or a drain for wastewater.
Thriving Casteism & Untouchability
In three districts of Madhya Pradesh, where Article 14 travelled to in October, Sidhi, Satna and Rewa, people from scheduled caste or Dalit communities, other backward classes (OBCs), and scheduled tribes or Adivasis spoke of caste discrimination and untouchability, unchecked in the central state run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for almost two decades. And while the OBCs face discrimination by upper castes, they similarly discriminate against Dalits.
Crimes against SCs are rising as per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), with cases registered increasing from 42,793 to over 50,291 in 2020. In 2021, 50,900 cases were registered to show an increase of 1.2%. Crimes against STs rose by 6.4% from 2020 to 2021.
While Uttar Pradesh recorded the highest number of crimes against the Dalits, as per the NCRB, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan recorded the two highest crime rates (cases per lakh of the population) against Dalits in 2021, well ahead of UP and more than twice the national average. MP and Rajasthan registered 63.6 and 61.6 cases per 100,000 population, respectively.
Earlier this year, the home ministry under the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wrote to all states and union territories, saying, “the Government of India is deeply concerned with the crimes against the weaker sections of society, particularly Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes” and “vigorous and conscientious enforcement of the statutory provisions and existing legislations”.
In the district of Rewa, 57-year-old Suresh Parshad Vishwakarma, a member of the Vishwakarma caste (OBC), said, “I make cots for everyone. Whenever I go to the homes of Brahmins for whom I make cots, they make me sit on the floor.”
Eight-year-old A*, a student at the government school in Singerwar village in Rewa district, told Article 14 that a teacher from the Patel community beats children of the Prajapati caste (OBC) with a stick and then washes the stick because she is afraid it is polluted.
‘No Good Heart When It Comes To The Marginalised’
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution abolished the practice of untouchability in any form when it was adopted in 1950, saying the “enforcement of any disability arising out of ‘untouchability’ shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law.”
Parliament passed the Untouchability Offences Act 1955, which prescribed a maximum prison term of six months and a fine of Rs 500 or both. Under the Protection of Civil Liberties Act,1955, which replaced the earlier law in 1976, imprisonment increased to a maximum prison term of two years.
Parliament passed The Scheduled Classes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 to prevent the commission of offences against SCs and STs, including “deliberately insulted and humiliated in public view”, “deprived of his right to clean drinking water” and “deprived of his right of passage to a public place”, with the punishments ranging from six months to life imprisonment.
Through an amendment in 2015, crimes like the tonsuring of the head, moustache or similar acts, which are derogatory to the dignity of SCs and STs, were added.
Crimes against SC/STs are also covered under sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, including murder, hurt, rape, kidnapping and abduction, dacoity, arson and others.
In an interview with Article 14, Magsaysay Award winner Bezwada Wilson said despite the laws, there was no political will to put an end to manual scavenging done mainly through Dalits. Their deaths from hazardous gases in septic tanks and manholes are widely reported, even as the Modi government denies them.
“There is no goodwill and no political will. There is no good heart for the marginalised,” said Wilson, convenor of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation which has been fighting for the eradication of manual scavenging.
Manual scavenging, as the cleaning by the hand of sewers and septic tanks, is called, is banned under the 1955, Protection of Civil Rights Act, the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, 2013.
In her book, Whole Numbers and Half-Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, data journalist Rukmini S writes that the levels of inter-caste marriage in India have been entirely unchanged in the last 70 years—under 5%.
The current chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the central state’s longest-serving one, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, belongs to the Kirar caste of the OBCs, engaged in agriculture.
While the accounts from Madhya Pradesh show how deep casteism runs and the ways it manifests 75 years after independence, Madhya Pradesh is not alone as an exemplar of this state of affairs.
In October, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and a former minister in the Delhi government, Rajendra Pal Gautam, who is Dalit, resigned after the BJP whipped up a political frenzy after Gautam renounced Hindu deities at an event where thousands, including the minister, converted to Buddhism.
The 22 vows against worshipping Hindu deities at the event were first taken by Dalit icon B R Ambedkar when he converted to Buddhism in 1956. While Gautam said Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal did not know about the event, his resignation was seen as the AAP capitulation to Hindu majoritarianism.
Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the mothership of the Hindu-first philosophy of Hindutva and the ideological parent of India’s ruling party, last month called for the abandoning caste system.
‘They Seem To Think We Are Half Human’
In the village of Ramgarh in the Sidhi district, Besvaar men who spoke with Article 14 said they were prohibited from eating with Brahmins and Thakurs, and they were not allowed to use the water pump at the same time as the upper caste men.
“Whenever we organise any program, upper caste people do not come to our homes because we are not considered Hindus,” said Ravi Bansal, a moustachioed young man whose family makes baskets from bamboo. “Where are Hindus, and where are Mulnivasi?”
While he was speaking, 28-year-old Pushpa, a Dalit woman wearing a yellow sari and anklets that made a tinkling sound, said, “We can't touch Brahmin women. I don't know whether it is because they think we don't use soap or oil.”
