Dalit pushback in Uttarakhand


A MUNDANE and arduous journey made years ago on a rickety roadways bus has somehow stayed with me. To ward off sheer boredom of the long and uncomfortable trip on a scorching summer afternoon from Delhi to Uttarakhand, I got chatting with a fellow passenger in his early 60s, who was returning to his ancestral village near Berinag in Pithoragarh district to perform the annual puja (prayer service). He had left the hills as a teenager and was now working somewhere in Saudi Arabia. We talked about life in the mountains, the culture, language, the caste divide, and so on. Once he became comfortable chatting with a stranger who wouldn’t judge him, he revealed a little family secret to me: ‘We have our own code language in our extended family, which we use only when we don’t want outsiders to understand what we are talking about’.

As someone who is generally interested in languages, this piqued my interest in the conversation. He said, ‘The code language was spoken only in a few households belonging to our biradari (clan) scattered in a few villages around ours. It’s different from the local Kumaoni dialect.’ But he smilingly declined my request to speak a few sentences in the code language. When I insisted, he reluc­tantly agreed, as if feeling guilty for breaking some unwritten oath of silence. He said, ‘At times, we needed to talk to our family members about things we didn’t want to say in front of the dabang (influential and aggressive) people of the village. So, we would say Yau chutukaki sam­ani na chulapya, chulapya ta aitkari karal, thogaal’. ‘Don’t say anything in front of this guy, else he will get mad at us and will beat us up’.

Kumaoni is my mother tongue and I speak it with moderate fluency. But what my fellow passenger told me was completely different from the Kumaoni I speak. This sentence in Kumaoni would be Yaik samani kai jhan kaiya, kaula ta yau risai jal aur marun hun bati jal.’

The man then gave me a quick crash course in his ‘secret language’ before abruptly stopping when he realized that he had probably revealed too much and changed the topic. Clearly, he belonged to the Dalit community and he was talking about the influential and probably violent upper caste people of his village. I have narrated this story from my memory to illustrate the intensity of fear and mistrust the Dalits of Uttarakhand have had for the upper caste people. This essay is an attempt to understand the great divide between these two communities in a historical context.

A separate state of Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in November 2000 following a popular mass movement that plunged the eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh into unprecedented turmoil in the early 1990s. The stir was widely perceived to have the support of the entire hill people. This understanding was correct to an extent because the region had never before seen people from almost every walk of life – government employees, teachers, students, women and activists from the political left and right coming out on the street to assert their demand for a separate hill state.

But the fact that a large section of Dalits – also known as shilpkars (artisans) in Uttarakhand remained suspicious of the movement and stayed away from it, was completely ignored by the mainstream media as well as social commentators. No noticeable attempt has been made to analyse and understand as to why the people living on the margins of the caste hierarchy had decided against being part of what would be a watershed moment in the history of Uttarakhand. So, what were the reasons why the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the OBCs, who constitute nearly 40% of the total population of Uttarakhand, were not enthused by the idea of a separate hill state?

The answer can be found in the circumstances that led to the sudden eruption of people’s anger. The demand for a separate hill state was not new, but it remained dormant for over six decades and could never capture the imagination of most of the people of Uttarakhand. The idea of a separate administrative unit comprising the hill districts of Kumaon and Garhwal was first floated in 1929 by a group of pro-British people of Kumaon. They submitted a memorandum to the Lieutenant Governor of the United Provinces, Malcolm Hailey, demand­ing autonomy for British Kumaon (Uttarakhand).1 Since then, the demand kept cropping up inter­mittently but without any conse­quence, until 1994 when the UP government under Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav decided to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations extending 27% quota for the OBCs in government jobs and an equal percentage of seats for them in state-owned educational institutions across the state.

This decision angered the pre­dominantly upper caste populace of the hill districts. They argued that the reservation policy was suited to the caste equations of the plains where the OBCs had a sizeable population. But the same policy could not be mechan­ically implemented in the hill areas where the OBC population was not more than 2%. A common refrain at the height of the pro-Uttarakhand movement was: ‘you give us a separate state and we will formulate our own reservation policy’. This essentially meant that the benefits recommended by the Mandal Com­mission could be severely diluted or altered in the new state of Uttarakhand where Brahmins and Thakurs con­stitute around 60% of the population.

The implicit message wrapped in this justification of a separate state was not lost on Dalits and OBCs. And the anti-reservation (read anti-Dalit) overtones of the agitation were too loud and too obvious to be ignored. Even though the upper castes themselves were benefitting from the quota system as seats were reserved in medical and engineering colleges for the students from the border areas.

