Indian village gears up for New Year’s tribute to the oppressed

Every New Year’s Day, tens of thousands of people travel to a village in western India called Koregaon Bhima to visit a war memorial that has become a sacred monument to the oppressed castes of the country.

Jaydeep Sakat and his family spent much of those days outside their tin-roofed house and adjoining food stall serving pilgrims free rice and tea – most of them were other Dalits, who were once known as “untouchables”.

Next week, they plan to feed the pilgrims again.

But things haven’t been the same for Sakat or the village since 2018, when a crowd descended on the ritual and attacked the pilgrims and those who welcomed them. The violence and its aftermath served as a reminder of how little has changed for those at the bottom of India’s rigid social hierarchy.

With her house and business burned down, Sakat now lives miles away in temporary accommodation. Those responsible for the wreckage and at least one death remain at large, while several rights activists and academics have been arrested and charged with inciting riots.

“Our attackers are exposed,” said Sakat, 28, adding that the village where he had lived for 15 years “is no longer at home”.

Rahul Dambale, a Dalit activist from nearby Pune, said justice for members of his caste is rare.

“Government institutions do not act quickly on these issues and end up protecting the perpetrators and the discriminatory caste system,” he said.

The system dates back over 2,000 years and is based on ancient Hindu texts that divided people into four main castes, each divided into many sub-castes. At the top are the Brahmans (priests and teachers), followed by the Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants and farmers) and the Shudras (artisans, laborers and servants).

Underneath it all are the Dalits, who number around 200 million, or 14% of India’s population, and who historically have been limited to salvage, begging, and sanitation works. to survive.

In 1950, three years after independence, India outlawed discrimination against Dalits and other marginalized communities and created an affirmative action program to help them secure government jobs and school internships.

Yet prejudices remain pervasive. Last year there were over 50,000 homicides, rapes and other assaults against citizens, mostly Dalits, based on their social status – crimes the government classifies as “caste atrocities”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a populist who presents himself as a champion of the poor and who called for a day to come when India would be “free from the venom of the castes”, won the elections and his re-election with a large part of the votes. Dalit voices. But critics say support comes mainly from his calls for Hindu nationalism, and caste divisions only widened during his seven years in power.

As always, most of the people in India who clean the sewers are Dalits. In several villages, Dalit women are not allowed to draw water from the common well.

Earlier this month, a political candidate who lost an election in a village in Bihar state was caught on camera forcing two Dalit men to lick spit on the ground as punishment for not voting for him.

Pride doesn’t come easily for Dalits – this is why the Koregaon Bhima Memorial is so important.

The 60-foot obelisk commemorates an 1818 battle in which British traders representing the crown defeated the Peshwas, the Brahmins rulers of the Maratha Empire, ending its 144 years in power.

Dalit soldiers fighting for the British played a major role in the victory, which became a symbol of the struggle of the Dalit community against untouchability.

The annual celebration has long angered some members of the local Maratha community, as it was a humiliating reminder that another member of the upper caste had been defeated by the Dalits.

Tensions were particularly high in 2018. The bicentennial of the battle had attracted more pilgrims than usual, and the Maratha declared a strike to shut down the town and visitors without eating or drinking anything.

“We and many other members of our community defied the strike and provided breakfast and meals for the pilgrims,” Sakat said.

In the early afternoon, Sakat and her 19-year-old sister, Pooja, could see crowds walking along a highway towards their home. It was too late to run, so the siblings hid behind a wall next to their house, shaking and holding on tight.

They watched the rioters attack the Dalits and destroy the shops. Dozens of people were injured and a 28-year-old resident – whose family said was nothing more than a spectator – was killed.

Eventually, the mob set fire to Sakat’s house and business.

He was shocked to see that many of the rioters were neighbors he knew well.

Yet even before the violence, his position in the village had been weakened by an influential member of the Maratha community who spent years trying to buy his family’s land. Homeless, the family was essentially banished from Koregaon Bhima.

“We were boycotted,” said Sangeeta, 46, Sakat’s mother. “No one would give us a house to rent.

Sangeeta, the mother of Jaydeep Sagat, with her grandson.

(Parth MN / For the Times)

They managed to find a rental of a room in a nearby village. It was there, four months after the riots, that Pooja disappeared.

His body was discovered the next day in a nearby well.

Even though his face had 16 cut marks, police considered his death to be suicide. Police arrested two men for helping her kill herself, but gave no details. They remain free on bail.

Sakat has a clearer theory about her death: “She was killed because she was an eyewitness.

Sakat has found work as a driver and laborer and spends his remaining time as a social worker helping other marginalized members of the caste.

The state government of Maharashtra eventually moved him and his family to a one-bedroom apartment 40 km from Koregaon Bhima in Pune, where they felt more secure. It was supposed to be temporary, but the family gets stuck there.

Authorities promised him $ 11,000 in compensation for his house and food stand, but only paid half that amount.

Sakat had no choice but to sell the family land in the village to cover the medical costs of his father, Suresh, who suffered a stroke last year and died shortly after.

Suresh, a human rights activist known in the village for blocking traffic to protest the mistreatment of Dalits and other poor people, had suffered particularly from Pooja’s death.

“He wore a brave face in front of us, but inside he had been emasculated,” his wife said.

Pooja had studied to be a doctor and was a source of hope for the family. To see his death labeled as suicide was an indignity, but not a surprise.

Sakat, like many other Dalit residents in the village, said police failed to properly investigate the riots, alleging that thousands of people were given a break because they supported the ruling Bharatiya Janata party.

“The cops protected the rioters,” Sakat said. “There was no will to get to the bottom of the attack.”

Records show police arrested 234 people – all currently on bail.

Police defended their investigation and blamed a small number for committing most of the offenses.

“We arrested people based on video footage and other evidence,” said Abhinav Deshmukh, the Pune police commissioner. “In some cases, an accused has been named among the complaints. Therefore, it might appear as a conservative number. “

More surprisingly to many, Maharashtra state police have arrested 16 riot-related activists, charging them with a wacky plot to assassinate the prime minister and charging them with sedition under an anti-terrorism law. Among those arrested were Anand Teltumbde, the leading Indian scholar and a Dalit.

The case against the activists was then passed on to the National Police after state authorities raised questions about the investigation. Amnesty International reported that evidence against the defendants may have been placed on their phones using military-grade malware supplied by the NSO Group, Israel-based hackers.

All but one of the activists remain in jail after prominent human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj was released on bail earlier this month.

The annual pilgrimage to Koregaon Bhima has been accompanied by a strong police presence since the violence of 2018. It was canceled a year ago due to the pandemic.

Although this is the third time he has attended the pilgrimage since the riot, Sakat said being in Koregaon Bhima fills him with unease.

Still, he plans to transport his oversized jars to the village on New Year’s Eve and spend the night there preparing steaming portions of pulao, basmati rice cooked with spices and vegetables for thousands of pilgrims. The food is paid for by donations from fellow social workers at Sakat and friends and colleagues of his late father.

Sakat said he would set up the kitchen as close as possible to where his house once stood.

Special Envoy Parth MN reported from staff writer Pune and Times Pierson Singapore.

Christina A. Kroll