Savaged by tradition

Published : Dec 06, 2002 00:00 IST

The Jhajjar tragedy is a pointer to the unending plight of Dalits who are kept ensnared in the most socially degrading traditional occupations.

THE nation was shamed and stunned once again, this time by the merciless slaughter of five Dalit men within the boundary of a police station in Duliana village in Jhajjar district of Haryana. There is justified, widely shared outrage at the brutality spurred by vicious pseudo-religious communal mobilisation and unashamed state partisanship.

However, the ensuing debate needs also to focus on the reality of the on-going hidden violence and brutal humiliation to which significant numbers of Dalit families are routinely subjected in villages and towns across the country, because of their engagement owing only to their birth in the traditional occupations that are culturally considered degrading and polluting. These occupations continue to be in most parts of India the monopoly of a few Dalit castes, a grotesque perverse legacy for people shunned as the lowest of the low. They are born into the dishonour of these occupations, and die in it, frequently, with no path of escape.

On the evening of October 15, 2002, Devendra and Dayachand, traditional leather-workers, were skinning a dead cow close to the Duliana police station. With them were animal skin trader Kailash, and the driver and conductor of the hired vehicle in which the carcass was transported, Tota Ram and Raju. All of them were Dalits.

A crowd of villagers gathered near the Duliana police station, infuriated by a rumour that a cow was being skinned alive. They attacked and gravely injured the Dalit men, who were later dragged to the police station. The policemen failed to evacuate the critically wounded men to safety and render medical attention even after the passage of four hours.

Meanwhile, a tractor-load of young men, who were returning from Dasara celebrations, converged on the police post, and lynched the men, in the presence of three magistrates and at least 60 to 70 police personnel who had been summoned by then. The assembled police force did little to save the lives of the five. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad took out a procession in Jhajjar the following day in defence of the killings, and demanded that no arrests be made. The police have since dragged its feet in making arrests, claiming that it was too dark at the time of the incident to identify the murderers.

The defence of the attackers was that the cow was alive while being skinned by the Dalits, and that it was this outrage of their religious sentiments that fuelled the mob fury. The State administration remained callous and indifferent. Not a single Minister visited the site or condoled with the bereaved families. Dayachand's brother Jogendra broke down while testifying before a joint delegation of Left parties investigating the massacre. "They treated us as though we were families of the criminals, not the victims," he said. "They gave us the brutalised body of our brother - naked. We are poor Dalits, therefore they did not think it necessary to even cover the body of my brother."

AT the heart of their collective tragedy and angst is the trap in which the most oppressed communities among the Dalits continue to find themselves even as the country surges into the 21st century. Tradition, feudal coercion and economic compulsions continue to entrap Dalit families across the length and breadth of the country into the most humiliating and despised occupations.

An ambitious national survey of the status of the practice of untouchability in 12 major Indian States was recently conducted by ActionAid India, with the collaboration of leading social scientists Ghanshyam Shah, Sukhdeo Thorat, Satish Despande and Amita Baviskar and Dalit activists from across the country. One of the findings of the survey was that Dalits in every State continue to be ensnared into categories of work that are culturally regarded as most intensely polluting, unclean and socially degrading. Most of the so-called unclean occupations are associated in one way or the other with death, human waste or menstruation, all of which are engulfed by the dense cultural beliefs of pollution.

The unclean occupations forced upon Dalits that are related to human death include the digging of graves, collection of firewood for the cremation of dead bodies and setting up the funeral pyres. Death is considered so impure and unclean that, in many regions it is Dalits alone who are required even to communicate the news of any death to the relatives of the deceased person, whatever maybe the distance.

There are a large number of unclean occupations that derive from the death of animals. In every State that was surveyed, villagers expect Dalits to dispose of carcasses of animals that die in their homes or in the village, whether cattle or dogs or cats. They skin the bodies of dead animals, flay and tan these and develop them into fine leather, and sometimes even turn them into footwear and drums. The pollution associated with leather is so pervasive that in States such as Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, even the beating of drums at weddings, funerals and religious festivals is considered polluting and imposed only on Dalits. The logic is carried further in States where public announcements are made in villages by the beat of drum - even this occupation is considered polluting and is the monopoly of Dalits.

