Caste walls

By Anosh Malekar

Dalit Bhimnagar was separated from Maratha Dare by a 60-foot road when the villages were set up to rehabilitate Koyna dam oustees. Now, a new barrier in the form of a 155-m wall has caused simmering caste resentments to erupt in this western Maharashtra region. Our correspondent travelled to the divided villages to investigate how strong the caste divide really is in 21st century India

Nestled amid lush green fields and dwarfed by the rugged Sahyadri hills, the twin villages of Bhimnagar and Dare in western Maharashtra's Satara district are unlike the other villages that dot this sugarcane-rich region. Most villages in the region are untidy clusters of mud-and-brick houses located unmistakably along the banks of rivers and streams. But Bhimnagar and Dare are more like cement-and-brick housing colonies planned on either side of a 60-foot-wide public road passing through Koregaon taluka. A plan that has gone seriously wrong over the years, as the district authorities realised last week.

Wall pulled down

On April 14, when the nation celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti, around 75 residents of Bhimnagar unsuccessfully attempted self-immolation in front of the Satara district collectorate, protesting the construction of a 155-metre-long wall denying them access to the village community hall located in Dare. The wall was built with a Rs 3.72 lakh grant from the local MLA's funds; work on it commenced on March 19. The officially stated purpose of the wall is to secure the premises of the zilla parishad-run primary school within the premises of the community hall.

Bhimnagar sarpanch Sanjana Kamble says: "The wall was constructed by the Marathas in Dare to segregate the dalits in Bhimnagar. The Marathas want a separate existence as upper castes." Dare deputy sarpanch Babaji Sakpal replies: "Dare was declared a revenue village, independent of Bhimnagar, in 1992, and the community hall was legally ours. There is no Maratha-dalit issue here."

Timely intervention by the district authorities prevented escalation of the crisis into a full-blown caste war. The Marathas in Dare were persuaded to allow the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations inside the community hall and later to pull down a portion of the wall to allow access to the dalits from Bhimnagar.

The Marathas, though, treat this as a strategic compromise whilst they await a court decision in a case filed by Bhimnagar residents in 2002 challenging the redistribution of land between the villages when Dare came into existence as a separate gram panchayat. "We won the case in the lower court but the Bhimnagar residents went into appeal in the sessions court. The matter is sub-judice, but they choose to ignore this fact," says Sakpal.

Meanwhile, the district administration, still shaken by the dalit outburst, is keeping its fingers crossed. Sub-divisional officer Sanjay Shinde concedes this is at best a "temporary truce" between the two communities. "Our main concern is to maintain law and order. The communities involved need to understand the reality. It will be the court of law which decides who will be in legal possession of the community hall," he says.

Social activist Bharat Patankar believes the genesis of the present social crisis lies in the rehabilitation policies, or lack of them, in Maharashtra when the Koyna dam was constructed in the 1950s. "In the absence of a rehabilitation policy, the displaced were rehabilitated on fallow or forest lands. A majority of rehabilitation sites comprised mixed communities, and it was hoped that, like elsewhere, living together would lead to the abolition of caste," says Patankar.

Bhimnagar and Dare, planned as rehabilitation sites for Koyna dam oustees, were exceptions. The residents of Dare are all Marathas hailing from a single village, Bamnoli, while the residents of Bhimnagar are all dalits from a dozen different villages that were displaced by the Koyna project. "We were from 10-12 different villages, most of us distant relations, seeking safety in numbers against the prevalent exploitative village system controlled by the upper castes," says septuagenarian Dagdu Lokhande, a first-generation displaced.

Patankar, known for leading a decades-old struggle for equitable distribution of water in the Krishna river valley, recalls that besides Bhimnagar, another village settlement of dalit displaced families called Siddharthnagar was also set up in the district, in the late-1950s. "Reference is made to a speech by Ambedkar during which he advises dalits to seek strength in numbers. This caused the dalits of present-day Bhimnagar and Siddharthnagar to create islands of their own to escape oppression," he explains.


Patankar feels setting up villages along caste lines has proved to be a costly mistake: "If you base your existence on caste-based seclusion, than you have to live with it. And the whole logic that goes with it (Marathas not wanting to settle in what is proclaimed to be a dalit settlement) will have to be borne." He expresses surprise that the state government has allowed village settlements based on caste to gain official recognition, though Maharashtra later adopted a rehabilitation policy and other laws that were against such segregation/seclusion of communities.

