On Tuesday, just a few hours before rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down in Pune, Prabha Purohit, former head of Mathematics at Bhavans College, was planning to call him from her village near Sangameshwar in Ratnagiri district.
Purohit, who has been associated with Dabholkar’s anti-superstition movement, wanted his advice on a festering problem in the small village of around 1,500 people, her home after she retired from teaching. A resident of the village had approached her for help after he was hounded by fellow-villagers for daring to refuse to work as a mediator between the deity of the local temple and devotees – an ancestral job passed on to him from his father and grandfather.
For hundreds of years, men from his family had acted as a medium for intercession between the village deity and those seeking divine favours during the annual festivals. But, members of the latest generation from that family no longer wanted to do the job. The man who sought Purohit’s help had a government job in a nearby town and he wanted to return to work after a short visit to take part in the temple festival, but the villagers wanted him to continue working as the mediator between them and divinity.
“He wanted to leave the village but was not allowed to go. During Holi too, the villagers wanted him to stay there for an entire month when the idol of the deity is taken out of the temple’s sanctum and paraded across the village. He told fellow-villagers that he could not take one month’s leave from his job, but they would not listen,” said Purohit.
The issue became so antagonistic that his family was harassed for refusing to do what was considered their ancestral responsibility. Purohit tried to reason with the villagers that compelling someone to do a job against his will was a violation of the country’s Constitution. The meeting to find a solution to the problem went on late into the night on Monday. Next morning, Purohit decided to seek Dabholkar’s help. It was too late.
Dabholkar, who had made the campaign against superstition his life mission, had recently taken up the cause of the victims of tyrannical village and caste panchayats.
While the existence of caste or Khap Panchayats in Haryana is known, relatively little has been reported about Maharashtra’s Jaat Panchayats, especially those in the state’s tribal villages.
Early this month, the Maharashtra Andhshraddha Nirmulan Samiti, founded by Dabholkar, held a series of meetings as part of its campaign ‘Jaat Panchayatila Muthmatil Abhiyan’. Meetings were held in Nashik and Pune and plans have been made to take the campaign to other parts of the state.
At the Pune meeting, the audience heard an 80-year-old man describing how his family was ostracised by members of his ‘upper’ caste community after his son, who works in the armed forces, travelled out of the country. The octogenarian’s family was accused of violating the caste’s ‘Samudra Bandi’ or restrictions on crossing the seas.
In Nashik, delegates were told that a father killed his eight-month pregnant daughter for daring to choose a man from outside their tribe as her life partner. In this case, the caste panchayat in a tribal village in the district instigated the man to kill the daughter for defiling their community’s ‘purity’. “Dabholkar analysed such incidents in the state’s tribal villages and concluded that these families have little power to resist the diktat of caste panchayats.
They feel they do not have the protection of the government,” said Purohit.
Maharashtra, which has been a crucible of social reform movements in the nineteenth century, seems like an unlikely place for the survival of blind faith and caste panchayats. Yet, as Purohit said, many of its politicians are extremely orthodox in their views on caste and religion. These were the politicians who thwarted the passing of the state’s anti-superstition bill since it was first drafted in 1990.