It was Mahatma Gandhi’s aim to eradicate ‘untouchability’ from India’s caste system. But even as we celebrate 153 years of Gandhi’s birth anniversary, the age-old evil practice continues in many parts of Karnataka. Last year, a four-year-old boy’s family was fined Rs 25,000 after he entered the Maruti temple at Miyapur village in Koppal. Soon after, the government announced launching Vinaya Samarasya, an awareness programme to eradicate untouchability.
Social Welfare Minister Kota Srinivas Poojary says the state and the Centre have made sincere efforts to eradicate untouchability. Speaking at the inauguration of Dr BR Ambedkar residential school at Doddamagge village of Arkalgud taluk in Hassan recently, he said the state government is trying to bring the downtrodden into the mainstream by extending the benefits on time. The state and the Centre have come up with stringent laws to curb social evils, he adds.
Despite such statements and efforts, the evil continues
Poojary says there needs to be awareness to eradicate the menace and the Vinaya Samarasya programme will be launched on a big platform. “We want to join hands with seers from various castes and communities to send out a message to the people. It is easier to reach out to people through religious heads,” he says. “People’s mindset has to be changed.”
Caste is a socio-political problem and different strata of society continue to address people of other castes with derogatory terms and no action is taken against them, says Bezwada Wilson, Magsaysay award winner and National Convenor of Safai Karmachari Andolan. “Society can only be transformed by political leadership. But the government has not taken much effort. Instead of eliminating caste hierarchy, they have promoted it in some ways,” he adds. Though untouchability is said to be abolished, it is quite the opposite, he says and urges the government to take a more neutral stance and ensure that people from different social backgrounds are accepted.
A Gandhian, playwright and founder of Charaka, Desi and Gram Seva Sangha, Prasanna Heggodu, says, “Creating laws and institutions to support Dalits has happened. But whether they are functioning the way they should be... not so sure. Also, institutions can only do legalistic work and, unless this is coupled with social action on the ground, nothing will really come up.”
“The social movement is happening, but it is mostly by Dalit organisations. A social movement which is larger than just a Dalit movement can handle these issues better. There has to be a platform for negotiation, which can confront and fight, but eventually can sit across the table and negotiate,” he says. “In politics, the BJP has become so angry and doubtful, they do not want to speak, but rather pounce on everybody. This is true for almost every other institution. Society cannot function like that. That is what Gandhi tried to do when he tried to negotiate with Ambedkar. But Ambedkar was, rightfully, angry. Gandhi was trying to say even with untouchability, there are two sides, one of wanting to touch and the other of not wanting to be touched, so we must create a situation where the two can talk to each other. But unfortunately, that did not happen and was met with anger and suspicion. Now, this has blown up beyond compare,” he says.
Dalit Sangharsha Samiti Convener Bettaiah Kote says untouchability is practised from Kashmir to Kanyakumari even today. “There was a time when we were told that education would remove untouchability and other social evils. But ironically, it is the educated who practise this more. Even universities are plagued by casteism,” he says.
Gandhiji fought against untouchability but accepted Varnashrama (caste-based social hierarchy). “Every day, there are incidents in villages across the country, but it does not come out. In the feudal system, dominant communities enjoy power by suppressing lower communities. There is little hope of social justice for weaker sections as the government that is ruling the country believes in caste and varnashrama,” he says.
TNIE checks what is the status in different districts
Dalit leader Shyamraj Birth says it would be wrong to assume there is no untouchability in Udupi. Incidents of Dalits being barred to draw water from wells of families of other backward communities have been witnessed at Nandikoor near Padubidri. In Badagudde, upper-class families do not allow Koraga tribals to enter their front yards, he says.
People from Mugera, Mundala, Adi Dravida (all considered Dalits) communities and Koraga tribe face untouchability. But at the same time, Samagara and Marathi Naik communities despite being STs do not face the issue.
