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Caste Kills

Caste Kills

Only a few national newspapers published the story of Jitendra Kumar Das, a Dalit youth belonging to the Bajgi community, murdered allegedly for daring to eat his food along with the upper castes in a marriage party on April 26 in Uttarakhand’s Shrikot. The 23-year-old, a carpenter, was the sole earning member of his family. The news did not perturb anyone and the local Hindi dailies gave it a few columns for a couple of days. Now they too have forgotten the story completely which shows the role of media in hiding dirty facts about the state which is termed by all as ‘devbhumi’, in popular narrative.

The Background: region and community of Bajgis

Shrikot is small village in Jaunpur block of district Tehri Garhwal. It’s police check post area falls under Kampty, a few kilometres away from Mussoorie. So technically the area is not too much of a remote region, but quite adjacent to the capital city of Dehradun. However, socio-culturally, there is darkness around it. A large part of it has more in common with Uttarakhand’s Jaunsar region which is declared as scheduled area. In most of these regions, people still adhere strictly to caste system and related observances. Many temples are restricted for the Dalits and the campaign to reach an amicable solution failed as the upper caste Hindus refused to accept the Dalits as their brethren. In fact, BJP Rajya Sabha member from Uttarakhand and former editor of RSS mouthpiece Panchjanya, Mr Tarun Vijay, who made an earnest attempt to get Dalit entry into these temples, was attacked by the people.  

In the caste hierarchy, Bajgi is one of the most marginalized Dalit communities of Uttarakhand. The name Bajgi is derived from the traditional occupation of the community – play music during marriage ceremonies and such auspicious occasions. The Bajgi community are also known as Auji, Das, Jhumarya and Dholi. Even today, despite the presence of big bands, these traditional drumbeaters are sought to play at ceremonies in Uttarakhand as people still want to ‘follow’ the traditions.

The Bajgis have been in the forefront of the Uttarakhand movement from the very beginning where they led all the agitations, foot marches and public protests, and remained in the thick of all the political movements that fought for a separate state of Uttarakhand, way back in the late 1990s.   After the state of Uttarakhand came into being in the year 2000, the government decided to give the ‘status’ of ‘state agitationist’ or ‘rajyaandolankari’ to those who participated in the movement for a separate state and provided them with a small pension. Despite their hard work, the Bajgis were not acknowledged. The community is totally marginalized, absolutely demoralized and thoroughly landless with perhaps no representation in the government services or in political structure at any level. That speaks for the status of this particular community of Bajgis.  

A senior civil servant from Uttarakhand, Mr Chandra Singh, who is a Dalit, had made several efforts to make the community’s voice heard. However, since it is an absolutely minority community, with very few numbers, there are not many takers. State has abdicated its responsibility as far as Bajgis are concerned. Mr Singh wrote various representations to the state government regarding the condition of the community and to give them the status of ‘rajyaandolankari’, acknowledging their contribution towards creating a separate Uttarakhand state.

However, the savarna politics of Uttarakhand has completely ignored the issues of Bajgis, in particular, and Dalits, in general. The issues of Dalit and caste discrimination are often ignored in Uttarakhand as if they don’t exist, which is clearly hypocritical, to say the least. The state has often not used the funds released by the central government under the Special Component Plan for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Land Reforms have never been implemented particularly where it is possible in the plains of Tarai and Bhabhar regions where people still have big landholdings and marginalized communities are under tremendous pressure from the feudal landlords, mostly migrated from Punjab.

The Fatal Meal

Jitendra Das had gone to participate in the wedding party of his cousin in Shrikot village. According to reports, he took his food and sat on a chair near the boys from the local Rajput community. Some argument occurred. Jitendra’s sister Pooja alleged that the Rajputs abused him for daring to sit near them eating their food. The tiff resulted in the Rajput youth thrashing Jitendra. According to the story published in Times India, Jitendra’s sister Pooja said, “It was our cousin's marriage. My brother made the mistake that he took food from the same counter where upper caste people were eating. He then sat on a chair next to them which infuriated them. “Woh bole ye neechi jaati ka hamare saath nahi kha sakta; khayega toh marega (They said, this man belongs to lower caste and if he tries to eat with them, he will have to die).” On April 29, Pooja filed a complaint against a group of seven men. The accused have been identified as Gajendra Singh, Soban Singh, Kushal Singh, Gabbar Singh, Gambhir Singh, Harbir Singh and Hukum Singh.

The incident happened on April 26. The friends and family of Jitendra took him to Coronation Hospital in Dehradun. After struggling for life for several days, Jitendra succumbed to his injuries on May 5. Unhappy with the police inaction, Jitendra’s family refused to accept the body unless the accused were arrested. The administration swung into action and arrested three of the accused – Soban Singh, Gajendra Singh, and Hukum Singh. The police is looking for the other accused.  

Understanding caste operation in the weddings in Uttarakhand

Many people would wonder as to why the upper castes were eating in the wedding of a Dalit family. In many parts of Uttarakhand particularly in Tehri, Uttarakashi region, upper castes do participate in the weddings of the Dalit communities on condition that their food is cooked by the Brahmins. So, a Brahmin cook prepares food for the savarnas at a separate place, mostly in the open fields, while the Dalits cook the food for their community.

This way, many places of Uttarakhand have ‘peace and order’ as long as you understand your caste roles and identities and don’t ‘defile’ it. Jitendra’s ‘fault’ was that he sat and ate where he was ‘banned’. Liquor is the most ‘important’ aspect of Uttarakhand weddings and must have contributed a lot, apart from the false identity complexes prevalent these days as a result of the whatsapp messages people share glorifying their castes, according to an upper caste activist. “It was never there several years ago, but now with the growth of the Sangh Parivar’s false propaganda, these ideas thrive in the minds of people, which is shameful,” he said.

The disturbing fact here is the silence of the Uttarakhand political leadership on the issue. Neither the chief minister nor other political leaders of the state made any statement on the unfortunate incident. The shocking part is the attempt to ignore or suggest that it is an aberration. The biggest threat in Uttarakhand, as far as Dalits are concerned, is not physical violence, which is rarity though, but economic and social isolation of the community as they are in real minority in the hills. Bajgis, in particular, are a miniscule minority and absolutely disempowered community whose numbers don’t matter for the political leaders to influence electoral outcomes. The issue of Dalit rights should not be merely dependent on the outcome of the polls, but our constitutional promise of a fair and equitable society. Uttarakhand must show strength to deal with this caste based violence. The state must come out of the tag of either Devbhumi or Danavbhumi, the time has come for it to become a ‘manavbhumi’ and respect all human beings irrespective of their caste or religion. If Uttarakhand can remove this blot of caste discrimination, it could become one of the finest states of the country and this is not an impossible task, though a difficult one. But for that, we need deep determination of the civil society, social activists and intellectuals, as nothing much is expected from the political class in this regard.

The murder of Jitendra Das is a caste based hatred and must be treated as hate crime. Time has come for the people of Uttarakhand to get out of this hatred and prejudices and defeat those forces which are injecting this in their minds. They need to speak up and atone for the killing of innocent Jitendra whose community served through traditional music which was never respected though deemed inevitable during all the different ceremonies, whether private or public. The state must honour and give due acknowledgment to Bajgis’ contribution towards the Uttarakhand movement. It must ensure justice to Jitendra, upholding the rule of law and constitution of India.

(Published on 13th May 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 20)