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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

The sacrilege of worship

For Dalits, the battle against oppression is not easily won, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2007 00:04 IST

As a boy, he was often reminded that he was predestined to be lesser and unworthy than most other children in his class. He was taught each day that he was not an equal to other children, and indeed never would be. After all, he was born in the low Dalit caste of Dhankars. In the government village school, Dalit children like him were seated by teachers in the rear of the classroom, at a safe distance from the other students. They were barred from drinking water from the earthen pot kept outside the school, even during those blistering summer afternoons. At the village hand pump, his mother had to wait patiently each day for the kindness of an upper-caste woman to fill her pitcher; her touch would have polluted the hand pump and later it would have necessitated ritual cleaning by wet earth.

The young lad often rebelled against these rules and many other indignities when he returned to his sparse home at the segregated outskirts of the village settlement. “They treat us as though we are dirty,” he would say. “I take care to ensure that I keep much cleaner than most of my classmates. Maybe our ancestors did unclean work. But no longer; we gave all that up a long time ago.” His father, Krishan, would listen silently.

Then one day, their lives altered once and for all in ways that none could have predicted. There was an old temple near the village square. His father would often go to worship at the temple. He loved the shade of spreading trees there, the stone courtyard and the modest old shrine. As an outcaste, he complied with the ancient rules that barred his entry within the actual temple, but he often lingered near its threshold, his hands reverentially folded, and lit incense sticks to the God whom he loved so much but could never touch.

That morning, some upper-caste Brahmin and Bania youth aggressively blocked his path to the temple, threatening him if he returned to worship there. They taunted him, “What business do low-caste people like you have in our temple? Just stand at a far distance and join your hands.”

It is difficult to explain exactly what transpired at that moment. But a lifetime, indeed generations of uncomplaining acquiescence to multitudes of degradations and humiliation of caste, just cracked within him. Rarely had Bhanwar seen his father so agitated than when he returned home that day. He broke his silence some days later, to announce his decision to his stunned family. “I will build my own temple. It will be bigger and better than anything that the people of this village have seen. Let us see who can stop us from worshipping then?”

He gathered all his savings from the toil of his entire adult life at harrowing lonely sites of road construction, with which he had planned earlier to buy a small piece of agricultural land. Even this money was not enough, so he borrowed an additional Rs 20,000 from the moneylender at the crippling rate of 2 per cent interest per month. This added up to Rs 65,000. He wrapped the currency around his waist, and set out in search of the grandest idol that he could find. He located what he was looking for with a sculptor in Dosa, an imposing human-size statue of Hanuman, almost four times taller than the idol of Thakurji in the village temple.

Triumphantly, he transported the mammoth idol back to his village in a hired tractor trailer. No one from among the stupefied upper-caste villagers was willing to help unload the statue, and Krishan instead requisitioned the labour of his lowly caste-men to deliver the God to his unconventional new resting place. The next few weeks Krishan devoted to installing the statue on an elaborate raised platform near his house, and exulted as he watched the mounting consternation, outrage and impotent fury of the upper-caste community against what they saw as his unprecedented mutiny and sacrilege.

But no worship can commence at a temple until it is sanctified, and the scriptures only permit the ancient sacred rituals to be undertaken by a Brahmin priest. There was no question of any local priest consenting to do so. Krishan was not daunted, and again set out in a new quest, which ended this time in Mathura, where he found a Brahmin priest willing to perform the prayers but for a substantially higher dakshina than normal, of Rs 6,000.

The day that Krishan had awaited finally arrived. The Hanuman temple with the idol that towered over the village temple was at last to be sanctified, after a 24-hour Ramayana recitation. The programme was, however, boycotted by the entire village, including its Dalit residents, who had been threatened with persecution if they were even seen near the new pretension of a temple. But more than 2,000 Dalits gathered from many districts of Rajasthan, and there was great feasting and celebration. A shower of stones from the direction of the village at night could not dampen the festivities.

Since the installation, the villagers imposed a complete boycott on Krishan’s family, including a strict ban on any purchases from the village shops, on any casual wage employment and water from the village hand-pump. They braved jeers when they walked the streets, stones often landed near the temple, and women openly defecated around it even during times of worship. Matters came to a head when all the men and boys of Krishan’s family were thrashed after they rejected the demand of village elders that they demolish the temple and pay a fine of Rs 21,000.

The entire family furtively fled the village that night, and was mocked when they sought protection at the local police station. They agitated for many weeks at the office of the district collector. The local media and human rights and Dalit activists leapt in to their vocal defence. As a result, after several months, not only was a criminal case registered against the villagers, but they were also given an armed guard of five policemen to protect them round the clock when they returned to the village.

I met the upper-caste police guards in the village, who were clearly dismayed at their ill fortune that they were forced to defend a Dalit family against righteous upper-caste anger, and yet they were helpless because Krishan had learnt to complain raucously to the media and human rights organisations if he perceived the slightest bias. In an ironic if brief reversal of roles, I found the police guards in trepidation of Krishan. The elderly landless Dalit often sent his police guards peremptorily on errands to buy him bidis and they meekly consented.

Yet, eventually, the police guard was withdrawn. The upper-caste villagers had waited impatiently for this moment, and resumed their molestation of Krishan’s family. Finally, three years after he joined battle to break with centuries of oppressive caste traditions by building his own temple to Hanuman, Krishan was eventually broken down and forced to abandon his village with his family for the streets of Jaipur. They are reduced again to seeking wage work where they could, struggling to meet burgeoning medical and food bills.

Meanwhile, a towering Hanuman stands abandoned and alone in Nimrodh village. It is hard to tell what he thinks of the fate of his resolute worshippers.

Harsh Mander is Convenor, Aman Biradari

First Published: Apr 24, 2007 23:39 IST

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