“Am I not a Hindu?” asks Sanjay Kumar. Over the past few months, the 27-year-old Dalit youth, from Basai Babas village in Hathras district of western Uttar Pradesh, has shot off letters to every government office-bearer, from the local police inspector to the state DGP, the chief minister to the SC/ST Commission, approached local dailies to media outlets, and released videos on social media, seeking help to take out his baraat through his bride’s Thakur-dominated village. On March 15, he moved the Allahabad High Court.
“When the Constitution says we are all equal, and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath says we are all Hindus, and he heads a Hinduvadi party, why am I facing such a situation?” asks Kumar, a Block Development Council member. “Am I not a Hindu then?… There cannot be separate rules for people governed by one Constitution.”
The wedding is now just 20 days away, and there is no breakthrough. Last week, Kasganj District Magistrate R P Singh, along with Superintendent of Police Piyush Srivastava, visited bride Sheetal’s village Nizamabad, in neighbouring Kasganj district, and combed its roads to check the routes sought by Kumar for the baraat. Finally, Singh ruled out the use of paths flanked by Thakur houses, citing the drains, garbage along one of the roads and the narrow width of the others. He also checked for any precedents of a grand Jatav (the caste to which Sheetal and Kumar belong) wedding in the village over the past 20 years and “found none”. So, he advised Sheetal’s family that the baraat take the usual road taken by Dalit wedding processions in the village, and asked the Thakurs to ensure that this road was kept clean.
Police also got around 11 Jatavs and 24 Thakurs to sign bonds promising they would not create a law and order issue. The Thakurs agreed to extend all help.
But Sheetal’s family, that lives on the fringes of Nizamabad, like the other four Jatav families of the village, is determined to fight it out. “This is about samman (honour). We want to welcome the groom with pomp and take out a horse-led baraat. The village roads are as much ours as they are of the Thakurs,” Sheetal’s mother Madhubala says.
The row over the baraat comes amidst growing tension as the Jatavs, a BSP vote bank, assert themselves in the small village where Thakurs make up 90 per cent of the 45 families. Several members of Sheetal’s family are in the BSP.
In the second week of March, the Thakurs cut off the water supply to the Jatav fields, supplied at Rs 100 an hour, in retaliation. The Thakurs have also dug out Sheetal’s school certificate to show she is 17 years and 10 months. Kumar says if it comes to that, they would put off the marriage by two months, for Sheetal to turn 18.
Pradhan Kanti Devi, a Thakur, admits they resumed the water supply to the Jatavs only when the DM came. She adds, “Humein koi dikkat nahin hai. Ladki ki shaadi ho, Thakur logon ko koi allergy nahin hai. Dikkat yeh hai ki koi jabardasti hamare raaste pe ayega and deewar torega. Jab baraat kabhi hamare raaste se nikili nahin hai toh kyun vivaad wala kaam kar rahe ho (We don’t have a problem. Let the wedding happen, we don’t have an allergy. The problem is someone forcibly coming into our territory and breaking boundaries. When a baraat has never come down our path then why are they trying to provoke a row)?”
Sanjay Singh, a Thakur, says the Thakurs and district authorities have been trying to make the Dalits see “reason”. “We told them not to start this new thing because it will cause a fight. Their boundaries are marked and they should keep to those.”
District Magistrate Singh, an upper caste himself, is unapologetic about where he stands. “The two groups should not be fighting with each other. They are not Hindus and Muslims, they both are Hindus,” he says. “Unlike a Muslim wedding, which is essentially a contract, a Hindu wedding is a bhawna (emotion). There is no concept of a juloos (procession). The Jatavs simply want to pick up a fight where there isn’t one. We cannot change parampara (tradition).”
BJP MLA Devender Singh, a Thakur, says Kumar should have come to him for “advice”. “That boy is doing netagiri. I would have got him married with government aid, at a mass wedding. If you cross someone’s path, there will be a fight,” he insists.
Noting the stand taken by the authorities, BSP leader Ajay Kumar says Dalits like Kumar have few options, with the traditional channels of compromise mediated by village elders tilted against them. “Dalit families have for long wanted to celebrate weddings in a grand manner but they would suppress their desires. But this time the groom is adamant,” Ajay says.
He claims that the administration is not coming to Kumar’s help as it is a “Thakuron ki sarkaar (a government of Thakurs)”. “The CM is a Thakur. So there is pressure from the administration itself. The Thakurs have become more aggressive since Yogi came to power.”
The wedding was fixed in October. Soon after, Sheetal’s family, who are traditionally farmers, approached the village elders for “permission” to hold a grand ceremony complete with a baraat from Hathras, which would pass through lanes adjoining Thakur houses. The family sought the permission as it expected opposition.
Generally, say the Jatavs, at their weddings, a ground on the outside of the Nizamabad village doubles up as a ‘janmasa’, a stop-over for baraatis. From there the baraat proceeds to the bride’s house, without coming anywhere near the Thakur “ilaaka (area)”.
But Kumar and Sheetal’s elder brother Beetu wanted the baraat take a round of Nizamabad. “Our elders never got onto a horse. The Thakurs want us to stick to this. They say they would face shame if we take out a baraat. They say this is parampara. We say show us the proof,” says Sheetal’s father Satyapal Singh. Adds her uncle Hari Singh, “The Thakurs take out their baraat through the village. They pass right in front of our homes with loud celebrations. We never object.”
Satyapal says his parents gave him and brother Hari the title ‘Singh’ usually reserved for upper castes as they wanted them to break free of their caste mould. Their father also refused to work in the fields of Thakurs, revolting against a tradition that left the Dalits at the mercy of upper castes, for paltry wages. Instead, he sent Satyapal and Hari to school, and through reservation, family members now hold several government posts. Sheetal too went to school but dropped out after Class 6.
The baraat is another barrier that must come down, says Sheetal’s brother Beetu, 25, a science graduate. “We have the money, we are not harming anyone, and the Constitution gives us the right, as much as it does anyone else, to walk where we want,” he says.
In the Thakur response, the rancour at the Dalit upward mobility shows. Kanti Devi’s son Ashu Pundhir objects to the Jatavs being seen as “hapless lower castes”, adding that they are in fact “zamindars” and “naukriwale” now, working in the police, Railways and private companies. Reading out Kumar’s statement in a newspaper, Pundhir mocks, “He wants to have a ‘historic wedding’, ‘a wedding never seen or heard of before’. He claims that 5,000 people will come… that he has invited the CM.”
Sanjay Singh argues that it is not just the Thakurs who are bound by caste laws, and that overturning the same would lead to chaos. “Would the Jatavs marry their daughter to a mehtar (a lower Dalit sub-caste)? Or would I marry my daughter into a lower caste? Can this happen?”
Meanwhile, counting the losses to their crops from the cut in water supply for 15 days, the four Jatav neighbours of Sheetal’s family have been urging them to back down. “The Thakurs will not only punish them, they will punish us all. For them, we all are one,” says Bhoori Devi.
Sheetal says they have turned to Dalit activists and rights groups for help. Her face hidden in the shadows of the family kitchen, she adds softly, “We would not have been fighting if we were frightened.”