Haryana, India - Nov. 13, 2019: A man rides his cart at Barsola village, in Jind Haryana, India, on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. The Khera khap of Jind district in Haryana has decided not to use their caste as their surnames. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/ Hindustan Times)(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
Haryana, India - Nov. 13, 2019: A man rides his cart at Barsola village, in Jind Haryana, India, on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. The Khera khap of Jind district in Haryana has decided not to use their caste as their surnames. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/ Hindustan Times)(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

In Haryana’s Jind, little changed after a khap order to drop caste surnames

Yet, however well-intentioned it may have been, it is arguable how much of a success the initiative has been in a part of northern India where caste is a deep-rooted way of life and differences based on caste, often bitter, are never too far from the surface.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Priyanka Ishwari
UPDATED ON DEC 08, 2019 05:52 PM IST

On June 29, the elders of Khera Khap, a community of 24 villages and over 200,000 people in Haryana’s Jind district, passed a diktat urging its residents to stop using surnames indicative of their caste. Instead, villagers in the Jat-dominated Khap were told to adopt the name of their village as their surname.

The decision was made at a mahapanchayat, a traditional gathering of the Khap’s elders, attended by representatives of all 24 villages in its jurisdiction.

“Casteism is more dangerous than the problem of terrorism and Naxalism in India, where more than 70% of Indians live in the villages, where caste determines everything,” said Satbir Singh Barsola, the pradhan of the khap, who spearheaded the initiative,explaining the reason for the diktat.

“People from the lower castes feel dominated in villages and the move to drop caste identity from names has been widely welcomed by them,” added Barsola, who retired from the Indian Army as a company havildar major. “We have formed committees in all the 24 villages with members from all communities to spread the word on the move and other initiatives”.

Barsola, a Jat,himself is practising what he preached. He has adopted the name of his village, Barsola, as his surname.

Yet, however well-intentioned it may have been, it is arguable how much of a success the initiative has been in a part of northern India where caste is a deep-rooted way of life and differences based on caste, often bitter, are never too far from the surface.

Most people in Khera Khap are dependent on agriculture, and grow cotton, rice, wheat and bajra.

In their Jat-dominated villages, where Brahmins are the second largest community, the upper castes are mostly farmers, and the Dalits are mostly farm and construction labourers who have to work hard to make ends meet.

“Not many from the region have government jobs. Some of our educated men have been able to join the army as jawans or have opened small businesses other than being farmers,” khap pardhan Barsola says.

Take, for instance, 21-year-old Sandeep Khatkar, who is a reluctant farmer and is resentful of the government job and college seat quotas set apart for scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes in a form of affirmative to uplift the traditionally underprivileged communities.

“Please buy this land if you want to, I am done with it,” Khatkar joked, referring to the cotton farm where he is overseeing workers he has hired to harvest the crop.

“I liked studying and scored 82% in my class 12 exams in the non-medical stream. But I failed to get admission in the government college in Jind because the last cut-off for my stream was 84%. However, the students from the Scheduled Castes category secured seats with less marks than me because the cut-off for them was only 75%. Had it not been for the reservation policy, I would have gone to college and become something,” says the cotton grower, a resident of Barsola village in Jind district, who belongs to the Jat community and is a Khatkar by gotra.

“Because of reservations, the quality of life for the upper castes has regressed while the lower castes have progressed and risen above us,” he said as a dozen women pick the cotton from the bolls. All the women labourers belong to the Dalit community. Khatkar like most land-owning farmers, pays Rs10 to every worker for every kilo of cotton they pick.

Such resentment sparked a Jat agitation in 2016 in Haryana for inclusion of their caste, otherwise thought to be among the more prosperous communities in northern India, in the OBC list to make them eligible for reservations.

Khatkar hasn’t followed the diktat of the village elders to drop his surname.

“Dalits and those who belong to the upper castes are not created equal and we are not the same kind of people. But there is a feeling of brotherhood among all the people in the village. There is no need for anyone to drop or change their surnames,” said Khatkar.

And 45-year-old Azad Singh Munda from Khatkar village(adjacent to Barsola) couldn’t care less about the khap’s diktat, either. He hasn’t dropped his surname.

“I have never heard of this decision and I have not seen people around me drop their caste name,” said the farm worker, who is a Dalit and belongs to the Valmiki caste.

Munda claims to have bigger things to worry about. “I have an LPG {liquified petroleum gas} connection but I can’t afford the gas cylinder. I own less than three bighas and I cannot depend on farming alone to run my house.”

With the cotton having been harvested in many of the farms in the region, Munda collects from then flowerless shrubs that he can use as firewood.

“Only the Jats give importance to their caste names, the Valmikis and other Dalits are more bothered about money and land because they don’t have any,” says the numberdar of Mohangarh Chapra village, Ram Mehar. Some 15 km away from Barsola, Mohangarh Chapra is one of the 24 villages under Khera khap.

A numberdar collects revenue on land on behalf of the district tehsildar and is paid an honorarium.

