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This is no model village, claim Dalits

Mohammed Iqbal

Chakwada village in Jaipur district bags Nirmal Gram award despite intense caste prejudice



BONE OF CONTENTION: Babulal Bairwa, who asserted Dalits' right to bathe in the public pond in Chakwada village of Rajasthan, sitting at the ghat of the pond which has now been abandoned by higher caste people. Photo: Gopal Sunger

CHAKWADA (RAJASTHAN): In an ironic display of misplaced priorities, intense caste prejudice in Chakwada village of Jaipur district has been ignored to make way for the village panchayat bagging the prestigious Nirmal Gram award of the Union Ministry for Rural Development this year.

While the award adorns Chakwada with the status of a clean and open defecation-free village, the dominant caste people here have launched a fresh onslaught on Dalits for their "crime'' to assert their right to bathe in the public pond. Not only are the Dalits facing a social boycott, the pond has also been abandoned because of its "impurity".

Dalits here believe that the village's inclusion in the 23 panchayats of the State selected for Nirmal Gram award was a subterfuge to conceal the rampant discrimination and prove the existence of caste harmony for public consumption. The village fails on every yardstick for selection for a cleanliness prize.

The woman Sarpanch of the village, Prem Bhinchar, received the award from President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam in New Delhi this Friday. Chakwada was referred twice, after being rejected once, to the Union Rural Development Ministry for the award with the State Government taking a keen interest in getting the prize for the village for obvious reasons.

The only public pond in the village, situated 50 km from Jaipur, has been a bone of contention between Dalits and higher caste people since 2001, when a group of Dalit youths flouted the custom of bathing at separate ghats (embankments) reserved for various caste groups in an attempt to break the social class barriers.

The dominant Brahmin and Jat communities took exception to Dalits using their ghats and attacked Dalit houses, boycotted the Dalit population and imposed collective fines on them.

In September 2002, the dispute led to a violent clash between police and higher castes when the latter tried to attack a `Sadbhavana Yatra' (harmony march) of Dalits.

"Ever since the village shot into limelight and dominant castes were forced to retreat, they have adopted a different strategy to stifle Dalits. They have abandoned the pond while making repeated attempts to spread filth in it and enforced an undeclared boycott of Dalits with a renewed vigour," said Babulal Bairwa, who was the first to defy restriction on Dalits.

The pond, now dry, is a cesspool of dirt and garbage with the panchayat taking no interest in its restoration.

A committee of village elders who earlier used to look after the pond's upkeep has been disbanded and funds diverted to other public works.

All this because a reluctant State Government pledged to safeguard Dalits' right to bathe in the pond.

"With the pond becoming dry following low rainfall, everyone is happy. The Government says Dalits' rights are intact and dominant caste people say they cannot bathe as there is no water," said Ganga Lal, a Dalit activist.

However, the Sarpanch's husband, Hanuman Bhinchar -- who is the de facto head of the village panchayat -- denied all charges and affirmed that all dominant castes such as Brahmins, Vaishyas and Jats would bathe in the pond when its 200-bigha catchment area is filled with water in the next monsoon.

Mr. Bhinchar was one of the 17 persons booked under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for attacking Dalits on the issue of bathing.

A special court discharged all the accused in 2005 and the Rajasthan High Court later rejected a criminal revision petition filed by Dalits against the order.

Sitaram Jat, former Block Congress president, said a "political twist" given to the dispute over bathing was responsible for tension in the village.

"Dalits like Babulal Bairwa who have the temerity to question age-old customs are a pain in the neck," he said.

Far from having dirt-free roads, covered drains and hygienic toilets required for qualifying for the Nirmal Gram award, Chakwada today is a cesspool of caste hatred and social conflict.

A Dalit activist aptly sums up, "When the minds are polluted, where is the question of physical atmosphere being clean?"

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