Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shackling Water

When Dalits in Chakwara won the right to use the village pond, caste Hindus turned it into a sewer. SALMAN USMANI reports

ON MARCH 10, 1927, one of the first public battles Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar waged was the satyagarha at Mahad in Maharashtra. He had led 10,000 Dalits to assert their right to access the Chawdar tank at Mahad. Animals were allowed to use the water of the tank but not Dalits. The caste- Hindus retaliated to the satyagraha with violence and a social boycott. On December 25 the same year, Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti — the symbol of Brahmanic Hinduism that offered scriptural justification for discrimination — at Mahad.

Eighty years later, nothing seems to have changed. Chakwara village, 50 km from Jaipur, bears testimony to this. The village and life in it revolve around a large pond. The pond and the ghats have been built and maintained with state funds and contributions from the entire village, including the Dalits. The village has about 700 families, of which 70 belong to Bairwas who are Dalits.

Over 20 years, the village has been in constant turmoil over the curbs Dalits face in using the pond. The caste Hindus of Chakwara do not let the Bairwas use the pond. However, buffaloes and pigs have unrestricted access.

On December 14, 2001, two Bairwas, Babulal and Radheysham, decided to defy the village “law” and bathe in the pond. Babulal, 54, says his decision to bathe had more to do with the “frustration of being denied clean water, rather than its necessity”.

The heart of water is generous and reaches the very roots
Its healing touch makes the scabs of a thousand sorrows fall off
What walls, how many walls, can you build around water
How will you shackle the rushing form of water
— Namdeo Dhasal

Outraged by this social offence the village Jats and Brahmins surrounded Babulal’s house at night and threatened a bloodbath. The next day a panchayat was called which found Babulal and Radheysham guilty of violating the village customs. The panchayat imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on the Bairwa community and demanded a written apology. Further the upper castes imposed a complete social boycott of the Bairwas. They could not buy ration and vegetables from the village shops; no one would employ a Bairwa or lend him money; the Bairwas were not to use the only handpump in the village.

After continued threats, confrontations and abuses, Babulal finally filed an FIR on December 22, 2001. The Jaipur district administration and the police ignored Babulal’s complaints and tried to convince the Dalits not to use the pond, eventually making some of them sign a compromise agreement. However the boycott, the threats and the abuse continued for months, with the administration occasionally stepping in only to side with the upper castes.

In September 2002, several human rights organisations collaborated with the Bairwas to organise a rally in yet another effort to assert their rights. The upper castes decided to physically confront the rally. They attacked the rally with stones and sticks. The situation worsened and the police responded with teargas and finally had to open fire. Around 50 people were injured, most of whom were policemen. The rally and the confrontation temporarily and unintentionally put the administration and the upper caste men at loggerheads. Complaints were made and pursued in the collector’s office.

IT SEEMED like a victory for the Bairwas, who started to use the pond regularly, but their triumph was shortlived. Soon after the clash, the upper castes withdrew from the pond. They stopped using it, saying it had become impure. The tension, anger and the boycott has continued since then. However, after the heightened interest of human rights organisations, NGOs, administration, the national and international media, Chakwara and its Dalits have fallen off the mindscapes again.

Today, the caste Hindus have started to shit and dump garbage in the pond. Recently, some men dug up the village sewer and directed it to the pond water. Every effort has been made to pollute the pond — literally and symbolically — for now it is only the Dalit Bairwas who use it.

In urban India, Dalits are forced to clean sewers and drains immersing themselves in putrid muck. In Chakwara, a pond that was once considered sacred is now no better than a large sewage tank. The Dalits here have after all fought and won their right to use it. But they continue to lose their dignity, for the caste Hindus of the village, defying Namdeo Dhasal’s imagination, know how to “shackle the rushing form of water”.


From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 3, Dated Jan 26, 2008

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