With a mocking tone, Ravi Bansal said, “Na hum dhang se khana khate hai, na dhang se rehte hai, na dhang se shakal hai, na dhang se kapde pahnte hai. Lagta hai hum log aadi manav hai, aisa samajhte hai.” (They seem to think we don’t live or eat properly, or wear proper clothes. They seem to think we are half human.”
As the rest of the gathered Dalit men burst out laughing, he said, “While walking, we have to remove our chappals on the streets that lead to their houses.”
Untouchability Lives On
In a different part of Ramgarh, where the houses are segregated along caste lines, the Dalits live 200 meters away from the Prajapatis, an OBC community, who they accuse of practising untouchability.
To demonstrate casteism, three Dalit boys went and stood near the hut of a Prajapati family and tried to touch the feet of Nachni Prajapati, a woman who came outside, but she quickly went back in before they could touch her.
“If we enter the hut, she will beat us with a stick,” one of the boys said.
When Article 14 asked the woman’s son Ganesh Prajapati, a 45-year-old potter, about the scene which unfolded, he said, “We neither touch nor eat food with them. If we practice religious rituals and worship gods and goddesses at home, why should anyone have a problem with this?”
Ganesh Prajapati explained his “respect” for the caste system in a matter-of-fact tone, saying, “We do not eat with upper-caste people. It is about personal choice with whom I want to eat and whom I don't want to eat with.”
When Article 14 asked the man if he would bathe if he ever touched a Dalit, the man replied, “It depends on my devotion. Who knows whether I bathe after touching people from the lower caste? Even if I bathe, I do it for my protection.”
Meanwhile, his mother shooed away the Dalit boys.
A short distance from Ganesh Prajapati’s house, in a more well-off home, 19-year-old Pankaj Prajapati, a poultry farmer whose father is a soldier in the Indian Army, said that upper-caste people discriminated against them.
“There is so much discrimination when we go to the house of a Pandit,” said Pankaj Prajapati. “Pandits do not offer us water and tell us to drink water from the water pump. They don’t even offer a chair for sitting.”
At the same time, Pankaj Prajapati said that his community meted out the same treatment to those castes they considered below them.
“Whenever anyone from a lower caste comes to the homes of people from our caste, we give them empty gunny bags for sitting on the floor,” he said.
While admitting that members of his caste and his own family practised untouchability, Pankaj Prajapati said that the problem was less among the younger and more educated generations.
Discrimination At The Dhaba
The upper-caste owner of a roadside dhaba close to Ramgarh village makes Dalit customers wash their utensils after serving them, Ravi Bansal and his friends said while heading there with this reporter.
After more of them objected, the owner, who they said was called Vedanti, started serving them in disposable bowls.
While this reporter was served on a steel plate, the owner did not extend the same courtesy to the Dalit men, saying his dishwasher was on leave. Later, he told one of his helpers to pack some samosas for them.
When this reporter asked the dhaba owner if he was not serving the other men because they were Dalits, he said nothing.
Discrimination With Utensils
Over 100 km west of Ramgarh, in Singhpur village in the neighbouring Satna district, a 55-year-old Adivasi farmer, Bhoore Lal Kol, said they extended every courtesy to the Brahmins and Rajputs who visit them, but they were mistreated in return.
“Apart from making us sit on the ground, Brahmins and Rajputs make us wash our glasses after we drink tea at their homes, but when Rajputs come to our house, we do not make them wash the glass. Brahmins do not even drink tea at our homes,” said Kol.
Ram Kumar Loni, a 28-year-old farmer from the Loni community of the OBCs, who grows paddy and wheat, also spoke of Brahmins and Rajputs never washing their used utensils but expecting people from the backwards classes to do the same.
When asked if casteism angered him, Loni laughed and said, “We get angry, but as it is tradition, and it happens to everyone, so we accept the discrimination.”
Suraj Loni, a farmer who grows paddy and wheat, said, “Our ancestors faced discrimination, and now our children are being raised similarly. We can't protest against the discrimination because we have no government support.”
Weddings & Groceries
When Brahmins go to a wedding in the Loni community, Suraj Loni said, they have to make special arrangements for their meals; the host buys the groceries, but a Brahmin cooks the food for other Brahmin guests.
“We can invite them, buy groceries for them, but we cannot serve them,” he said. “But when we go to the homes of Brahmins, we have to pick our (disposable) plates and throw them away.”
The Loni men said OBC and Dalits were forced to be subservient to Brahmin and Rajput children, with greetings like “Dada salaam”, which were never reciprocated.
“We know our community is facing injustice. Some of our people have stopped going to the homes of Brahmins and Rajputs, but we do not have any other option but to follow the rules,” said Suraj Kumar Loni.
“Hame Brahmin hi bataye hai ki ghar mein pooja path karwane se aur katha karwane se moksh ki praapti hogi. Ab bhagwan ki pooja bahi(Brahmin) hi karwa sakte hain. Pehle hamare bajurg log sunte rahe hain. Ab hum log bhi sun rahe hain,” said Ram Kumar Loni. (Brahmins tell us prayer and rituals are the paths to salvation. Only Brahmins can perform the rituals. Our ancestors used to listen to them and now we listen to them.”)
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(Sandeep Singh is a roving journalist from Punjab.)