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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 18:56 GMT
Despair of the discriminated Dalits
By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Nagpur

Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange
Some of the accused have been released, I want them arrested again
Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange
The brutal killing of a family from the lower castes - known as Dalits - in India's western state of Maharashtra has revived the community's demand to be treated as equals in a society that has labelled them as outcasts.

The incident took place in a remote village called Khairlanji in Bhandara district situated in the north-east of the state.

On 29 September, Surekha Bhotmange, her 17-year-old daughter Priyanka, and two sons, 19-year-old Roshan and 21-year-old Sudhir were at home when an upper-caste mob broke into their mud hut and murdered them.

The details are gruesome. The four were reportedly dragged out and beaten with bicycle chains, sticks and other weapons. The mother and daughter were allegedly stripped and raped by the mob, many of whom lived in the same village and were possibly their neighbours.

The father and only surviving member, Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, is a broken man but shows steely resolve when demanding justice for his family.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar
Dr Ambedkar is revered among the Dalit community

"Some of the accused have been released, I want them arrested again," he said. "Some people take life for a life but I am not like that, I want the law to punish the guilty."

While he wants justice for his family, the Dalits are demanding justice for the community as a whole.

There have been protests across the state against the alleged mishandling of the investigations by state police and crowds have come onto the roads demanding fair treatment.

Desecrated

Journalist and professor Ranjit Meshram, retired chairman of the Board of Sociology at Nagpur University, says there is anger among the Dalits because they feel no one pays attention to them.

"Even though they are a sizeable number, they feel people in power do not listen to them. They have been feeling ignored for some time and Khairlanji pushed them over the edge," he said.

The frustration is palpable.

Dalit hut in Khairlanji village which was attacked by an upper caste mob
Dalits are often the victims of inter caste violence

Recently, after news broke out that a statue of Dalit leader and scholar, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, had been desecrated in the northern city of Kanpur, angry Dalits took to the streets in Mumbai (Bombay), burned trains and threw stones at buses and other vehicles.

About 10.2% of Maharashtra's approximately 100m-strong population belong to the Dalit community. A large number of them live in Nagpur, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Bhandara and Gondhia districts.

Ill-treated

In the traditional Hindu caste system, Dalits, formerly called the untouchables, were considered the lowest of low castes.

They were expected to do the most menial jobs in villages. They could not share basic amenities including drinking water with upper-caste people.

Baby Manohar Ramteke
They keep calling us names and telling us we are dirty people
Baby Manohar Ramteke, a Dalit

Such practices still exist in rural areas.

Thirty-year-old Baby Manohar Ramteke is a Dalit by birth and works in the fields.

She has lived in Bhabal, a village about two hours drive from the city of Nagpur, all her life and says they have always been ill-treated by others on the basis of their caste.

"First they wouldn't let us fill water from the common well, then there was an incident of someone vandalising the village temple statue so they blamed us for it. They keep calling us names and telling us we are dirty people," she said.

She finally got a separate water tap installed in the village for Dalit families.

Families belonging to higher castes living in the same village say they do not treat them differently.

"We tell them anything and they tell us you are pointing fingers at us because of our caste," says Gangadhar Kodhramji Bawane, a carpenter who belongs to a higher caste and lives in the same village.

"We all live together and there are bound to be fights but they think we target them," he said.

Iconic status

In order to escape the caste system, many Dalits have adopted Buddhism as their new faith, as their leader, Dr Ambedkar, did.

Woman being baptised in Nagpur
Thousands have attended conversion ceremonies in Nagpur

The chief architect of the Indian constitution, Dr Ambedkar was born a Dalit but rose to a respectable position in society despite all odds. He enjoys iconic status among his people.

Retired professor and social worker Dr Rupa Kulkarni says those who followed him have forged ahead in life socially and financially. She said many of them have become top doctors, writers and bureaucrats.

"Leaving Hinduism and accepting Buddhism changed the entire mentality of Dalits, made them believe that even they were someone. They realised they had to revolt against the caste system and because of this their self-respect awakened," she said.

"But those who did not adopt this path are still backward. In Nagpur today, more than 70% of the rickshaw pullers are Dalits. Among domestic workers the overwhelming majority of women belong to the Dalit community. Many of them are still illiterate," she said.

Dr Kulkarni said discrimination in cities may not be as obvious as that in the villages, but it still exists and Dalits are not allowed to forget the caste they were born into.

"Before giving a house out on rent here, the tenant's caste is asked and Buddhists are banned completely even though their economic condition is such that they can buy the place. Inter-caste marriages are still prohibited.

"No matter how progressive people call themselves, that really progressive element - a generous and big heart - is still missing."


SEE ALSO
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Kanshi Ram: Champion of the poor
09 Oct 06 |  South Asia
Anger over Gujarat religion law
20 Sep 06 |  South Asia
Conversions harder in India state
26 Jul 06 |  South Asia
India mourns Dalit ex-president
10 Nov 05 |  South Asia
India dalits protest arson attack
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Country profile: India
31 Aug 06 |  Country profiles

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