Dalit leader and former (he completed his Rajya Sabha tenure on 4 July 2022) Congress Rajya Sabha MP from Almora, Pradip Tamta was among those who identified the all-pervasive anti-Dalit bias in the Uttarakhand movement right at its initial stages.As a left-leaning activist back then, Tamta, along with some other Dalit leaders, submitted a memorandum to the President of India requesting him to safeguard the interests of the Dalit community in the face of the anti-reservation fervour getting louder and louder.

Tamta recalls how a section of people associated with the Uttara­khand movement revealed their deep-seated prejudice against Dalits, who were subjected to casteist slurs and verbal humiliation during the movement. This prejudice became manifest when a march was organized in Almora to protest against Mulayam Singh Yadav’s reservation policy. On the face of it, the protest was against the 27% reservation for the OBCs, but since the OBCs constitute less than 2% of the total population in the hill area, the protesters vented their anger against the idea of reservation per se.

While passing through the lanes of Almora town, the march stopped at a Dalit neighbourhood and the protesters started inflicting caste-related insults at the residents and shouted anti-reservation slogans to provoke the Dalits. The District Magistrate, himself a Dalit, deployed a heavy police force and managed to avert a major caste confrontation. This incident left no doubt in the minds of the Dalits that they would not be treated any better should a new state come into existence.

The Almora rally was not the only instance when anti-Dalit caste bias amongst a section of the protesters came out in the open. Slogans like Mulayam Singh ch***a hai, Mayawati ku***a hai (Mulayam is a nincompoop and Mayawati is a b***h) ranted the air during an unruly pro-Uttarakhand rally held in Delhi on 2 October 1994. What had fuelled the anger against the two leaders – then coalition partners in the UP government was the killing of six protesters in police firing the night before in Muzaffarnagar, where the district administration stopped and harassed the protesters coming from the hills to join the planned rally in Delhi. Police were also accused of rape and molestation of some women protesters.

Dalits saw all these events as signs of an impending danger to their hard-earned constitutional right to reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. After all, these rights were a legal bulwark against oppression and harassment at the hands of caste Hindus, besides ensuring a certain degree of financial security and self-respect for Dalits. Tamta believes that government schemes and the affirmative action guaranteed by the Constitution have, to some extent, improved the eco­nomic condition of the Dalits of Uttarakhand. ‘But there is hardly any change in their social status in the past several decades.’

Two incidents, which happened almost a century apart, prove Tamta’s point that the attitudes of the upper castes towards Dalits have not changed much. Sample this: In 1923, a group of upper caste men stop a marriage procession of Dalits on its way from village Khandi to Sendhikhan in Garhwal, and the baraatis were beaten up because the bridegroom was being carried in a dola-palki (palanquin). When the marriage party was returning after four days, it was again attacked and looted.2

Almost a century later, on 2 May 2022, a group of upper caste Thakur women intercepted Dalit youth Vikram Kumar’s baraat in Tok Majbakhali in the Salt (pronounced as Sult – it’s the name of the area) patti of Almora district and ordered him to dismount the pony he was riding. He was allegedly warned that Kafalta would be repeated if he did not listen to Thakur women.3 The reference to Kafalta was used as a threat because 14 Dalits participating in a marriage party were massacred by upper caste villagers in Kafalta 42 years ago in the same Salt patti in Almora district where Vikram Kumar’s marriage procession was stopped this year.

The Kafalta massacre is by far the worst caste carnage in Uttara­khand. A few upper caste villagers intercepted the marriage procession of Shyam Prasad Lohar, when it was passing through Kafalta village on 9 May 1980. The villagers told the bridegroom to get down from the dola-palki and walk through the village as a ‘mark of respect to lord Badrinath’. But the Dalit insisted that the bridegroom would get down from the palki in front of the temple, not before that. Their stance infuriated the upper caste people and one of them – a soldier in the army who had come home on vacation forcibly upturned the palanquin in which the bride­groom was sitting. Clashes broke out and the Brahmin soldier was stabbed to death.