At Kittur, Bailhongal and a few villages around Nandagad of Khanapur taluk, people still practice discrimination. Villagers of Chikmannavalli had been restricting the entry of Dalits into Laxmi temple. On May 27, a case was filed at the Nandagad police station against the temple priest and village head. Cases were also filed against a saloon owner for not cutting the hair of Dalits.
Ravi Bastwadkar, General Secretary, Karnataka Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Bheemwad), says that recently he came to know that Dalits were not allowed at Maruti and Basavanna temples at Margankoppa village in Kittur taluk. Also, villagers of Zunzhawad in Khanapur taluk were restricting the entry of Dalits into Laxmi temple.
Villagers say untouchability exists in some remote pockets in Gadag district. Some incidents have been reported over the past four years. In 2018, an elderly SC woman slipped and fell into a lake at Huilgol village. Villagers started emptying the entire lake, but they were stopped after a few local leaders intervened.
In 2019, a snake-catcher, who was in an inebriated state, was allegedly not allowed inside some bars as belonged to the Scheduled Caste. In March 2021, some hotels in Mundargi downed their shutters after marriages of SC/STs were conducted close to their establishments. To create awareness, Mundargi Tahsildar Ashappa Pujar went to a hotel owned by an SC and washed tea cups.
A married Dalit couple was allegedly harassed and perpetrators tried to sexually assault the woman at Araga village in Thirthahalli taluk in May. The three accused attacked the couple, who were returning to the village at night after buying medicines for the husband. In her complaint, the woman stated that the accused started beating up her husband, who fell unconscious.
The accused then dragged her to a rubber plantation, stripped her and tried to sexually assault her. When she started screaming, the accused fled. The accused were also booked for atrocities under Section 3 of the SC and ST Prevention Of Atrocities Act, 1989.
Recently, at Ullerahalli of Kolar district, the family of a 15-year-old Dalit boy was fined Rs 60,000 as he held a pole attached to the village deity Boothamma during a procession. Elders from the village convened a panchayat and issued an ultimatum to the family to either pay the fine or leave the village. Ironically, Dalit families too had contributed to the construction of the Bhoothamma temple. The incident occurred on September 8, but came to light only on September 21 after Sandeesh, president of the Dr Ambedkar Seva Samithi, took up the issue with the Masthi police. The police registered an FIR against eight people, who were arrested. The government later allotted a site to the affected family and the deputy commissioner ordered that the mother be given a job at a hostel.
Nine months ago, Dindaguru village of Channarayapatna taluk witnessed tension after a hotel owner restricted a Dalit youth from entering. Though the incident was over a personal rivalry, Dalits and upper caste people were at loggerheads. The officials camped in the village and took more than two weeks to pacify leaders from Dalit and upper caste communities.
In another incident, the village head allegedly beat up and abused a Dalit youth in Sakleshpur taluk recently. Despite protests, the police and taluk authorities failed to provide justice to the victim.
Members of an upper caste boycotted Dalits from entering Anjaneya temple in Sigaranahalli of Holenarasipur three years ago. Finally, the district authorities resolved the issue by taking upper caste people into confidence. But since then, upper caste people have not entered the temple.
Some parents stopped their children from going to an Anganwadi in the Hatyal village of Basavakalyan taluk as one of the anganwadi workers was an SC.
The worker, Sumitra, says she was shocked when students stopped coming to the anganwadi because of her caste. The residents even searched for another worker and told her to get transferred to Sirgapur, a neighboring village. Basavakalyan MLA Sharanu Salagar convinced the villagers not to practise untouchability. Later, the villagers started sending their children to the anganwadi, she adds.
INPUTS FROM: Ashwini M Sripad/Bengaluru; BK Lakshmikantha/Mysuru; Marx Tejaswi / Shivamogga; Tushar A Majukar/Belagavi; Prakash Samaga/Udupi; Raghu Koppar/Gadag; V Velayudham/ Kolar; Ramakrishna Badsheshi/Bidar; and Uday Kumar BR/Hassan