In Andhra Pradesh, animal sacrifice is a polluting task entrusted to Dalits. The most humiliating custom, observed in 12 per cent of the villages surveyed, is Gavu Pattadam. This is a ghoulish forced ritual, by which Dalits are required to bite the neck of the animal to kill it. The blood of the animal is then mixed with rice and sprinkled all over the village to keep evil spirits at bay.

A third category of unclean occupations derives from the culturally polluting character of human waste. In every State surveyed, the manual removal of human excreta, often with bare hands, survives as a deeply humiliating vocation despite it having been outlawed. This pollution extends in many cases to cleaning of sewage tanks, drainage canals and the sweeping of streets. The beliefs related to the pollution by menstrual blood results in midwifery and the washing of clothes deemed as unclean occupations in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Maharashtra.

The survey revealed that continued bondage to unclean occupations creates not only deep psychological scars but also physical health problems. In Upale Dumala village in Solapur, Maharashtra, an elderly Mang man engaged in carcass cleaning developed huge boils and rashes on his shoulders as a result of carrying carcass. A range of health problems were reported from elsewhere as well, as a result of the intensely unsanitary character of their vocations, unmitigated by modern technology.

The sturdy beliefs in the polluting nature of certain occupations adapt regressively to a range of potentially liberating contemporary developments.

For instance, the establishment of leather factories and tanneries has freed Dalits significantly from traditional hereditary occupations, but Dalits still lift and skin carcasses to sell at a price to these companies.

It is also interesting that leather and tanning factories have a very high proportion of Dalit workers. In cases where the modern economy or municipal management requires the transport of solid waste or cascasses, even the drivers of these vehicles are drawn from the Dalit community. Municipal authorities routinely employ only Dalits for scavenging.

Veterinary and medical doctors, unwilling to pollute themselves by touching corpses, use Dalits to perform post-mortems, whereas they only sign the reports.

Some unclean occupations are non-voluntary and unpaid, or paid a pittance.

The bearing of death messages and temple cleaning in Tamil Nadu, cleaning up after marriage feasts in Kerala and Karnataka, making leather chappals for people of higher castes as a sign of respect in Andhra Pradesh, and drum-beating and the removal of carcasses in many States are unpaid tasks. Orissa reports payments of leftover food, old clothes, fistfuls of food grains or petty cash.

The survey in most States reported that Dalits, who still engage in hereditary polluting occupations, unless they are also bonded, today usually negotiate some level of wage payment in cash or kind, although these tend to be low and at times humiliating. The Karnataka survey reports the payment of arrack, a meal and some cash for drum-beating, and fixed cash payments for other tasks like mid-wifery and the lifting of carcasses. Scavengers may be employed on monthly salary by local bodies, otherwise families pay them cash or stale food. Similarly, in Orissa the survey showed that the Ghasis, Panos and Doms involved in leather work and scavenging are landless and most non-Dalits and even some of the Dalit farmers refuse to employ them for agricultural wage work. The researchers from Rajasthan reported that in most villages, cash is rarely paid for traditional unclean work expected from the Dalits, instead they are usually given food (usually two rotis).

In several cases, Dalits who persist in unclean occupations do so as they feel powerless to resist, or even because they accept their caste roles. In Babufasad village in North Orissa, the elected ward member, Chamayu Pathar Khamia, who belongs to the Ghasi caste, sweeps the roads, removes the carcasses and skins dead cattle. In return, he is given a handful of rice, and occasionally money, by the villagers. "If I do not do this kind of work, the non-Dalits will threaten me and force me to leave the village. And because of my work, even Dalits of the Ganda caste despise me even though we are all Scheduled Castes."

