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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Forced to flee their villages for revolt against a caste custom in Puri, Dalit families head back

The families, belonging to the Dalit community, who once led a content life in their village, 20 km from here, were driven away from their houses for allegedly refusing to obey the diktats ordered by upper caste villagers.

Written by Aishwarya Mohanty | Puri |
Updated: August 22, 2021 3:10:37 pm
A Dalit family ousted from Brahmapur at their kuchcha house, under construction at Nathapur. (Express Photo: Aishwarya Mohanty)

In Puri district’s Nathapur village, a barren patch of land, with scattered bamboo houses — walls plastered with mud, with an outer layer of coconut leaves and roofs thatched with tarpaulin sheets to shield from rain — is now home to 40 families, trying to build their lives from scratch. The families, belonging to the Dalit community, who once led a content life in their village, 20 km from here, were driven away from their houses for allegedly refusing to obey the diktats ordered by upper-caste villagers.

Their home, Brahmapur, a settlement on an island in Chilika, now seems like a distant dream. As per custom, members of the Dalit community were expected to carry the palanquin in wedding processions of upper-caste families and escort the groom or bride around the village, in return for a meal at the wedding. In 2013, young men from the community refused to carry the palanquin. What followed, eventually drove them out of their own homes.

“After we refused to carry the palanquin, our access to fish in Chilika was prohibited. For ages, our source of livelihood has been fishing and all of a sudden we were denied our rights of livelihood. This led to the first-ever migration from our community in our village. Young men just out of school started migrating to Chennai, Bengaluru to search for work. Others started working as farm labourers in nearby villages,” said 33-year old Sangram Bhoi.

In February 2021, a major brawl between the communities ensued after a 25-year-old man from the Dalit community, in an inebriated state, reached the village to buy sweets from a hawker and was confronted by upper caste men for his drunken state. Following this, a new diktat was ordered and members of the Dalit community were prohibited from entering the village, from carrying out any procession or inviting their relatives to the village. The ration shops were permanently closed for them, access to the only potable well and the village pond for bathing and washing clothes was denied and they were not allowed to ferry in the boats, the only access to the mainland from the small island hamlet.

“Their only condition was that we start carrying the palanquin again but with no remuneration. Our generation and the generation after is getting educated. We are trying to redefine ourselves and move ahead, be more aware and stand up for rights. How could we agree to a regressive practice again that would put us back in the position from where we wanted to rise?” Sangram said.

Women from Brahmapur village take shelter under a temporary arrangement in Nathapur village where they have temporarily rehabilitated themselves.

Janak Jena, an upper-caste member, reacting to the allegations said, “The allegations are not true. They have raised objections to us entering their areas but expect us to be ok that they will fish from Chilka and rob us of our livelihoods. They own no land which is why they have been imposing themselves on us.”

The community members claim that despite repeated pleas with the administration, there has been no solution in sight. When contacted Puri District Collector, Samarth Verma said that an enquiry into the matter has already been initiated. “The issue is caste-based and also livelihood-based. We have held consultations with the villagers and are looking into the matter. We expect to resolve the matter soon.”

Sangram with the support of other young Dalit activists from the entire district, is now putting up a fight to reclaim their right to live in their village. Like Sangram, in the recent past Puri has witnessed a lot of young members of the Dalit community, and other backward castes, associated with various organisations or working individually, but together creating a network, looking for such families driven out of their villages and trying to bring them back.

“A lot of people fear that if they return to the village, they will again be subjected to violence, threats and social boycott. We wish to create a safe place for them within their village, which is rightfully theirs. A lot of families are more than willing to return to their village and lead a life of dignity. It will only be possible if we as a community stand together,” said Dibakar Barik, 35, another youth activist. Dibakar and his family were themselves driven out of their village two decades ago after his father refused to follow norms established by the upper castes.

The bamboo houses under construction in Nathapur village where the Dalit families from Bhrampur have shifted on a temporary basis.

“I am a graduate, my brother is also studying well, and my sister is a journalism graduate. My father knew that if he wanted his children to pursue and become what they wanted to, he had to give up obeying orders and leading the kind of life he led. Because we had to leave behind our village, a bag full of memories from the place we were born in, I understand the pain that these families go through, when driven out of their own villages for trying to lead a life of dignity,” Dibakar said.

Amongst the families which Dibakar is helping to return to their village, is Maheshwar Barik’s family who were driven out of their house in March 2019, their houses vandalised. Members of the barber (barik) and the washerman community (dhoba), who fall under the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), continue to face social ostracism for refusing to abide by the age-old bartan system or jajmani system, wherein the members of these communities were expected to be of service to the upper caste, either free of cost or in return of 12-15 kgs of rice a year.

After the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, enquiries were initiated after 2010 into these cases and after thorough enquiry nearly 2,200 people from Puri were awarded a release certificate from the bonded system. Over 2,500 others are still waiting for their release orders.

A woman roasting flattened rice for lunch in Nathapur.

“In 2013, we received a release letter from the administration, we were no longer bound to work in return for paddy. But all these years, there was no peace. We had nowhere to go; so we stayed in the village, but time and again we faced social boycott. In March, our house was vandalised as we continued to refuse to work so we left our village,” Maheswar said. Maheshwar’s family was one amongst three driven out of Manapur village. The family’s bondage to the upper caste families involved washing their feet, cutting their nails, picking up leftovers, cleaning a place before and after an event, among other trivial tasks. Maheshwar along with nearly 20 other such families were staging a dharna outside the collector’s office last Friday.

“There are over 100 such families who wish to return to their respective villages. They can claim what is rightfully theirs only when they are well aware of their rights. Many of them out of fear do not even approach the officials. But we have been trying to apprise them about their rights, about the laws which can protect them, so they can fight for themselves. Education will always play an important role in uplifting them,” Dibakar said. For most Dalit and OBC families, such forced migration over decades has rendered them landless, eliminating any prospects for entitlement under housing schemes or even cyclone relief assistance.

Responding to such instances, the Puri collector said no such incident has been brought to his notice. “If anyone is being asked to leave their villages or is being discriminated against even after possessing the release certificate, they can approach us and necessary action will be taken. So far, no such information has come to me,” Verma said.

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