Mainstream, VOL LIV No 37 New Delhi September 3, 2016
Gujarat Dalits: Torchbearers of a New Horizon
Monday 5 September 2016, by
There cannot be consistency or uniformity in madness. Instances are aplenty. A British newspaper on August 2, 2016 carried a news item under the caption, “Dalit sarpanch pays Rs 10 lakh to build in her Gujarat village a temple. but is banned from entering because of her caste”. In the cornerstone of the story lies untouchability, discrimination and prejudice against the Dalits in India. A Dalit woman, Pintooben, a sarpanch of Rahemalpur on the outskirts of the State capital Ahmedabad, has constructed a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. This has been financed out of her personal funds. The owner of 35 bighas of land, the sarpanch is blessed with sound economic base for sustenance. To meet the spiritual quest of the people of her panchayat, she undertook this unusual scheme, which had ignominy in store for her. Her entry into the temple was banned. This is the story born out of intractable social malice and prejudice of the upper castes against a Dalit woman sarpanch.
India’s social perception overshadows every aspect of life, economic, political, spiritual and what not. So the overseas daily took note of the fact: “Like numerous other fellow Dalits excluded from religion in Gujarat, Pintooben is not allowed to enter the sanctum of any Hindu house of worship.” This is a case that bothers no upper-caste Hindu. The Dalit and tribal communities, who number millions of Indians, are claimed and counted as Hindus merely for the fact that they help swell the demographic strength to establish the superiority of the Hindu community.
Illustrations of Rani Rashmoni of Bengal and Pintooben of Gujarat prove India hasn’t moved an inch ahead
There are illustrious instances of people who were subjected to similar ignominy in the past. The same attitudinal hostility, therefore, continues to operate unabated even now. One prominent illustration from the Bengal of nineteenth century can be cited. A Bengali landlord of the nineteenth century, Rani Rashmoni (1793-1861), had built a Kali temple over 60 acres of land at Dakshineshwar in the suburbs of Calcutta at a cost of Rs 900,000 in 1855. The reputed Mackintosh Company, a British firm, was engaged in execution of the project. In addition, Rani Rashmoni donated a large estate or zamindari at Salbari measuring 449 square miles in Dinajpur district (now in Bangladesh), as debottar for meeting the expenses out of its income on account of maintenance and daily expenses over the rituals of the shrine. The debottar cost her a sum of Rs 2,25,000. On the day of its inauguration, lo and behold, the zamindar was denied entry into the shrine because of her caste, Kaibartta, who are fishermen and agriculturists by traditional occupation. This shrine had propelled its priest, Gadadhar Chattopadhyay, in his spiritual odyssey to become the Paramhansa Ramakrishna whose prominent disciples included, among others, Swami Vivekananda.
A spirited zamindar and a widow, she had more than once crossed swords with the British. As the landlord, she blocked shipping trade on a part of the Ganges and “compelled the British to abolish the tax imposed on fishing in the river, which threatened the livelihood of poor fishermen”. Rani Rashmoni was credited with numerous charitable activities. She had donated generously to the then Imperial Library (now the National Library of India) and Hindu College (Presidency College, now Presidency University, Calcutta).
The wealthy zamindar and merchant, Prince Dwarkanath Tagore, grandfather of Rabindra-nath Tagore, had mortgaged a part of his zamindari, situated in the present South 24-Parganas district, to Rani Rashmoni for his passage to England. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rani_Rashmoni)
Romain Rolland observed that saint and seer Ramakrishna Paramhamsa (1836-1886) was “very strict in all questions relating to caste”. (Romain Rolland, The Life of Ramakrishna, Calcutta, sixth edition, 1960, p. 27) Coming as it does from the French Nobel Laureate, Ramakrishna’s strictness in all questions relating to caste assumes great significance and dimension. Rani Rashmoni was not an ordinary person. The seer’s strictness about all aspects of caste arguably implies that he was endowed with prejudice, orthodoxy and vice against those low in the social hierarchy. Caste furnishes the code for entitlements for all Hindus. Rani Rashmoni, being an untouchable, was not entitled to entry into a temple even though she was its builder. And the norm of caste dictated the ban against her entry in the shrine of the Dakshineshwar Kali temple. And though 161 years have glided by after Rani Rashmoni, India has not moved an inch ahead in matters of caste. Today in 2016 a Gujarati sarpanch has invited humiliation and disgrace on herself by building a temple for the worship of Shiva in the same way as it happened at Dakshineshwar.
