More than 350 temples dot the valley of Jaunsar-Bawar in western Uttarakhand. But until two years ago, Keshar Singh, a 28-year-old Dalit accountant from Bijnar, one of the region’s 400 villages, had never stepped into one.
He is surprised anyone wants to know why.
“It never occurred to me. No Dalit in the village ever has … nor their parents, neither their grandparents. This is how it has always been.”
A deep-seated caste system rules this isolated part of the Himalayan state, as nine upper-caste families dictate the lives of 18 Dalit families in Singh’s village.
“If you dared to enter a temple, you would have to face punishment. You pay the temple a fine: one goat and Rs 10,000. No one has escaped it in the 400 years of these temples’ existence,” said Baru Nirala, a Dalit folk singer from Bhewana, a village in the Chakrata tehsil.
His brother had to pay the penalty when he tried to enter the Kukurshi Maharaj temple in Gabela village.
In October 2014, Nirala and Keshar Singh trekked to the temple with Dalit activist Daulat Kunwar, and sat outside its gates on a seven-day hunger-strike.
“At the end, police arrested us and took us to a jail in Dehradun. They tried to force us to break our fast, but we refused to eat. (Chief minister) Harish Rawat had to come and arrange for us to enter the temple,” Nirala said.
The community, however, hesitated to follow their lead. The fear is too deep-rooted.
Dalits make up 18% of Uttarakhand’s population. But the fact that the temple ban doesn’t figure anywhere in the state’s poll battle is a reflection of their political irrelevance.
Mayawati’s BSP holds sway over the Dalit-dominated parts of the plains bordering Uttar Pradesh. It won three of 11 seats in Haridwar in 2012. But those in the hills lack leadership.
The BJP, itching to return to power, showed interest in the cause last year.
In May 2016, Tarun Vijay, an MP from Uttarakhand, led a group of Dalits into the Sindhugur Maharaj temple in Pokhari. An upper-caste mob showered them with stones on their way out.
“I haven’t heard of a Dalit being turned out of a temple in Chakrata after that day,” the BJP leader said.
But activist Kunwar, who has been leading a movement for entry of Dalits into temples, dismissed the parliamentarian’s remarks.
“If he is saying Dalits are able to enter temples now, he is lying. Tarun Vijay used us for political gain. He got us thrashed, got the publicity, and vanished. No reaction from him after that, no help. He’s not even taking my calls now.”
He said Dalits of Chakrata are disappointed with the BJP.
The temple issue doesn’t feature in the Congress’s election campaign either.
“Uttarakhand is known for the harmony of different castes and religion in villages. Stray incidents happen everywhere,” said Kishore Upadhyaya, the state Congress chief.
“Dalits can enter any shrine in Uttarakhand,” he asserted and blamed the BJP for “creating the temple ban hoax”.
On January 5, Kunwar was made the BSP’s candidate for the Chakrata assembly seat. He would be the first Dalit in the tehsil to contest elections.
“Dalits don’t contest election in these parts. The last person to dare was my grandfather, who was elected block pramukh. He was shot for his defiance.”