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The Price of Dalit Assertion-On the Burning Down of Dalit Houses in Lathore, Odisha

Vol – XLVII No. 35, September 01, 2012 | Ranjana PadhiNigamKhuturam Sunani, and Debaranjan Sarangi 

In Odisha, especially in the western part, dalits face a peculiar situation. On the one hand, they suffer the indignity of the age-old caste system and on the other, they are perceived by tribal communities as “exploiters”, and at times, bear the brunt of their fury too. Such a perception accentuates the hatred against dalits and also seems to justify attacks. This fi eld study in Lathore, a village in the block of Khaprakhol of Balangir district of Odisha, demonstrates how in such a hostile atmosphere, even minor incidents involving individual dalits lead to horrendous consequences.

Khuturam Sunani ([email protected]) is a journalist in Nuapada, Odisha. Nigam ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and translator in Bhubaneswar, Ranjana Padhi ([email protected]) is a feminist researcher in New Delhi and Debaranjan Sarangi ([email protected]) is a social activist and documentary fi lm-maker in Puri.

While studying the conditions of dalits in Odisha in 1978, the Harijan Sevak Sangh observed:

Out of the surveyed states, Odisha is one where public places were not accessible to the Harijans in all the surveyed villages, although the violent incidents are not reportein equal measures [Italics ours]. The reasons may be the general backwardness and power­lessness and also the low level of awareness of the Scheduled Castes, who continue to bear the social injustices perpetrated on them.

Thirty-four years after this observation, “violent incidents” are reported almost daily. Perhaps it indicates that dalits have begun to assert themselves, breaking the long years of silence. In Odisha, particularly in the western parts, dalits face a peculiar situation. On the one hand, they suffer the indignity of the age-old caste system at the hands of caste Hindu communities and on the other, they are perceived by tribal communities as “exploiters” and at times, bear the brunt of their fury too. This has been seen in both Kandhamal and Narayanpatna. Such a perception not only accentuates the hatred against dalits, it also seems to justify attacks. In such a hostile atmosphere, even minor incidents involving individual dalits lead to horrendous consequences. In early 2012, the media reported three such incidents. On 22 January 2012, an entire dalit pada (hamlet) was burnt to ashes by caste people in Lathore village, Khaprakhol block, Balangir district. Similarly, in February, in Kamadhenukote village of Dhenkanal district, 22 dalit houses were burnt down on suspicion of not voting for a particular candidate in panchayat elections. On 29 April, Kalahandipada of Rayagada district met a similar fate over the issue of a comment made by a dalit youth to a tribal girl. Irrespective of the cast of characters or the nature of conflict, it is the hamlets of dalits that are being burnt to ashes. Do the apparent causes reported by the media reflect the real situation? Or are the voices of protest buried under those ashes? To understand such dynamics more clearly and share the events with a wider public, we visited Lathore on 6 and 7 April 2012.

The Incident in Lathore

On 22 January 2012, around 9 am, Ganesh Suna (15), a dalit youth, had gone to buy a shirt from Laxmi Cloth Store run by Dayasagar Meher and Bharat Meher. He bought the shirt, paid the money, and came back. As other members of the family did not like it, he went to return it. Dayasagar refused to take it back, and accused Ganesh of stealing the shirt, which the latter protested. In the quarrel that ensued, Ganesh was beaten up. He came back and narrated the incident in the pada. Some dalit youths while taking Ganesh to the local public health centre met Dayasagar and beat him up. Then, members of Dayasagar’s family took him to the subdivisional hospital at Patnagarh, and then to the district hospital at Balangir, and finally to Cuttack. Those with Ganesh went to the police outpost but the officer-in-charge had gone to Khaprakhol; so they went to Khaprakhol.

Many male members of the pada had gone to parti­cipate in the death ritual of a relative in another village. Hence, when both the families involved in the incident were outside the village and busy either at the police station or at the hospital, events took the form of a communal clash along caste lines, specifically when the message spread of Dayasagar having been beaten up. In protest, some people from the Meher community closed the village market.1 We were told that a meeting was held in the Hanuman temple of the village where an oath was taken to teach a lesson to the dalits. The dalits ­alleged that Ghasiram Agrawal (owner of a country liquor store) and Jagannath Agrawal (owner of a petrol pump) freely supplied ­liquor and petrol to those who indulged in arson.

The district administration on inspection found an unaccounted 382 ­litres of petrol in the same petrol pump.2 Just a rumour can play such a role in precipitating such situations; the rumour that Dayasagar was seriously ill and may die, took its toll.

Evidently, there was some level of planning and mobilisation with an intention to attack dalit families as described by Keiro, an inspector of the local police station.3 After receiving the first information report (FIR) from Ganesh Suna around 11 am, he reached Lathore for investigation around 2 pm. By that time, people had gathered on the main road of the village and were talking about blocking the road and burning down houses of dalits. Warning them not to do so, the inspector left the village for Khaprakhol police station around 3.30- 3.45 pm as he got a phone call from higher officers about an “encounter rescue operation”. People from victims’ families had also been repeatedly informing the district police administration, including the superintendent of police (SP) about the situation. A journalist who works forThe Dharitri, a widely circulated Oriya news daily, had contacted the SP. But help did not come in time; perhaps it was not meant to. Around 4 pm, the burning started; the entire dalit pada of 45 families was reduced to ashes.

