Invited as cooks at wedding, upper caste men accused of beating up Dalit man in Uttarakhand
Jitendra Das’s family said he was beaten nine days before he died at a Dehrandun hospital on Sunday as he had food seated on a chair before upper caste men had eaten.
The seven upper-caste men accused of beating a 21-year-old Dalit man at the wedding of one of his relatives at Shrikot in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal on April 26 were specially invited for the function as cooks as per an age-old tradition in the state, residents said on Tuesday.
The residents said upper caste men have to be invited to cook meals at the Dalit wedding when people from all castes are invited.
Dalits are allowed to eat only after food is served to the upper caste guests, they said.
Jitendra Das’s family said he was beaten nine days before he died at a Dehrandun hospital on Sunday as he had food seated on a chair before upper caste men had eaten. The police have so far arrested five of the seven accused.
Jitendra Das’s sister, Pooja Das, said she was at the wedding venue when she heard a heated argument.
“I came to know the next day that my brother was involved [in the argument]. …other guests told us that he was assaulted for eating while sitting on a chair before the [upper-caste men could eat].”
Most upper-caste residents of Shrikot expressed ignorance about the assault. “There is no question of caste discrimination in our village. It is evident from the fact that upper-caste men cooked food [at the wedding]… upper-caste community members from other villages also participated [in the wedding],” said Prem Singh, 68, a Shrikot-resident who said he also attended the wedding.
He insisted he was unaware of the assault.
“There were about 1,500 guests at the wedding and we left after having our food. I came to know about the incident two days later.”
Another resident, Rajpal Bisht, said the assault was a one-off incident. He claimed that “all the families in the village, irrespective of their castes, live in harmony”. Bisht said all the accused are from neighbouring Bhatwari village.
The Dalits of the village had a different version but refused to speak on the record fearing an upper-caste backlash. “Those saying the upper-caste men prepared food for the wedding as evidence that there is no discrimination should answer whether they would have eaten if Dalits had cooked?” said a 46-year-old Dalit villager on condition of anonymity.
He feared upper-caste people may target him for his comments.
Another Dalit villager, who also refused to identify himself, said the upper-caste people do not tolerate their presence and practice untouchability while eating at weddings.
JP Bhatt, a sociology professor at Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, said the Dalits have to ask upper-caste people to cook at weddings if people from all communities are invited.
“Similarly, for the Dalit guests, food is prepared by their community members only. This just proves that caste discrimination in the hills is far from over.”
Pooja Das separately rejected the police claim that her brother may have died of medicine overdose. “They first killed my brother and are now lying that he died of an overdose,” she said.
“My brother was taking Ayurvedic medicines for epilepsy and only four to five tablets of the medication were left. Nobody can die because of an overdose of Ayurvedic medicines.”
A doctor, who was involved in Jitendra Das’s autopsy, said on Monday that his postmortem report was yet to come but prima facie it seems over medication for some ailment and not physical assault was the cause of his death.
“However, there were laceration marks found near his elbow and knee,” the doctor added on condition of anonymity.
A police officer, who is part of the investigating team, said on condition of anonymity, doctors have informed them that Das is unlikely to have died of physical assault.