The Thakurs then turned on the Dalits, who ran to save their lives and locked themselves in a house belonging to a fellow Dalit. The upper caste villagers surrounded the house and set it on fire, burning alive six Dalits hiding inside. The rest of them jumped out of the windows but were chased and lynched one by one in the fields by the marauding crowd. The 16 accused belonging to the upper caste were exonerated by lower courts and the High Court. The Supreme Court, however, set aside the High Court’s decision and sentenced all of them to life in prison 17 years after the crime was committed. ‘Justice was not denied, but it was definitely delayed’, reported Outlook magazine.4

Using dola-palki in marriage processions was considered a pri­vilege exclusive to the upper caste people. The sight of a Dalit bride­groom riding a pony or using dola-palki has always irked the upper castes – they see it as an attempt by the Dalits to disrupt the well established vertical social order. It is also seen as their rejection of Brahminical hierarchies and reclaiming their place in society as equals. Paradoxically, caste Hindus had no problems with Christians and Muslims using dola-palki in their marriage processions!5

Socially aware sections of the Dalit community began to resent the restriction on using dola-palki in their marriage parties. In fact, three years before the1923 attack on the marriage procession in Sendhikhal, Dalit leader Khushi Ram Arya had for the first time dared to break that unwritten diktat of the upper castes and insisted on using dola-palki in a baraat in Ramgarh village on 16 January 1920.That proved to be a morale booster for the Dalits fighting for their rights elsewhere in Uttarakhand.6 Jayanand

Bharati, an influential Dalit leader of Garhwal, started mobilizing his community in1923 to demand the right to use dola-palki. It is ironic, however, that he was still fighting for this right almost 20 years later, in 1941, after yet another attack on a Dalit marriage procession in Mandoli village in Garhwal, even though the Allahabad High Court had in 1936 outlawed the practice of stopping the shilpkars from using dola-palki.

Shilpkars started becoming restless about their social conditions right at the beginning of the 20th century. Hari Prasad Tamta was amongst the first pro-British shilpkar leaders who founded the Tamta Sudhar Sabha in Almora in 1905, which later came to be known as the Kumaon Shilpkar Sabha. Hari Prasad Tamta and Khushi Ram Arya were amongst the pioneers of the Dalit awakening in the Kumaon region. Khushi Ram is remembered for organizing Kurmanchali Shilpkar Sammelan in 1923 in Majhkhali, Almora, where shilpkars demanded, among other things, free education, access to jobs in police and army, and their share in the government. It was much later, in 1935, that shilpkars were allowed to join the armed forces. Interestingly, both Dalits and Brahmins were not initially considered ‘martial races’ by the British, hence they were denied entry into the army.

Given the rigid social system controlled by the upper castes, it is remarkable how a community was slowly waking up to assert its rights and garner courage to challenge the system. This awakening was to a large extent linked with the national awakening against colonial rule under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi.A

host of pro-Dalit organizations like century. Despite all this, attacks on Dalit marriage parties kept happening from the 1920s through to the1940s, and in fact they have not completely stopped right up to the present day.

It is also very interesting to note that while the Dalit leadership was watching the mass movements around them during the colonial period with a lot of curiosity, they somehow were not ready to trust the upper caste leadership of some of the progressive and anti-colonial movements. Histo­rian Shekhar Pathak notes that ‘during the movement to abolish the begaar system (forced and unpaid labour) and the forest movement, the shilpkars were not inspired by the leadership to participate in it.’

The begaar system introduced by the British, forced the villagers to carry heavy luggage like tents, commodes, and containers of food items on their back from one village to another to set up camping facilities for the British officials travelling in the interior parts of Uttarakhand. The villagers resented the practice and finally, in 1921, they launched the historic anti-begaar movement in Bageshwar under the joint leadership of Brahmins and Thakurs. But the shilpkars kept away from it because they could clearly see the dichotomy of the upper caste people who, on the one hand, were protesting against the begaar system of which they themselves were the victims, but on the other hand, they would force the Dalits to do begaar on their fields for free.7 The same dichotomy was on full display during the Uttarakhand movement and Dalits could see through it.

Though shilpkars were consid­ered part of the varnashrama system, they were still treated as ‘outsiders’ by upper caste Hindus. They were not allowed to follow any of the rituals and customs that Hindus follow at the time of birth, death or marriage. High caste priests would not perform any religious rites for them; they were prohibited from wearing the janeu (the sacred thread) worn by upper caste Hindus; they were not allowed to enter a temple or even look at the deity for a long time from close quarters, nor were they allowed to give their children decent, modern names.

But shilpkars devised a way around this socio-religious strangling by upper caste Hindus. They took a bold step and gradually developed a priest class from within the Dalit community. The thinking behind the move was to outsmart Brahmin priests and plainly tell them ‘we don’t need you to perform our religious rites; we can do it ourselves’. Dalit purohits (priests) learnt Sanskrit and mem­orized the scriptures, and even dressed up like Brahmin purohits. A Dalit carpenter, Joga Ram, became a priest in Bageshwar district way back in 1960, and now his sons follow in his footsteps. They perform rituals for Dalit families and they are addressed as Panditji (an honorific reserved for Brahmins) by the community.8 The shilpkar community’s struggle for equal religious rights was thus a struggle for democratic values and basic human rights which they had been denied for centuries.

