K’mal villages declared free from untouchability practice
The nation paid rich tributes to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary to celebrate his legacy. This is nothing new as it has been a routine affair over the decades but what some villagers of Daringbadi did on this Gandhi Jayanti came as possibly the greatest homage to ‘Bapu’ and an India of his dream. An entire zone in Daringbadi block of Kandhamal district was declared free of untouchability on this day to end the age-old division in the caste-ridden society.
“Decades back, as a kid I had once climbed on to the verandah of the lone Brahmin family of my village. Suddenly all hell broke loose and I was thrown out of the verandah. As if that humiliation was not enough, the family warned me of dire consequences if I was ever seen moving around near their house,” narrated Bharat Pradhan, an inhabitant of Budanpippal under Bhramarbadipanchayat in the block.
“I felt as if I had committed a crime and was ashamed of my birth in a tribal family after a woman purified the verandah with water and cow-dung. I had to promise before them that I won’t commit the ‘mistake’ again in life,” added Bharat.
For a man who had seen this horrible reality of casteism as a child, abolition of untouchability is like breathing of fresh air. “I have never thought that things will change so dramatically. Members of that Brahmin family are now the integral part of our rituals. Not only they visit our houses, they also allow us inside theirs and treat us with dignity. They depend on us when it comes to performing birth and death rituals and seek our presence in all social functions,” Bharat said further.
It is not only the people from upper caste, even the scheduled caste community members were looked down upon by the people of tribal community. Sriram Pradhan (40), secretary of the Forest Rights Committee of the village, a Kondh community member, recalled, “Let alone visiting their places of worship, the Dalit members were even not allowed to have a glimpse of the tribal deity.”
“Though the upper caste people were using water from the same well as they didn’t have other sources, they used to purify the place with some quick rituals after drawing of water by a Dalit or a tribal member. And my tribal counterparts used to do the same in case a Dalit drew water from the same source,” Pradhan said.
There are 80 families in the village belonging to Scheduled Tribe (Kondh), Scheduled Caste (Harijan and Ghasi) and other castes – Brahmin and Shundhi. The caste system was extremely acute during their ancestors’ time. But, nearly two decades back, a few upright thinkers made a move to abolish this system, says Namojini Pradhan, a Kondh community member in her 40s.
They called a village meeting and discussed about the harmful effects of untouchability. The meeting was fruitful as the upper caste people and the Kondh community members realised the problem. However, warding off the evil from people’s psyche was not easy and it required several such meetings, discussions and counselling sessions to make inroads, she added. Sanjana Nayak of the village maintained, “Not only we can now enter the houses of all our co-villagers irrespective of their caste or religion, the marriage ceremonies in the village are also incomplete if a single family is found absent.”
Budanpipal is one of the 10 villages under Daringbadi block of the district, the villagers of which have declared themselves as free from the age-old social malady – untouchability. In the Gram Sabha meetings held on October 2 in seven panchayats simultaneously, the resolutions of Palli Sabhas (small village councils) over eradication of untouchability were approved.
Exactly a decade ago, Kandhamal, a backward and tribal-dominated district, had made headlines in regional, national and international media for all the wrong reason.
The riots that swept the district for over a month following the killing of RSS leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, made Kandhamal, a place identified with bigotry, racism and caste-based discrimination. But thanks to the initiatives taken by some responsible citizens and democratic outfits, the district is going to be known as the first-ever case in the country as a place where there is no room for untouchability.
Elderly persons (belonging to Kondh community) of Sikaketa village under Badabanga gram panchayat claimed that they were unaware of the term ‘untouchability’ in their childhood. “Our ancestors used to link our origin with nature – our creator. We never discriminated against any of our community members. The evil entered the psyche of people after some families from outside (of our habitation) settled down in our village and started discriminating us. We also began discriminating against Dalit community members.”
However, things began to change for the better after the peace initiatives taken by groups of youth following riots in 2008 and its aftermath. Currently, there is no religion or caste-based discrimination in the village which comprises of tribals (Kondhs), Dalits (Harijans), other caste people (blacksmiths and Brahmins) and followers of Hindu and Christian religions.
Sashi Pradhan, a village elderly in his 80s, said they have struck off some festivals like Meria Puja and Jhagada Puja from the list as the rituals associated with them were encouraging untouchability.
“Untouchability exists not only between tribals and Dalit and upper-caste people. Even among the tribals, there is caste-based hierarchy – for example, Gond is regarded as higher caste and Kondh a lower caste. This caste system has been detrimental so far as development of the tribal community is concerned. It is a very good sign that the villagers have come forward to ward off the evil,” said Jayant Kumar Pradhan, Badabangapancayat Gram Rojgar Sevak.
Sikapata under Greenbadipanchayat is a village dominated by Dalit families with reasonable number of tribal and general caste people. The village is an example where even inter-caste marriages between tribals, Dalits and general caste people are accepted with open heart. They all have free access to places of worship be it a church, temple or others, said NabatiMantri, a village woman belonging to Dalit community.
People of these villages have been enjoying community harmony for the past several years. But, when they took the resolution in Palli Sabhas followed by approval in Gram Sabha, they get officially recognised as untouchability-free villages.
The villagers say they are hopeful that their story will influence people of hundreds of villages in the country, where untouchability is still rampant. “Our story will give the message of equality, peace and brotherhood to validate the words of Mahatma Gandhi – All men are equal and the same because they were part of the same cosmic unity or divine,” the villagers said.
Courtesy: The Pioneer