by Ajaz Ashraf  Sep 12, 2014

In death there is equality, you have been told. So you feel the cremation ground has to be the most egalitarian space of our Republic. In Jaipur, though, caste has been stalking crematoriums of the Jaipur Municipal Corporation (JMC), invisible most of the time until its simmering destructive passion bubbles over.

Different upper caste groups have appropriated portions of cremation grounds in the Pink City, constructed platforms where funeral pyres are built, affixed signposts declaring the dead of only their caste can have the last rites performed there. Woe betide him and her, who, in ignorance or defiance, violate the norms of the JMC-owned cremation grounds.

Representational image. AFP

The Jaipur-based lawyer Ramchandra Machwal learnt this the hard early last year. As president of the Rana Samaj Vikas Samiti, an organisation of the drum-beater community classified as Scheduled Caste, Machwal had gone to the Chandpole cremation ground, Jaipur, to participate in the last rites of a Samiti member. The dead body was placed on one of the many platforms in preparation for the funeral ceremony.

Out of nowhere, a posse of men accosted the grieving friends and relatives of the dead. Claiming the platform was reserved for the exclusive use of their caste, they demanded the immediate removal of the dead body from there. Machwal doesn’t remember to which caste the objectors belonged, or perhaps he doesn’t wish to name them, other than stating they belonged to the “General Category” — a nomenclature often used to designate seats in educational institutes and government jobs not in the reserved quota.
The demand was insulting enough for the Samiti members and relatives of the dead to forget the solemnity of the occasion. It wasn’t that they were oblivious of caste-based discrimination, but what had them reeling under shock was its extension to a public place. A ferocious argument ensued, and the situation was on the verge of teetering out of control.

Ultimately, the Samiti members relented and took the corpse to another platform, which too had been reserved for another caste. But, fortunately, none of its members was around to object to the lighting of the funeral pyre of a dead Scheduled Caste. Through this incident the ‘secret’ of the Chandpole cremation ground was outed — every upper caste had their own exclusive funeral area, which the Scheduled Caste could only make use of surreptitiously.

For the 36-year-old Machwal, it was a shocking discovery of an aspect of life in Jaipur where he had grown up. He had been ignorant of this invidious tradition because his participation in death rituals, negligible in number, had been confined to the Hatwara cremation ground, which has just one platform for the funeral pyre, ruling out the possibility of any caste appropriating the space for its exclusive use.

Stung, Machwal undertook a survey of the cremation grounds in Jaipur. He found the bigger of these — located in the localities of Adarsh Nagar, Chandpole, Mansarovar, Brahmpuri and Ghat Gate — had been parcelled out among different upper castes. Those who did not belong to this category had to take the dead for their last journey to the smaller crematoriums, and waiting inordinately long in queues to consign the dead to the flames.

Hardship apart, it was also about the brazen transgression of the philosophy of equality which the Indian Constitution upholds. Machwal filed a petition in the Rajasthan High Court last September arguing that the caste-based segregation in cremation grounds was in violation of Art 14, or equality before law, Art 17 that abolishes untouchability, and is punishable under Section 3 (1) (XIV) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Machwal’s petition pleaded with the High Court to pass orders to ensure Schedules Caste members were not “forced to go to a different place for the purpose of cremation of a dead body than that which is constructed, maintained and regulated by a Municipal authority under the Rajasthan Municipalities Act, 2009… and to permit them to burn the dead bodies of their community anywhere in cremation grounds…”
Nearly a year later, on 8 September to be precise, the High Court passed orders instructing the authorities to end the practice of caste-based segregation in cremation grounds, remove boards establishing exclusive rights of different caste groups over spots illegally appropriated, and agreed with Machwal that such customs violated the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Obviously, the High Court’s intervention provides no option to the Jaipur authorities but to turn the cremation grounds into egalitarian space accessible to all. Yet it is alarming, and shocking, the authorities should have been so indifferent to the discrimination practiced publicly. Was it because upper castes dominate the Jaipur local administration and, therefore, had no empathy with those who were humiliated? Has the idea of equality failed to strike roots among India’s caste elites, who subscribe to this ideal in public life only because of the fear of punishment?

The Jaipur episode also makes you wonder, rather worryingly, the many public spaces in nondescript towns and villages still outside the bounds of Scheduled Castes. This is borne out by the celebrated 2009 case of P Rathinam vs State of Tamil Nadu, which pertained to the denial of access to Schedule Caste people to cremate one of theirs who had died at the “cremation-cum-graveyard” constructed under a state government scheme in Tirumalayanpatti village, Trichy district.

Since the refusal of dominant castes to allow the cremation sparked off tension, the local authorities persuaded the Scheduled Caste people to have the funeral at another place. The petitioner Rathinam argued that instead of enforcing the Constitutional provision abolishing untouchability, the authorities through their action of defusing the volatile situation were guilty of violating it.

Accepting Rathinam’s contention, the High Court observed, “It is no doubt true that in a particular village or in a particular area there may be some apprehension of law and order situation. It is a matter for the public officials… to control the same. It will be the duty of all public officials concerned to ensure that no member of any particular community would be forced to go to a different place for the purpose of cremation of a dead body. Anything contrary, either directly or indirectly, would obviously be against the sentiments expressed in Article 17 of the Constitution.”

Indeed, as we rush to emerge as an economic powerhouse, run bullet trains, build smart cities and construct the much-needed toilets countrywide, we ought not to forget to liberate our public spaces from the shackles of caste discrimination.

A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing December 2014.