Economic compulsions prevent most Dalits from escaping humiliating hereditary occupations. They may earn Rs.200 from skinning a dead buffalo. Scavenging may secure them regular employment in the local bodies.

These secure earnings contain the seeds of the cruel dilemma of the most socially disadvantaged and oppressed Dalits who are trapped in hereditary `unclean occupations'. Adherence to occupations such as scavenging or disposal of carcasses and human bodies, which are indispensable for any society, but which no other group is willing to perform, bestows them with a monopoly status that gives them greater economic security than many other disadvantaged groups. But this is at the price of the most savage and extreme social degradation. Yet, if they seek to escape this social degradation to achieve dignity, they have to abandon the economic security of their despised occupations to join the vast ranks of the proletariat. This, then, is the core of their dilemma: if they seek economic security, they must accept the lowest depths of social degradation; but if they wish for social dignity, they must accept the price of economic insecurity and deprivation.

Despite the threats of pauperisation, sporadic individual and collective resistance have led to a steady decline in the numbers of Dalit families engaged in unclean occupations in most parts of the country. In Tamil Nadu, in 80 per cent of the villages surveyed, only Dalits perform the uncleanest of occupations such as carcass removal, grave digging and the cleaning of garbage after festivals. However, the major change reported is that in many cases, these activities are now performed by few, rather than all. The older generation is more obliging whereas younger Dalits resist.

An interesting example was reported from Beguru village in Karnataka. Dalits have negotiated with non-Dalits to release them from unclean obligations.

The panchayat itself now employs just three Dalits on a monthly wage of Rs.700 each, to perform the polluting occupations of drum beating, scavenging, sweeping and removing of dead animals. The remaining Dalits in the village have been freed, and have shifted to agricultural wage work, industrial work or have migrated to the cities for work that may liberate them from the indignities of the caste system.

However, escape to the anonymity of cities does not always guarantee liberation from the stigma of unclean occupations. Research in Orissa observed that Dalits in rural unclean occupations sometimes migrate to towns, but even there find work mainly as road sweepers and drain cleaners. There seems no escape for them from social ostracism. The same trends are reported from other states like Tamil Nadu.

Where hereditary unclean occupations for Dalits remain entrenched in the rural social system, cracks are developing. There are many reports of successful resistance from many parts of the country. Some inspiring case studies have come to light even from the feudal outposts of Rajasthan.

In Palri village of Sirohi, the Dalits collectively resolved to refuse to remove the carcasses. The caste Hindus retaliated with a social and economic boycott and violence, but the Dalits held their ground. Today they have freed themselves from this legacy of shame. Likewise, in 2001, the Regar community in Sujanpura village of Sikar refused to lift carcasses. Non-Dalits negotiated and a breakthrough was achieved when in a major rupture from tradition, it was agreed that two persons from each caste would take turns to carry the carcass outside the village. However, it is still left to the Regars to skin the animals.

Likewise, the survey from Tamil Nadu reported that until recently, refusal to perform unclean activities was met with fines, violence or excommunication. However, collective resistance has grown over the past decade, forcing non-Dalits to accept the mobility of these Dalits into the more respected caste-neutral category of agricultural workers.

Young Dalit men in a meeting with the Left parties in Jhajjar to mourn the massacre of the five leather workers at the hands of the bigoted mob, gave words to the depths of their mortification and anger. "These Hindus, they make us do their dirty work and then deprive us of even a minimum of dignity." Another added: "If they love their animals so much, let them pick up the carcasses and bury them with full rites." The extent to which his words unknowingly echoed those of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar decades earlier reflects how sub-born is the survival of the most oppressive elements of our troubled tradition. He had said: "You take the milk from the cows and buffaloes, and when they are dead, you expect us to remove the dead animals. Why? When you can carry the dead bodies of your mothers, why can you not carry the dead bodies of your `mother cows' yourselves?" To our sisters and brothers, who are entrapped and enslaved to the most disgraceful elements of our shared legacy, do we have an answer?

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