Then, the routine operations began. The victims were rescued and put in a temporary relief camp set up in Durgeswari High School in the village; 42 people from the Meher community were arrested (those named in the FIR who were from the Marwari community were allowed to go free). The state commission for scheduled castes made a visit. Compensation for the victims was declared and a peace committee was set up.

Interestingly, individuals from both Meher and Marwari communities said it was wrong to burn down houses. But they attributed it to a “divine wrath”. Apparently, a few days earlier, the village goddess, Basteren Devi, through her priest had predicted that there would be rain of fire in the village as people were going astray. In this view, the dalits had overstepped their social boundaries and broken the codes set for them. Despite the criminal negligence of the police, apathy of the administration and the so-called divinity wrath, such incidents hint at the internal relations and contradictions of the three important communities – Marwari, Meher and Gana – that led to such a terrible incident. To understand this, it is important to have a look at Lathore.

Locating Lathore

Lathore, a village
in the block of Khaprakhol of Balangir district, is close to Harishankar Road railway station on the Raipur-Vijayanagram railway line. It is located at a distance of around 25 km from the block headquarters, and around 90 km from the district headquarters. Because of this railway connection, it has grown as a trade centre. In the past, it was known for timber trade. Today, it is one of the important labour migration centres of western Odisha. During the last 70-80 years, people from the Marwari community as well as some families from Meher and Gana communities have, gradually, migrated to Lathore in search of fortune and livelihoods, and the village has grown into a gram panchayat. According to the 1961 Census, the population of the village was 937, and in 2001 it grew to 4,061. Today its population is more than 5,000 with more than 800 families. It is a village of various castes and communities. Numerically, the Bhulias (also known as Mehers) belong to the Other Backward Class (OBC) category and comprise the single largest community with around 250-300 families. The Marwaris (around 90 families) though belonging to OBCs (specifically those who have registered themselves as Bania in the land records) in the census, constitute the richest community in the village. There are other com­munities like the Keuta, Paika and Gauda who belong to the OBC category. Dalits (Gana, Ghasi, Virtia) constitute 11.3% and adivasis (Gond, Sabar/Sanra) 8.1% of the total population as per the 2001 Census.

People from all the major communities (Marwari, Meher and Gana) are involved in trading, which plays a dominant role in the economy. All major products such as liquor, petrol, kerosene, forest and agro-products are controlled by Marwari families. Some families deal in groceries, electronic goods, clothes and medicines. Many families also own landed properties. One or two families are into the business of supplying labour to brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as labour contractors. Their social life in the village is largely centred on temples and ceremonies to which they handsomely donate. In the recent past, two temples dedicated to Radhakrishan and Hanuman have been constructed, mostly with large donations from a few Marwari families. Other than that, the Marwari community maintains a sort of exclusivity as if they do not belong to the village where they have been living for decades. For example, a Dharamshala, namely, Ugrasen Bhawan, run by the Marwari Yuva Manch, is not given to people of other communities, even on rent. Though this exclusivity is somewhat compensated by the donation to temples and their ceremonies and the inclusion and active participation of some sections of the Meher community, Marwaris are largely seen as a community that is there only to make money. Educationally, they are not backward, but there are not many higher educated people commensurate with their affluence.

The Mehers, the numerically dominant community in the village, are into both agriculture and trading. Their recent entry into trading, ranging from clothes, electrical and electronic goods, to hotels, grocery and transport, has started cutting into the business of the Marwari community. Gradually, they are evolving as a competing economic force. In 2008, they formed Odia Banika Sangha, clearly a non-Marwari trading society, to protect their economic interests. No doubt, they seek social-cultural superiority too. In a village atmosphere like Lathore, it manifests itself in the form of religiosity. Dalits perceive them as “more Brahmin than Brahmins themselves”. However, 30-40% people from this community are landless. They eke out a living by hawking clothes, chappals, etc, from one weekly haat (market) to another. The level of education is not high in this community; but they are mostly not illiterate.

The situation of the dalits presents a different picture. There are seven Virtia and two Ghasi families in the village. Virtias work as priests for Ganas in marriage and death rituals in the entire locality. Ghasi families are into the business of piggery. Ganas are numerically superior and spread over three padas in the village. Ganas living in two padas are mostly wage workers. Some also work as drivers or as domestic workers. However, the pada that was burnt down tells a different story. With 45 families living in 33 houses, the entire pada belongs to one clan, related to each other by blood. Known as the most educated group of families, this pada boasts of having two postgraduates out of the four in the entire village. Education has enabled almost 23 families to enter the government and public sectors such as banking, railways, teaching (both at school and college levels), the medical field and the police. A couple of families own landed property even up to 20 acres. However, seven families are landless. They are into small businesses such as cycle-repairing, running a motor garage and vegetable vending. There is also a labour contractor from this pada.

