Dalits in Bhilwadiya village of Madhya Pradesh’s Shajapur district are forced to cremate their dead in the open because of the lack of proper arrangements at crematorium dedicated for them.
Bhilwadiya is barely seven kilometres away from the district headquarters and has a total population of around 2,000 people with 15 Dalit and 15 Muslim families living in the village.
The village has two crematoriums - one for the Dalits and the other for the upper caste villagers. But they are forced to perform the last rites of their loved ones in an open field because of the poor arrangements at the one earmarked for them.
And on their way to the field, Dalits have to cross a nullah that does not have a bridge or a culvert making it difficult for them to negotiate through it during the monsoons.
Dalit villagers said that separate crematoriums are not an uncommon practice as they are not allowed to use those meant for the upper castes in the remote areas for long now.
“It is a long-standing issue and nobody has taken it seriously so far. Unlike the crematorium for the upper castes, forget proper arrangement, our’s has no tin shed or a cremation platform, as a result, we are still using an open place demarcated many years ago for our funeral rites,” Shivnarayan Saurashtriya, 40, said.
“Our people have been denied permission to use the crematorium. So, we have been continuing the old practice,” he said.
Saurashtriya said they have placed cement electric poles over the nullah but during the rainy season, it is difficult to cross as it overflows. He said they try to take another route but even that has been encroached upon by influential people and they deny permission to use it many times.
“On Tuesday there was a death in a family in the village. We were worried not only about the rain that would affect the cremation, but how to reach the cremation ground crossing the nullah that was in full spate,” he said.
Radheshyam Malviya, regional president of Balai sub-caste among Dalits and a leading voice against the practice, acknowledged that the problem exists.
“Article 17 of the Constitution abolishes all forms of untouchability, but the reality is otherwise even when it comes to cremating the dead here,” Malviya said.
However, some members of the upper caste denied that Dalits were not allowed to use the general crematorium.
“There is already a separate smashan (crematorium) for Dalits in the village and few people are making a mountain out of a molehill,” village sarpanch Darbar Singh said.
Singh admitted that the problem exists in the area but was quick to add the issue is a long-standing one that nobody has taken seriously since Independence and he cannot be expected to find a solution in just two years of his term.
“Nobody denies the Dalits from entering the separate pathway,” Singh asserted.
He added that the gram panchayat has received fund worth Rs 12 lakh and soon all the grievances would be redressed.
Shajapur MLA Arun Bhimavad also said he has visited the village at least 10 to 15 times but the sarpanch never approached him with the problem of lack of proper arrangements at the crematorium or pathway.
“As the matter has come before him, he will try to resolve the issue as earliest as possible,” MLA Bhimavad said.
District collector Alka Shrivastava, who has assumed the charge recently, said she got to know about the issue through Hindustan Times.
“We will check the situation,” she said.
Centuries-old attitudes still persist and Dalits face discrimination in form of untouchability and are often not allowed inside Hindu temples, particularly in rural areas even though caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955.
Earlier in August, a Dalit family was not allowed to perform the last rites of a woman in the local cremation ground by the dominant castes, following which they were forced to hold them in front of their own house in Morena district Madhya Pradesh.
Hindustan Times had reported a story in January about how Dalits in Mhow’s Harsola village, barely eight kilometres from the birthplace of Dr BR Ambedkar who was a strong proponent of inter-caste unity, are discriminated against by dominant OBC communities that force them to cremate their dead in a separate crematorium.