Crossing the caste divide

Print edition : March 28, 2003

Even as Gujarat grapples with the problem of bridging the communal divide, the need to cut across caste barriers is emphasised by a recent experience in a village in the State.

IN Gujarati saragwa mahudi literally means a cluster of drumsticks and mahuda trees. That was the name of the village we were sitting in a few months ago, following the Godhra carnage and the subsequent incidents. The process of re-instilling confidence in displaced persons and moving them from relief camps to their homes was on. An officer at the tehsil level was designated as a nodal officer for each village. This officer had to hold a series of meetings with the village leaders and help defuse the tension. The objective was to facilitate confidence-building and accelerate rehabilitation. Even after six rounds of meetings with the villagers, hardly any headway had been made. This certainly was a `difficult' village. Hence, as the District Magistrate, I had decided to go to Saragwa Mahudi that time and see for myself.

When visiting a village during a crisis or an emergency, one usually prefers sitting in a common area, such as the gram panchayat building. On this occasion, we gathered that members of both communities held Manibhai, the Patel agewan (village leader), in high esteem. My experience showed that wherever local leaders came forward and participated in the meeting, the process of rehabilitation had gone off with very few hassles.

Earlier that day, the lady sarpanch, Samuben, greeted me at the entrance to the village. The frail, quiet lady was trying to organise the all-community meeting. After the Constitution (73rd) Amendment, I have seen many women elected representatives who have come a long way from being mere dummies to active workers in panchayati raj institutions. Having drawn up a list, she, along with her husband and others, went to different mohallas to invite the local leaders for discussion and dialogue. I knew that this would be a time-consuming exercise. Listening to both the communities was the first stage. As the wounds were fresh and the hatred and intolerance in the minds were rather strong, this process of ironing out the differences often gave lessons in patience and perseverance. There are, perhaps, no shortcuts. Then, moving them towards evolving some solution based on their suggestions, one saw a ray of hope and found one's way through the problem and towards smooth rehabilitation.

AS people from various sections of the village started walking in, their informal discussions started. Leaders from the relief camp belonging to the village were also there and started talking to one another. As these discussions were on and the decibel levels went up and down, tea made in the Patel's house was brought in an aluminium kettle with several saucers. It was shared by both the communities, bonded for generations by social and economic sharing. Manibhai and Sattarbhai were sipping tea from their saucers, making loud slurping noises, customarily acknowledged as a sign of acceptance. I found that issues here were not as difficult to crack as I had imagined. The discussions centred on the modalities of returning to the villages when, how and so on. I noticed that the sarpanch was still not there. Anxiously, I asked for her and was told that she was still trying to gather some more villagers for this meeting. Realisng that it was imperative for her to participate in these discussions as we were rounding them up, I strongly suggested that she should join us immediately. In a short while, she did appear, but stood at the door. As I pointed to a chair beside me and motioned her to take her seat, she, along with her husband, hesitated and finally squatted outside the door. My eyes fell on the papers in front of me giving the details of the village - the sarpanch's name read Samuben Motibhai Harijan.

My mind went back in time to the Hanuman temple at Pimpri Deshmukh village in Maharashtra that I had visited years ago as a civil services probationer. Ambadas Sawne, belonging to the Mahar community (Scheduled Caste) used to be the police kotwal of the village. On the ill-fated night in August 1990, he was on his rounds. The downpour made him take shelter in the nearby Hanuman temple, where a kirtan was in progress. The devotees in the temple, all of whom belonged to the so-called upper castes, attacked him, throwing stones at him, injuring him badly eventually he died. "How can this happen in the land of Ambedkar and Jyotiba Phule, after forty years of independence," I had then wondered sadly.

I SNAPPED to the present as both the communities were exchanging jaggery and dhaniya seeds (gol-dhana). Determined to use this occasion to cement another divide that fragments our society, I insisted that Samuben sit next to me and participate in the discussions. After repeated requests, insistence and then some coercion, Samuben finally got up and crossed the threshold. In a few, not-so-steady strides, she reached us and sat next to us. The S.C. sarpanch had stepped into an upper-caste Patel house. Ghulambhai and Manibhai offered the ravanu to each other and to Samuben. Ravanu, or the exchange of jaggery and coriander seeds symbolises the end of enmity between warring groups and also the start of a fresh relationship or a new beginning. I think I can safely say that those few strides of Samuben into the Patel house were a new beginning and a giant leap for Saragwa Mahudi.

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