Emergence of the Krishna Club

In recent history, the emergence of the Krishna Club has proved to be a turning point for the community of Ganas, especially from this pada. Founded in 1995, it was a meeting place for bhajan-kirtan for the elderly and youth of the pada. However, since 2007 the educated youth began discussions on Ambedkarite philo­sophy that inspired them to enunciate a language of dignity and equality. They not only played a catalytic role in raising voices against caste oppression, but also took active interest in village welfare ­activities. This upset the social and cultural equation of the village.

On the one hand, the trading groups from both Marwari and Meher communities are locked in an economic contradiction. But on the other, there is a sense of unity and coexistence in the sociocultural field. But dalits stand at the opposite pole altogether. Among them, those who have gained some economic and social strength through education aspire for social equality and dignity. In such a society, as the inhuman forms of power and hege­mony manifest themselves in the sociocultural spaces, the voices against them are also manifested in the same sphere. Let us see how it has taken shape in Lathore, ­especially, since the emergence of the Krishna Club.

During Durga puja in 2007, dalits of the village under the leadership of the Krishna Club demanded that they be ­allowed to participate in the yajna ceremony. Otherwise, they would refuse to beat the drum in the puja. Dalits, locally called Gana, are the traditional drum players in this puja and other similar ceremonies. Interestingly, the youth asserted that even if their parents and grand­parents had played this traditional role, they were not prepared to do so any longer. Some upper-caste people, mainly from the Marwari and Meher communities, could not digest this assertion and excluded them from the Durga puja activities. They threatened to drive them out of the village and that drum players from other villages would be invited. However, dalits from other villages, too, did not come to play drums in solidarity. This created considerable tension; the matter went to the office of the sub-­collector, Patnagarh.

In the presence of an assistant sub-inspector (ASI), who was sent to the ­village, the villagers resolved to remove the Ganas from the village. People emerged from various padas with lathis and sticks in a militant mood. Apparently, this had been done earlier too in Mohulpati village from where the Ganas had been removed. The collector ordered the ASI to book those leading this operation under the Atrocities Act. However, only Section 107 was used. In retrospect, the Gana youth realised that they had been misled into a compromise, solely to protect those who were instigating the violence from being booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

As the Ambedkarite movement progres­sed, the determination to enter temples grew. In 2008, when dalits wanted to participate in the yajna, they were stopped. Soon, the p
lace of the yajna was transferred. The puja committee decided that only the presiding priest would perform it and nobody else would go there. To keep the dalits out, the entire place was made inaccessible to everybody. A few think that there was a sea change from 1997 to 2007. One person recalled how the yajna was closed for some hours in 1997. The ghee was ­declared impure by the priest since the dalits had entered the puja. As a solution, the dalits were asked to pay for the 20 kilos used.

On 11 May 2009, Kedar Gauri Tandi, a dalit girl with her brother had been to the Siva temple. The priest Biranchi Thanapati was furious. He rebuked the two devotees and threw away the lota Gauri was carrying. Gauri was both angry and upset. As she told us, there was nothing personal; it was a humiliation for her entire community. She made a police complaint. The priest was booked under the Atrocities Act and sentenced to jail. This was the first case booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 that left many sections of the dominant castes shocked.

In 2010, Dhanu Yatra was organised by the Odia Banika Sangha. The youth of Krishna Club protested against vulgar dances, gambling and liquor in the ­yatra. This did not go down well with the ­organisers.

In August 2011, the entire village faced a severe shortage of electricity. There was no power supply for almost 1.5 months as the transformer was frequently getting burnt. Krishna Club took the initiative and restored electricity in three days. While the youth celebrated this achievement, it pricked the ego of the village elites. When the transformer got burnt again in 10 days, the administration probed into illegal connections and power overload being caused by heaters and welding operations. In the process, people with illegal connections were ­exposed, including some of the affluent families belonging to Marwari households. In retaliation, the village elders questioned the fund collection for the restoration of electricity and summoned some members of Krishna Club. When the latter refused to go there, the village elders were shocked by such assertion. They told us openly that the ­issue would have been settled that day itself had there been no Atrocities Act.

On 17 January 2012, a news report4 highlighted the black marketing activity in Lathore relating to liquor, wood, cooking gas and agro-products. The report was filed by Kapil Suna whose house has also been burnt down in the incident.

Interestingly, across communities, people referred to this same set of events that had contributed to the simmering of tension in the village for around four to five years. The only differences were in the interpretation: what was assertion of dignity and equality for dalits was seen as a challenge to the authority and status quo of the dominant castes.

There is an uneasy silence as the matter moves to court. Yet, the spirit and determination of the survivors housed in the village public school speaks of something new. There is no looking back in the aspiration to surge ahead even if it is the toughest of struggles in this age-old oppressive society of ours.

Notes

The Sambad, 24 January 2012.

The Samaj, 5 February 2012.

Janatantra, 16-31 January 2012 – interview of N Keiro, the police officer, Khaprakhol.

The Samay, 17 January 2012, Lathore: a market of black marketing.

 

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