The dalits of Bhimnagar recall moving here in 1959, followed by the Marathas who came in the next couple of years. Their new settlements were then attached to a group gram panchayat at Satara Road Padali. In 1989, Bhimnagar-Dare became an independent gram panchayat and was put under an administrator until local body elections were held in the state in 1994. In 1992, Dare was declared an independent gram panchayat.

Simply put, the state government gave its official stamp to the caste divide in Bhimnagar-Dare when it issued an official gazette dated November 11, 1992, constituting the Maratha settlement as a revenue village, registered as Dare Tarf Tamb, vide powers vested with the district collector under the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code, 1966.

"Till then, the Marathas and the dalits used to share all common amenities like a primary school, community hall and temple, even a common garbage dump," recalls Sanjay Kamble, deputy sarpanch of Bhimnagar. Sakpal, his counterpart in Dare, also concedes that there were hardly any contentious issues: "It was a peaceful existence. Not a single crime was registered here, not even a non-cognisable offence."

Sanjana Kamble

Sarpanch Sanjana Kamble, however, disagrees: "The Marathas were always uncomfortable with our presence. Even before they got independent village status, they got a separate primary school. Today, we have two primary schools operating within 100 metres of each other; our school has 40 students and two teachers, while their school has 22 students and two teachers. Is this not a criminal waste of manpower and resources by the zilla parishad administration?"

The residents of Bhimnagar say the April 14 incident is not an isolated one, and their frustration has been building up for the past 14 years. "Ever since we came to know of Dare's independent status as a gram panchayat we have been seeking copies of the official gazette notification, revenue records and survey maps. But officials refused to part with them," says activist Suresh Kamble.

Bhimnagar's residents finally procured a photocopy of the gazette notification from the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, in Pune, nearly a decade after it was published. They also succeeded in laying their hands on some revenue maps, which showed that the village land had been equally divided between Bhimnagar and Dare. This was not acceptable to them.

"Firstly, we were not taken into confidence during the entire land redistribution exercise conducted under the supervision of a government-appointed administrator. Secondly, what is the basis for the land division? Bhimnagar with a population of 584 gets 4.31 hectares, while Dare with 270 residents gets 4.30 hectares," says Sanjana Kamble, unable to understand why the bill for common water supply then has to be shared 60:40 respectively between Bhimnagar and Dare.

Residents of Dare insist that whatever land they held in possession has been legally allotted by the government. "We have our papers in place. Our counterparts from Bhimnagar have no records to show the court. Hence their case was thrown out by the lower court," says Sakpal, producing the 'legal' file. A quick look reveals that it is indeed fully updated with officially provided revenue documents.

Babaji Sakpal

Sakpal says that unlike the dalits, the Marathas of Dare believe in legal battles. "We do not believe in violent agitations. All the top district officials, our 'Mai Baap', were camping here for two days to broker a peace. We chose to heed their advice while the Bhimnagar residents chose to disregard their advice," he says.

The Kambles and Lokhandes of Bhimnagar say they will not be content with a portion of the wall being pulled down. "We have given the district administration one month to come clean on all counts. We are demanding a transparent and fair administration," says activist Suresh Kamble.

For their part, the dalits are leaving no stone unturned to attain a better standard of living. Bhimnagar was declared a 'Nirmal Gram' by the state government in 2006 for maintaining excellent standards of overall cleanliness, sanitation and water supply. The green cover it has acquired through sustained tree plantation drives compensates for the non-existent internal roads. In contrast, Dare boasts asphalted internal roads -- proof of its political clout.

Patankar feels governments over the years have failed in their duty to socially and economically empower the weaker sections of society, leading to their alienation. "This issue is not limited to Bhimnagar and Dare. Caste groups have become vote banks and further divided Indian society. The educated have become more caste conscious than ever before... in work and marriage preferences. The most dirty work is still left to the lower castes," he says.

"Unless confronted by a strong socio-political movement, caste differences will remain unsolved in Bhimnagar-Dare as elsewhere," concludes Patankar.

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008