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Casteist terror

Print edition : Nov 04, 2005 T+T-

Incidents of caste-related violence continue to be reported from various parts of Orissa. The latest one involves the physical harassment of five women of the barber community by caste Hindus.

PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswar

CASTEISM is playing havoc with Orissa's hinterland. Less than two months after a Dalit girl was reprimanded by caste Hindus for riding a bicycle on a village road on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, five women from the barber community were harassed by caste Hindus in a village of Puri district. On September 19, in Bhubanpati village, men of the Khandayat community beat up four women and paraded one naked. They were "punished" because their husbands had refused to wash the feet of a bridegroom and his guests, as per custom, during a caste Hindu marriage ceremony a few months ago.

After harassing the women, the caste Hindus locked up the victims in the community hall and looted the houses of four barber families in the village. "I was dragged out of my house and beaten up. They also looted our house and took away all that we had for our daughter's marriage," said Pratima Barik, a victim.

The women, who were in Bhubaneswar to draw people's attention to their plight, were afraid to return to their homes. "We are not sure when we can return to our homes. We have lost everything," said Sabitri Barik, another victim. Although 29 persons were named accused in the case pertaining to the incident, the Brahmagiri police, which is in charge of the investigation, were able to arrest only five of them. All the five have since been released on bail.

Pratima's husband Hadibandhu Barik, 51, has not gone to his village since March following a separate incident in which two men, including a 75-year-old, were beaten and tortured for not washing the feet of a groom and his guests. The barber families have since been socially ostracised and denied access to the village tubewell, and prevented from buying essential commodities from the shop in the village.

"I am scared to go back to my village because the Khandayats will surely attack me," said Hadibandhu Barik. "Our children are educated and they are not willing to do the customary job of washing the feet of upper-caste men, clear the leftovers after the marriage feast, and wash the utensils."

In fact, members of the community in Puri have been protesting against the oppressive custom for the past several years. But the problem continues and they are being "punished" by caste Hindus. The barbers are a minority group in almost all the villages and this makes them powerless. For instance, while Bhubanpati has 60 Khandayat families, it has only four barber families.

The conflict in Bhubanpati is not an isolated one. Similar incidents have occurred in Puri Sadar and Satyabadi blocks of the district. "There have been a series of inhuman attacks on the members of our community in our district during the past two decades," said Jalandhar Barik, 40, a resident of Sanabenakudi village, who was tortured in 1992 for refusing to wash the feet of the groom and the guests.

In the first case of inhuman treatment of members of the barber community in Puri, in 1988, Jalandhar's father, Bhramarbar Barik, was made to walk on his knees and hands on the village road, while an upper-caste man sat on his back and beat him. "My father suffered from mental trauma after this physical torture and public humiliation and died a few months after the incident," said Jalandhar. The organisations supporting the cause of the barbers organised a protest dharna in front of the Puri Collector's residence in 2003. The dharna continued for 271 days and an agreement was reached that no member of the community could be compelled to wash the feet of caste Hindus and nobody should dissuade any barber from doing such jobs if he volunteered his services. But the problem persisted. The caste Hindus hired barbers from distant places to perform the rituals, and the harassment of local barbers continued.

"All these years, the district administration has been treating the problem as a mere conflict between those belonging to two separate castes, ignoring the fact that the job assigned to the barbers amounted to bonded labour and they cannot be forced to do the work," said Baghambar Patnaik, adviser to the Odisha Gotimukti Andolan, an organisation fighting for the barber community. "Politicians from the major parties are not coming to the rescue of barbers apprehending that they would lose upper-caste votes," said Patnaik. Patnaik, currently lodged in Bhubaneswar jail, has refused to go on bail until the government accepts his demand to declare barbers as bonded labourers. He was arrested on September 4 for leading a silent rally of the community to press the demand.

"Although barbers have been harassed in various ways since long, it is unfortunate that the administration has not been able to protect their lives and liberty till date. The government should take the issue seriously and prevent such incidents where barbers are subjected to all sorts of punishment," said Rabi Behera, human rights activist and secretary of the Ambedkar-Lohia Vichar Manch, which is taking up the issue before various fora. "The victims of Bhubanpati village who have lost all their household articles must be compensated adequately," he said.

Swati Sucharita, convener of the Odisha Gotimukti Andolan, said that the Puri district administration should first ensure that all those accused in the Bhubanpati case were brought to book. "The administration is trying for a patch-up after the plight of the barbers was widely reported in the media. We want a permanent solution to the problem," she said.

Over the years, incidents of caste-related violence have been reported from other parts of the State as well. In March 2000, caste Hindu men of Gadarodhanga village in Brahmagiri pulled down the tents put up for the marriage of a youth belonging to the washerman community. In 2004, Beda Nayak, a Dalit, was beaten up in Dhenkanal district for offering water to the Nandi inside a Shiva temple compound.

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