Lesson from Kumher: Name the caste of the oppressor

Whenever there is an incident of caste violence, let us clearly name the caste of the perpetrators. That is not to blame an entire community for the wrongdoings of its few members but to test whether other members of the perpetrators’ community condemn the violence, says Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Kumher, a small town in the Bharatpur district of Rajasthan, has been in the news recently. There were reports that a large number of Dalits have been forced to migrate from Kumher. The reason: On April 14 2022, members of the local Gurjar community forcibly stopped Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations organized by the Dalits. The Gurjars, reports said, indulged in wanton violence. However, the media reports did not tell the entire story.

We end up with sketchy information about any incident. The human rights activists, journalists and others who share such news on social media are often very selective in their reporting. Like news channels, they are more interested in highlighting themselves than in working to ensure that the oppressed get justice. The headlines are often sensationalized like “Savarnas attack Dalits”.

What needs to be emphasized here is that it is important to know the caste of the perpetrators. That is because almost all castes are involved in attacks on Dalits. Hence, it becomes imperative to identify and expose them. Most often, how you present an incident of caste violence depends on which side you are on. Sometimes it is portrayed as violence by “dabangs” (musclemen) and at other times it is presented as violence by Manuvadis. On still other occasions, it is simply described as violence by the upper castes. 

It is time to give up this deliberate ambivalence and expose the casteist character of Indian society by calling a spade a spade. Whenever there is an incident of casteist violence, let us clearly name the caste of the perpetrators. That is not to blame an entire community for the wrongdoings of its few members but to test whether other members of the perpetrators’ community condemn the violence. In villages, no individual is bigger than his or her community and a dispute between two individuals often turns into a dispute between their communities – if they belong to different communities. Now, how you view the dispute depends on which community you belong to. It is your caste which decides whether a certain act is right or wrong, whether it is a virtuous deed or a sin. 

What needs to be taken note of is that when the Gurjars attacked the Dalits in Kumher, none of their major organizations spoke up. Significantly, this incident took place because the Gurjars were incensed with the Dalits for holding a function to mark Dr Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. When, however, it comes to politics or the issue or reservations, the Gurjars declare that they are a part of the Bahujan Samaj and that all the Bahujan communities have shared interests. 

It is clear that the Dalits won’t get their rights and their self-respect merely by being described as “Bahujan” or “Aadijan”. A solidarity between the Dalits and the OBCs is not possible until violence against Dalits is resisted both culturally as well as politically. Needless to say, such incidents have multiple dimensions. The castes which are dominant in the government and the administration are not ready to put up with even a slight loosening of their grip on the levers of power. And, of course, the administration is keen to bury such incidents as soon as possible.

In fact, we see things from our own tinted perspectives. During the farmers’ movement, we were on cloud nine, convinced that revolution was just round the corner. But the very same farmers voted along caste and community lines in the elections with the result that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory was even more decisive. Polls are close at hand in Rajasthan and reports of violence against the Dalits are pouring in from the state. But which incident has to be highlighted and which is suppressed is being decided not only by the media but also by our social activists. 

The caste system is a cruel reality of our society. But we don’t seem to be seriously trying to get rid of it. We have short memories. The incidents like Kumher have happened in the past and will happen in the future, too. The castes which call themselves Bahujans haven’t lagged behind in dealing violently with Dalits. Hence, slogans of Bahujan solidarity won’t strengthen social unity. We will have to focus on Ambedkar’s objective of annihilating caste. Let us first understand the harsh reality of our society and then explore whether we feel remorse when such incidents happen.   

Women protesting against casteist oppression

This incident reminds me of another horrific incident that took place around 30 years ago in the same town. It was a black spot on our democracy. But what is even worse is that the victims have yet to get justice. The incident was distorted with utter callousness and without sparing a thought for the hapless victims. The way it was done displayed complete lack of sensitivity and downright shamelessness. 

The incident took place in June 1992. The Jatavs, a Dalit caste, had become somewhat prosperous as they had come to own small pieces of land. Some had government jobs. The footsteps of Ambedkarism were keenly audible. According to one version, four Jatav boys were asked to sit on the floor in a cinema hall. They refused. After an angry exchange of words, the Jat employees of the cinema thrashed the boys. However, there was something more to the incident. It is said that girls and boys of a Jatav family were seated in the hall when some Bania and Jat boys started misbehaving with the girls. The Jatav boys tried to reason with them but in India’s feudal culture, the bullies of the so-called upper castes believe that they are a law unto themselves and are unwilling to listen to anyone. When things slip out of their hands, they fabricate facts. The “honour of our women” is an issue that hardly, if ever, fails to unite any community. The Jats beat up the Dalits but they realized that the latter would retaliate. So, a new twist was brought in. Two days after the clash at the cinema, a rumour started doing the rounds that a Jat girl had been “violated” by Jatav boys. 

