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Dalits in India 2000

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Fifty-three years after independence a vast mass of this group still lives in segregated sections in the overwhelming majority of Indian villages. I saw one very sympathetic story on TV of a very poor village in Chattisgarh and the passion of the reporter really moved me. The poor reporter did not know that the four people around him were the richest landlords in the region (one whose hospitality I enjoyed for a week and envied his wealth) but they were not wearing shirts so the reporter thought they were poor. They were not wearing shirts because they were farmers and it was the agricultural season . Villages are poor, you see, so everybody is poor, that is the media stereotype.

However, Dalits live in segregated colonies on the outskirts of villages. It is very important to know where their position is relative to the village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, you will find Dalits on the southern border or the southern outskirts of the village. There is a religious rationalization for this. In good Hindu theology, Lord Yama dwells in the South. A good Hindu should not sleep with his head facing the South because if Lord Yama is looking for an after-dinner snack, you are in trouble. So the external rationalization for positioning the Dalit basti in the South is the religious rationalization.

I am simplifying many things here because we do not have the time to go into details but I want to give you a sense of what happens. Suddenly you will find in Rajasthan, my friend’s home state, the rationalization of the reasoning will change and the Dalit bastis will appear in the east and the northeast of the village. This mystified me no end. Did Yama take a different route in Rajasthan? There must be some reason for this. There is a good economic reasoning for it. The positioning of the basti is determined by how the river runs, how the water runs and how the stream of irrigation runs.

Typically, the forward caste will till at the head of the water, the middle caste will till in the middle water, and the tail water will be left to the lower caste and the Dalits. Now in Rajasthan this problem does not arise, since there is no water, no river in the border areas. So how is the positioning of the Dalit basti determined in Rajasthan? In all other parts of the country where the river water runs north to south, the Dalit basti will be in the south. Why is it on the east and northeast there? This happens because Dalits work on leather, which stinks and our sacred nostrils cannot be offended by this menial activity, so we place them outside, so the smell of carcasses and tanning does not enter the village.

So whatever the religious or mythological reasoning, there are hard realities to contend with in terms of resources. If you go to the sand dunes of Barmer, if you go to the border district, you will find another very interesting phenomenon where Lord Yama’s trail changes its strategy yet again. There it is not a question of north and east, it is a question of up and down. If you go to a village like Gumanakatala (which means Gumana’s well), you will find that upper caste people live on top of sand-dunes while villagers live at the bottom, but you will also find that their roles are completely reversed when it comes to doing agriculture. The Rajput lives at the top and the Dalits live at the bottom. The Rajputs live at the top of the dune, where there is security, it is cooler, and it is generally more comfortable. But when it comes to tilling land, when it comes to agriculture, the Rajputs come below and till the land where the Dalits live and Dalits go further out into the desert to till whatever little land they may have.

Why is this so? Because the little rainwater there is runs off the dunes, so the advantages of living at the top are lost when it comes to agriculture. So when you need to till your land, the land where the Dalits live is more fertile because of the water from the dunes. So I can live here but I cannot till here. The segregation of the Dalit basti from the rest of the village is sanctified and legitimized by the Government of India, programs like the Indira Awaas Yojana which continue to build Dalit houses in Dalit colonies. They continue to build Adivasi houses in Adivasi colonies. So the principle of segregation is now a part of national strategy programs, whether this is thought out or stupidity, I leave for you to decide.

Across the country, you will see fights going on, and just because we do not cover them does not mean they are not happening. There are a number of fights over burial grounds and burning ghats because in a very large number of villages, the Dalits are not allowed to use the burial grounds. Contrary to popular myth, a lot of Indians bury their dead because the very poor cannot afford fuel. In fact, even some people who are not lower castes, like the Lingayats in Karnataka, bury their dead.

But we have this romantic notion that everybody in India cremates. This is not true. It should be understood that when I am speaking of caste and untouchability it is reflected in every single religion of the Indian subcontinent, nobody is exempt.