Part II of the series continued from here
Washim/Hingoli. The local provision store turns them away. The flour mill refuses to grind their grain. The village well becomes a no-go zone. Barred from farm work their daily wages stop. And a boycott begins.
A number of Dalits in several villages in Washim and Hingoli district are reeling under the impact of boycotts, some lasting as long as a year. Their crime? Celebrating Ambedkar and following his teachings.
A little over a week ago, the Dalits of Pimpalgaon in Maharashtra’s Washim district started to get water supply through a tanker. Till recently, they could not draw water from the fields of the Maratha landowners and had to travel five kilometres from the village to fetch it.
Caste conflict began with a ‘Dhamma Shibhir’ (Buddhism workshop) they organised on the Republic Day in 2015, which took a violent turn during the Ambedkar jayanti that year.
“We had invited a guest from Mumbai to guide us on Ambedkar’s 22 vows [Ambedkar prescribed 22 vows to his followers during the historic religious conversion to Buddhism in 1956 at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi]. While all of us were sitting in the ‘vihar’, Vishnu Nirgude [from the Maratha community] stormed into the ‘vihar’ and threatened us. He said he would bring 10-12 strong youths with him and show us ‘Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh’ [Ambedkar’s first vow says: I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh nor shall I worship them.],” said Datta Tayde, a farm labourer, a portion of whose house was set on fire in the resulting violence a few months later.
“On April 20, 2015, we celebrated Ambedkar jayanti. On April 23, the boycott began and on April 25, our houses were burnt. An Ambedkar library in the village was vandalised and his photo smashed,” said Tayde.
“They stoned our houses. As April approaches and when we play Babasaheb’s songs the stone pelting begins. This year we had some respite. Children still get scared even if a cat jumps on the roof,” said Sanghamitra Pattebahadur.
People complained that only 22 victims of the attack received State compensation. They recalled the early days of the boycott with horror saying they were so harsh that the Marathas even imposed a fine of Rs. 5,000 on anyone seen talking to the Dalits, some of whom were nearly driven to starvation.
However, village sarpanch Pandit Bhusare, from the Maratha community told Round Table India that the dispute and boycott were the result of an argument at a hand pump, where a group of youths from the Buddhist community took photographs of some women.
Asked about the role of Vishnu Nirgude, Bhusare confirmed, “He has several cases against him. He is the cause of all this tension. He went and abused them [Buddhists] during their meeting. He asked me a couple of times why I was supplying tanker water to the Dalit colony, but I have to think of everybody.”
When Round Table India went to Nirgude’s house, neighbours said he did not stay in the village, a claim refuted by the sarpanch.
The prolonged strife had an impact on this year’s 125th anniversary celebrations. The Buddhists were not given permission to hold a procession through the village, but were assigned a peripheral route.
“Other religious processions, including Holi rally, are allowed through the village through the Dalit colony, then why not Babasaheb’s procession? They want to keep Babasaheb on the outskirts,” said Nanda Waghmare.
In Hingoli district’s Garkheda village, a Dalit woman Mathura Khillare did the unthinkable. In her capacity as an Anganwadi worker, she objected to waste water being directed from the sarpanch’s house to the Anganwadi footsteps two years ago. The backlash that followed drove the four Dalits houses in the village to the edge of survival.
The Marathas pulled out their children from the Anganwadi, leaving Khillare with only one Dalit and three savarna children. The sarpanch petitioned the authorities to dismiss her and her helper Vidya Tayde from service. The impact of the boycott is still felt as Dalit men are still not given work in the fields.
“They even stopped taking ‘sukdi’ [a wheat-based supplement given to Anganwadis for distribution among children up to six years and pregnant women]. We were not allowed to draw water from the well. We used river water for two years. They would defecate in the small ditches we made on the river bank to collect water. So next day we would dig fresh ditches. We struggled a lot for water,” said Khillare, who was awarded the Rajmata Jijau Excellence award in 2012 for her work. Today her fate hangs in balance.
The Dalits were provided a bore well after they wrote to the district administration and sat in fast.
Rahi Gaikwad is an independent journalist based in Mumbai