Hindu Gujarat preserves ‘untouchability’
This is the taluka where Tata Motors has parked its small car project. Nano has become a symbol of Gujarat’s pride and became a centre of attraction at the last Vibrant Gujarat investment summit in January 2009.
But scratch the surface, and the scene is gloomy beneath this economic boom in the state. Bhikhabhai Solanki, 50, a native of Lodariyal village, has never shaken hands with non-Dalits in his life. Bhikhabhai, an agricultural labourer, is Valmiki by caste – the lowest of the socially downtrodden. “We are untouchables and nobody touches us here,” he says. The farmer he works for keeps a tea-cup outside his house. Whenever Bhikhabhai arrived for work in the morning or leaves after finishing in the evening, tea is poured into the cup. Strangely, this form of untouchability goes in the name of religion. These cups are called ‘Ram patra’.
The practice thrives across Gujarat, without exception, and has been documented extensively in a first-of-its-kind study on a large scale, representing 98,000 Dalits across 1,655 villages in Gujarat. The study has been carried out by Ahmedabad-based Navsarjan Trust with three US-based organisations – the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, Dartmouth College at the University of Michigan and Robert F Kennedy Centre for Social Justice and Human Rights, Washington, D.C.
“This has been going on for generations. The only change is that earlier there used to be cups made of clay and now they are made of steel,” says Bhikhabhai. He confesses that drinking the tea offered by his master does hurt his dignity. But then, he does not want to lose his daily wage because he has to feed five other members of his family. His daughter-in-law, Ambha, agrees. She points out that she carries her own utensils to work, but the person who serves the afternoon meal at the farm drops the food into the plate without touching it. In Lodariyal, Dalit women can’t touch vegetables at the shop just to sample them. Only once they pay up, and the money is kept on the side and not handed over, the vegetables are flung into the hollow of their saree. The tea stall owner gives tea to Dalits only in disposable plastic cups. Others get it in ceramic cups. According to the study, 98 per cent of the respondents said that non-Dalits keep separate utensils at home to serve them food or tea. The same discrimination goes only slight down to 96 per cent on farms.
Dalit rights activist Martin Macwan of Navsarjan Trust says: “In every step of untouchability, the same concept is being applied – that of purity. Gujarat has only tried to dignify an indignity by calling these separate utensils as ‘Ram patra'”.
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