IT’S been nine months now since 14 Dalit families of Par village in Gujarat’s Patan district visited it. Asha Parmar is grateful they haven’t had a death in this time.
“We would not know how to take the body back to the village for the final rites… Our ancestors lived there for over 400 years… We don’t know of any celebration or mourning anywhere else,” says Asha, 27, her face covered with a dupatta.
Nevertheless, Asha asserts, none of them would return unless promised that they wouldn’t be forced to pick up carcasses for other villagers again.
Par is a two-hour drive from Patan city and nearly 400 km from Una. But in the months after they heard of the public flogging of four Dalits in Una, the angry Dalits of Par decided they didn’t want the job either. In retaliation, the upper castes of Par, including the Darbars, Bharvads and Suthars, announced a boycott.
In the village of around 1,100 people, the upper castes number around 650. Apart from working in the fields, the Dalit men of Par were considered the best masons in the entire taluka. But when an animal died, it fell upon them to clear the carcasses.
Asha says they hung around for 21 days after the boycott, and then on October 6 last year, they left in a hurry, leaving most of their belongings behind. Now most of the 75 who left live with their relatives, and frequently keep moving.
Where earlier they grew wheat and vegetables on their land, and lived on money made from the carcasses they removed, they now survive doing odd jobs in the construction sector.
In March this year, after some of them protested outside the Collector’s office in Patan, the government gave the 14 families 16 acres outside Patan city and Rs 70,000 per family to build a house. They are in the process of making the houses, and say the money is not enough.
Recently, Vela Parmar, one of those who left Par, found out that his 16-acre ancestral land, given to the family by the government in 1970, was being used for tilling for a member of the Darbar community. He has filed a police complaint of encroachment.
Vela, who has studied till Class III and has a family of six, was the first in Par to stop picking the carcasses. Says the bitter 45-year-old, “The cattle does not belong to us. It belongs to the Darbars and the Bharvads, but if any died, we would be called to pick it up. We were not even paid for it… Making us pick up the dead animals was their way of showing us our place in the caste system. We would hate it.”
Una was the tipping point, Vela says. “Our community boys have to do the dirty job and are also beaten up for it. It was too much.”
Shankar Parmar says the boycott was difficult. “No one was willing to give us anything. We were not allowed to buy milk for our children. We had to go 10 km to buy things for our house. The villagers also warned the chhakda (three-wheeler) people not to take us. The sarpanch told the other villagers they would have to pay Rs 5,000 fine if they were caught helping us.”
Lakshmi Parmar, 90, was the oldest of the Dalits to leave Par. Wiping her glasses with the corner of her dupatta, Lakshmi says, “I have seen all the men in my family pick up dead animals… It is humiliating… I do not remember a single Navaratri in which we were allowed to dance with the villagers. When a Dalit boy would get married, he was not allowed to ride a horse or play loud music. We have seen a lot of pain, and I think we have to do something to put an end to it.”
“If cow is your mother, then why can you not give her a dignified burial? Why does she become ashudh (impure) after she dies? Why do those who own cows not carry their dead bodies? Why do our children have to carry the burden of being a Dalit?” she asks.
Back in Par, Darbar men laze around the village square. Asked about how their lives had changed since the Dalits left, they are reluctant to talk. An elderly man shouts, “Yes, we now pick up the dead cattle ourselves because we have no choice. It was their work and they have to do it.”
Sarpanch Ansobha Prabhat Jadeja claims “there has been no problem at all”. “We will be happy if the Dalits return. It is their village and we have all lived together for so many years. There has been no discrimination. We would pay them to pick the dead cattle and now, if they do not want to do it, then I am sure the villagers would understand. They just wanted to get land close to the city and this is their way of getting it from the government.”
Jadeja was appointed the village head around 10 months ago, and has another four-five months more to go. He admits it was not an election. “We decided in the village who the leader would be.” He also admits Par has never had a Dalit sarpanch.
In the Dalit lane of the village, all the houses are locked, except one, where Pata, 73, and wife Devi Parmar, 68, open the door slightly to reveal a large compound. The two had left Par around three years ago to live with their sons who work outside Gujarat. When they returned a month ago, says Pata, a former Indian Railways employee, they realised what had happened.
“We were shocked to see that other members of our community had left. We are aware of the problem but we cannot leave because we have no other place to go,” he says. Devi says they keep to themselves. “We do not talk to anyone, we do not bother anyone in the village. We get our things from the nearby shop. Our main job now is to take care of the temple in our compound.”
For Patan District Collector Anand Patel, the matter “stands closed”. “The government has given the Dalits land and money to make houses. Going back to the village or not is now up to them… I think in this matter there will be no issue in the future.”