“In this village, there are more than 500 persons and their families are mostly landed. However, Dalits have no or very little land. The eight families that belong to the Chamar caste own a total of 32 killas whereas the Valmiki families, which are almost 100 in number, own almost no land,” said Mehar, a Dalit.

To be sure, Mehar acknowledges that some things have changed.

“The villages have moved ahead from the time when Dalits would not be allowed to drink water in the same utensils as the upper castes or not given a khaat to sit on when they would enter other people’s homes. There is social equality to some extent now, but economic equality among all castes is nowhere to be seen,” Mehar summarises his final words.

Khap leaders say that dropping caste surnames can help in dismantling social barriers, but caste identities . are too firmly entrenched in these parts.

“The move is fine but different castes should not mingle with each other. Jats cannot marry Dalits and if such a thing happens, the couple would be ostracized from the village,” said 65-year-old Ram Kala Khatkar, a Jat from Barsola.

The young and women of the upper castes swear by his views.

“The khap leader, Satbir, is free to do whatever he likes to do to his name but everyone is free to think and act according to their wishes. I will not drop my gotra from my name and neither will I ever marry a Dalit,” said 20-year-old Amit Bhabber, who took up farming after completing school.

“Honestly, very few women in my village have heard about the khap’s move of dropping caste surnames. This is the first time I am hearing about it,” 34-year-old Navita, who is an Anganwadi worker in Mohangarh Chapra, told this reporter. “The village does not give consent for inter-caste marriages. People can change their names if they want to but if there is a move that aims to annihilate caste completely, it would be resisted tooth and nail”.

“Why should we change our caste surnames? Our caste is our pride,” said 22-year-old Amit Khatkar, posing with his motorcycle with Khatkar written on it.

“This is my gotra and my identity. When the pradhan can write his designation on his motorcycle then why can’t I? It is a matter of how everyone identifies themselves?”he said.

He stopped 19-year-old Suraj Bhabher, who is riding a motorcycle too. “Look, caste is important to everyone in the village,” he said, pointing to the Royal Jat sticker pasted on the two-wheeler’s bonnet.

The few who support the khap’s decision to drop surnames indicative of their castes do so to bridge the divide among upper caste communities that surfaced in the aftermath of the 2016 agitation for backward class reservations for Jats.

“There were many communities that did not support our demand for reservations and when we didn’t get what we wanted, a lot of people really started to assert their Jat identity in public spaces. This included making declarations about being Jat on their vehicles or on social media platforms like Facebook. The khap’s diktat sought to do away with such displays that could create further rifts among different communities,” said Balbir Singh of Mohangarh Chaapra, who runs a small electronics shop in the village.

Back in his house, Satbir Singh Barsola shows off the numerous cutouts of newspaper reports lauding the khap’s decision, surrounded by other khap elders. A restless Dalbir Singh is waiting to jump into the discussion.

“ The media is solely making it out to be a move against caste identity but we are more concerned about the new divisions among the Jats and non-Jats,” said the 40-year-old farmer. “There have been cases when some of the Jats would not even help victims from other communities, like the Sainis, in a road accident as soon as they found out about their identities”.

If people use the name of their village instead of their caste in their surnames, such differences can be bridged, he said.

As other khap members, mostly Jats, endorse his view they, like most upper-caste villagers, also support the abolition of caste-based reservations.

“We want all the villagers to live in unity. It is the politicians and policies like reservation that foster caste divides, “ said Udayveer Singh, a spokesperson for the khap. “Caste-based reservations should be done away with completely and reservations should only be based on economic status.”

“ Caste-based reservations did not help the oppressed castes, they were only used as vote bank by political leaders. Representations through caste-based reservations only further perpetuate caste stigmas,” said khap pradhan Satbir Singh Barsola.

The khap has formed committees in all the 24 villages under it to discouraging caste surnames.

“Dropping caste surnames seems like a good idea but if the khap leaders, who are all Jats, want to stop caste-based reservations then why are the Jats asking for reservations themselves,” asked 42-year-old Ajeet Singh, who works as a daily-wage labourer in the village.

“While all upper-caste are landed, like most Valmikies family in the village, I am landless. With the jobs that I do, I earn less than Rs 10,000 a month. My son is pursuing BTech and my daughter is a BA student and this education would have not been possible without reservations,” he added.

Writers on caste-related issues don’t necessarily share the view that dropping surnames would help dismantle caste barriers .

“ How does dropping a caste surname actually make a difference? In the villages, everyone knows each other’s caste anyway. A lot of people, especially in South India, use their village’s name. Dr BR Ambedkar used his village’s name as a surname but everyone knew he was a Dalit. Dropping surnames doesn’t change how people would be treated, especially in villages,” said Kancha Illiah Shepherd, theorist, writer, and Dalit rights activist.

“Abolition of casteism would mean reforms and practices like inter-dining and inter-caste marriages but we also have to recognize everyone in the khap is operating in a backward setup. Jats have been landed but since they have always been an agrarian community, they are not very well educated and don’t have an intellectual class among themselves,” he said. “For something like inter-caste marriage to become a norm there, there have to be reforms that make modern education accessible to all of them.”

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