In the early part of the 20th century, the Arya Samaj movement played an important role in mobilizing the shilpkars to stake claim over the Antyaj Sudhar Sabha and the Shilpkar Sudhar Sabha came into existence in the early part of the 20th Hindu religious symbols like the sacred thread – janeu. Thread ceremonies were organised in different parts of Uttarakhand to baptize shilpkar men and they were given the caste name Arya to announce their membership of the grand Arya Samaj family. Congress and Arya Samaj leader Lala Lajpat Rai came to Sunkia village in Nainital district in 1913 to participate in such a ceremony organized by shilpkar leader Khushi RamArya. His visit had surely stirred the conscience of some of the upper caste intellectuals who began to voice their concern about the subhuman treatment of the shilpkars by caste Hindus. However, they were seemingly more concerned about the shilpkars converting to Christianity or Islam.

Pathak quotes from two important newspapers of that time – Almora Akhbar and Garhwali. Tara Dutt Gairola wrote in Almora Akhbar: ‘We must change our attitude towards the Shilpkars. The government must also work for their upliftment. Otherwise, they will become Christians and Muslims, and this will destroy the Hindu unity.’ An editorial published in ‘Garhwali’ in April 1913, noted: ‘We must behave with the lower castes properly and minimize the gulf between us. We must not hate them and try to inspire them for (their) social upliftment If the number of people belonging to lower castes goes down, there is no hesitation in saying that India will be without hands and feet.’

Clearly, shilpkars were looked at as mere utility tools to serve the dominant castes ‘hands and feet of the Hindu society’ and not as fellow human beings enjoying equal rights. But by now, the shilpkars were getting increasingly restless about the per­petual discrimination against them.

Hari Prasad Tamta wrote a scathing article in the District Gazette in1923, lamenting the plight of the shilpkars:

‘Centuries have passed. We sacrificed ourselves for the Hindu religion, but justice was never done to us. We are still called “Dom” even our shade is supposed to be untouchable.’9

Even a century later, the discriminatory attitude of the dominant castes towards the Dalits has remained unchanged it may have become more subtle though. What has really changed is that Dalits are no more willing to meekly accept the rules of the game set by the upper castes – they are pushing back. A recent example of Dalit assertion grabbed the national headlines in December 2021 when upper caste students in a government school in Champawat district refused to eat a midday meal cooked by a Dalit employee, Sunita Kumari. Under pressure from the dominant castes, the school management sacked her and appointed a Brahmin woman as bhojanmata (mother cook). What followed was unprecedented: In a tit­-for-tat action, the Dalit students decided to boycott the midday meal cooked by the newly appointed Brahmin woman.10

This may be a one-off example of reverse untouchability, but the message was clear: If the dominant castes can practice untouchability, Dalits will also pay them back in their own coin. The younger generation of Dalits do not need to invent a code language anymore to communicate amongst themselves to escape the wrath of the upper caste.

Footnotes :

1. Shekhar Pathak, Indian History Congress: Proceedings 60th Session, 1999, pp. 894-895.

2. Shantan Singh Negi, Indian History Congress: Proceedings 72nd Session, 2011, pp. 783.

3. Times of India. https://timesofindia. indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/dalit-groom-told-to-get-off-horse-or-see-baraatis-die/ articleshow/91329138.cms

4. Rajesh Joshi, Outlook, 26 March 1997. https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/ story/victory-to-the-voiceless/203265 5. Shiv Prasad Dabral, Uttarakhand ka Itihas (Vol 8). Vira Gatha Prakashan, 1978 (1965), p. 349.            

6. Shantan Singh Negi, Indian History Congress: Proceedings, 72nd Session, 2011, p. 783.

7. Shekhar Pathak quotes Pre-Mutiny records, Kumaon, IV, 1815, Volume 111;101 and Glyn’s Report on Slavery in Kumaon, PMR, Kumaon Records XXII, 1822, 65-96 to illustrate that the oppressive begaar and halia system (in which Dalits were compelled to plough the fields of the upper caste people) continued.

8. Indian Express, 4 June 2013. https:// indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/ in-uttarakhand-dalits-create-own-priesthood/

9. Shekhar Pathak, Indian History Congress: Proceedings, 64th session, 2003, pp. 843-844.

10. Hindustan Times, 26 December 2021.