Aug 11, 2020
When a group of villagers came to Dharamvir Gandhi in 2014 seeking funds for a Dalit cremation ground, the then MP from Patiala refused. Instead he promised the villagers funds if they agreed to building a common cremation ground. “They went away quite unhappy but I would not budge,” he says.
The idea met with some resistance but soon many warmed up. The result is that now nearly 142 panchayats in Patiala district have a common cremation ground. “Sikh religion teaches us langar, sangat, and pangat (the tradition of eating and sitting together). Today at least this is practised in the final rites,” he adds.
These Punjab villages are still an exception, and in most states in the country burying or cremating the dead is a constant source of friction between Dalits and so-called upper castes. Last week, the body of a 26-year-old woman from the Nat community was removed from the pyre just minutes before it was lit. The land belonged to the gram sabha but upper caste Thakurs in Kakarpura village, 20km from Uttar Pradesh’s Agra city, forced the husband to take the body 4km away to another cremation ground. A video of the incident went viral forcing the local authorities allot the gram sabha land to the Nat community.
In one Punjab village, it took a proactive sarpanch to end the multiple cremation grounds. Harigarh village in Barnala district had a population of 2,800 but had four separate grounds — for Sikh Jatts, for Majhbi-Ramdasia Sikhs and Hindus. “Why should there be discrimination over dead bodies? When I was sarpanch, I called the elders of the village to discuss the issue. I also made people realise that so much land was being wasted which could be put to use for the village,” says Malkit Singh, who spent a lot of time convincing them. “We formed committees of 5-6 like-minded people so that they in turn could influence their community,” he says. Almost a year later in 2015, the move was made to construct a common cremation ground that would be used by all.
In Ludhiana’s Baasian Bet village, former sarpanch Chuhar Singh has a similar experience to narrate. The village had two cremation grounds but moved to a common one in 2013. “We are one people, why should our shamshaan ghats be separate,” he asks.
But in many states the separation continues. In a study by NGO Navsarjan in 2010, it was found that of the 1,589 villages surveyed in Gujarat, 96% of Dalit households did not have access to exclusive burial or cremation grounds. As value of real estate has risen, says Lalit Babar, National Federation for Dalit Land Rights (NFDLR) secretary general, so have disputes. “Earlier Dalits would use land that was waste, or near a riverbed. No one cared for it because it was not fertile soil. But now land is a valuable commodity and so disputes arise.”
In Tamil Nadu, Dalit residents of North Poigainallur colony in Nagapattinam district were forced to wade across a river to reach their burial grounds while last year, villagers of Narayanapuram near Vanniyambadi town, 200km from Chennai, had to “air-drop” the body from a bridge because the access road to the cremation ground had been encroached on. Documentary filmmaker Amshan Kumar says that he was shocked how the issue festered. His film ‘Manusangada’ based on a real-life story portrays the struggle of a Dalit man cremate his father’s body. “When I traveled for my research I found Dalit communities did not want water, or electricity or roads,” he says.
Often disagreements turn into violent fights, says social worker Kishan Tangade who works in Maharashtra’s Beed district. In October last year, he received an anxious call from Dalit community members who wanted to cremate a 30-year-old boy in Aher Dhanora village. “The upper caste community would not allow it saying it would pollute their village,” he says. He contacted the police but the stand-off took eight hours to resolve. “In this case, we had the cooperation of the police but that is not true in all the cases,” he says. In another incident when water flooded the upper caste cremation ground in Pimla Devi, the community was prompt in pointing fingers at the Dalit families.
NFDLR’s Babar says he advocates separate burial or cremation facilities as a temporary measure. “Why should there be discrimination in death? But till such time as we do not have that, let us at least have some dignity,” he says.