Bengal had witnessed in the nineteenth century the renaissance which the intellectual class tirelessly lauded as the harbinger of modern outlook and enlightenment through education, philosophy, rationalism, brotherhood etc. But in truth it was limited to a minuscule upper crest of the society. That enlightenment did not embrace the masses at all.
Caste in Hinduism empowers anybody higher in hierarchy to humiliate, harass and disgrace any in the ladder below without any rhyme and reason. This is the unique cultural landmark of Indian civilisation. This keeps weakening the social bondage and solidarity.
Caste Disgraces India, None to Stop It
Rarely do Indian political leaders crown them-selves with the international media’s approbation by virtue of their glorious achievement and performance. In 2012 Bhupinder Singh Hooda had thrust himself into the foreign media by his administrative incompetence or connivance in not stamping out atrocities against Dalits in the State though he was at the helm of its affairs. A British newspaper, The Daily Mail, October 7, 2012, ran a banner headline “Haryana’s rape shame: Registered cases show two women are attacked in State every day”. To enlighten its readers, the daily quoted an official information that between January and August (2012), “455 women were raped in Haryana, the equivalent to two each day”. Pointing specifically to districts, Daily Mail noted: “Hisar police range, with no fewer than 94 rapes, tops Haryana’s ignominious list, followed by the Karnal (92), Rewari (89) and Rohtak (87) police range, which covers the home town of Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda”. (A.K. Biswas, “Is India the Most Dangerous Place (for Dalit Women?”, Mainstream, Vol. LI, No 8, February 9, 2013)
This time around the most eloquent New York Times, August 3, 2016, has devoted a full 431-word editorial under the caption “Modi and India’s Dalits”. While the Dalits are unknown to its readers in the US, the Prime Minister is not. The NYT has done a singular service to highlight the vulnerability of Dalit communities of Indian much to the chagrin of their privileged and oppressive countrymen. “A protest in the Indian State of Gujarat’s largest city, Ahmedabad, on Sunday by thousands of Dalits—members of India’s lowest castes—has brought to a head the contradiction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of economic opportunity for all and a politics of division driven by the Right-wing Hindu ideology.” Thus went the first paragraph of the editorial. Pointing at the reason, it added: “The protest was called after four Dalits skinning a dead cow—a scorned task relegated to the long-oppressed group—were set upon by cow-protection vigilantes on July 11 near Una, Gujarat. The gang stripped the Dalits to the waist, chained them to a car, and beat them for hours while the police and others looked on.”
While elaborating, the editorial incorporated details of some highlights that propelled the Dalits into the protests inviting the NYT’s attention to the Indian Prime Minister. “Members of India’s low-caste Dalit community protested last month in Gujarat, after four Dalit men were attacked by cow-protection vigilantes. The result is lawless vigilantism. Last September, a Muslim man, whose family was suspected of eating beef, was killed by a mob. In March, two cattle traders were lynched in the State of Jharkhand.”
What has become a standing shame and disgrace for the country has been detailed in the editorial. “Dalits have refused to handle dead animals, whose rotting carcasses are piling up, until they are given assurances that they will not be attacked and that their longstanding oppression will be addressed. Though aspirations and educational levels have risen among Dalits, they still face terrible prejudice. In January, a Dalit Ph.D student committed suicide after caste-based hounding.” The ousted HRD Minister too has come for some ‘compliment’ for her clandestine role in provoking academic communities in India and abroad.
Finally it did not forget to note: “In 2014, Mr Modi, who ran Gujarat for over 12 years, won India’s national election by a landslide on a promise to transform all of India on the Gujarat model of economic development.” Gujarat, little do we say or focus, has a dirty, stinking and obnoxious underbelly. Of course that underbelly has a gloss applied straight from the pages of scriptures which is in no way edifying for human dignity.
Pertinently we may note, the US Senate had adopted a concurrent resolution [H. Con. Res. 139: 110th session] in 2007 whereby the august House of Representative had expressed a sense of revulsion over India’s untouchability which is an unmitigated crime against humanity. The elaborate resolution is by and large unknown to the Indians at large as our media found it too embarrassing to publicise or focus on the contents as it is tantamount to a galling indictment of our countrymen. [A.K. Biswas, Letter to President Obama, Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 42, October 9, 2010, http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article2370.html] A similar resolution was also adopted in the European Assembly on India’s untouchability.
The author, Dr A.K. Biswas, is a retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at biswasatulk[at]gmail.com for comments and observations, if any.