On June 6, a Jat Panchayat was convened on the premises of the Chamunda Devi Temple at Kumher. Some 5-10 thousand Jats converged for the conclave and a warning was issued to the administration. It was alleged that Natthi Singh, the only Jatav present at the meet, was murdered by the crowd. It was even said that some of the people present applied tilak on their foreheads with the blood of the slain man and instigated the crowd to attack the Jatavs. The crowd soon stormed Jatav settlements. Houses were burnt down and the occupants weren’t even allowed to escape. The police were present but remained a mute spectator. Seventeen Dalits were killed in the violence. 

Returning to the recent incident, why were the Dalits of Kumher attacked? What was rankling the Jats? In Rajasthan, Dalits still live in fear. Land reforms have not been initiated and most of the Dalits are landless. But we also need to consider some historical factors to understand how changes have come about.  

Kumher is a part of Bharatpur district, where Jats are dominant in both politics and society. Bharatpur shares its border with the Agra district of Uttar Pradesh, which has been an epicentre of the Bahujan movement. Outside of Maharashtra, the Jatavs of Agra have played the biggest role in spreading Ambedkarism. The result was that the Jatav community not only threw up intellectuals but also businessmen. The community was second to none in the district. Agra was also the birthplace of the Buddhist Dhamma movement in north India. The Jatavs of Kumher were impressed by the success of fellow caste members in the neighbouring Agra district. They began thinking in terms of their own welfare and were imbued with a sense of self-respect. This, obviously, was not to the liking of the casteist elements among the Jats and the Gurjars. 

The Centre for Dalit Rights is the biggest and the most well-known Dalit rights’ organization in Rajasthan. It has been taking up cases of violence against Dalits and extending legal aid to the victims. The organization’s founder P.L. Meemroth had fought a long battle to secure justice for the victims of the 1992 Kumher massacre. Jurists and social activists from Delhi and other places had joined the probe into the incident but ultimately nothing came out of it. 

“According to official figures, 17 Dalits (Jatavs) were burnt alive by the people of the dominant caste in Kumher (Bharatpur) in June 1992,” says Meemroth. “Women and children were injured and hundreds of cattle perished.

“A violent crowd of the ‘dabangs’ attacked a Dalit settlement in the presence of the police and burnt the victims alive. It was a cruel and regrettable incident. The Dalits could not get justice because of the nexus between the police, the administration and the dominant castes. That was why this incident affected politics of the entire Rajasthan. To protect the assailants, the police did not even register an FIR. A CBI team did that after three days. The state government set up the Lodha Commission to probe the tragic incident. Three and a half years after the incident, the Commission submitted a wishy-washy report, absolving the assailants and the politicians who protected them. This sent a wave of anger among the Dalit politicians. But Rajasthan lacks a powerful Dalit leadership. The Dalit leaders are divided into many political groups and are also divided along caste and regional lines. The Dalits could not take a joint stand on the incident. The Dalit leadership could not play a decisive role. Today, more than 25 years on, bitterness between the Jats and the Jatavs due to the incident still persists.”

Now, three decades have passed. The judiciary moves at its own pace. The courts can hardly do a thing unless the police does its job well. And the police will do its job well only if the political leadership wants them to. For the political leadership, getting votes is the be all and end all of politics. Violence against Dalits continues in Rajasthan because whether it is the ruling party or the parties in the opposition, the top leadership hails from castes that have been committing social, political and economic excesses on the Dalits. They indulge in all kinds of machinations to strip the Dalits of their self-respect, including unleashing terror and forcing social and economic boycott. Our leaders lack the gumption to counter the Khap Panchayats and to tell society at large that the rights and self-respect of the Dalits need to be protected and that all of us have to change our attitude towards them. At the same time, Ambedkarism is bringing about a change in the thinking of Dalits, quicker in some places than in others. But what is amply clear is that the winds of change cannot be stopped. The Ambedkarite movement has already knocked the bottom out of the capitalist and brahmanical forces. If they want to survive and grow, they will have to join forces with Ambedkarism.  

 (Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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