What Do the Mountains of Himachal Hide? A Simmering Caste Problem


What Do the Mountains of Himachal Hide? A Simmering Caste Problem

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Earlier this year, in the month of February, during a screening of PM Narendra Modi’s show Pariksha Par Charcha, Dalit students of a government school in Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu were made to sit outside the classroom, separate from the upper-caste pupils.

This might be news for those who know the state through the drug dens of Kasol – also part of the Kullu valley – that mix well with the sunshine and the supposed quietude of its mountains. Because who wouldn’t pick the fantasy of an apolitical, radically progressive pasture situated somewhere over the depressingly familiar reality? But for those of us who have grown up here know that the murder of Dalit rights activist Kedar Singh Jindan, about 10 days ago in the Sirmaur district of HP, is only a sign that perhaps, push has finally come to shove in a state that has callously looked over its casteism for decades.

Jindan fought the last two elections in his constituency on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket, and was a social and Dalit rights activist in Sirmaur, which has a sizeable Dalit population. Beaten to death, he was mowed down by an automobile by his assailants. He paid for his life after raising his voice against affluent families from his panchayat after alleging that they had wrongly declared themself Below Poverty Line to attain benefits.

Absurdly, since his murder, there have been protests against the invocation of the Atrocities Against SC/ST act that entitles the next of kin to a compensation of ₹8.5 lakh. A part of the protests have been in favour of the accused (including a junior pradhan of the panchayat). The argument being that the caste angle being pursued by investigative authorities is unjust.

But what has followed the murder, is hardly surprising – it is largely in tune with the way Himachal has always functioned. And if ever evidence was required of why the dilution of this act, that led to rioting and protests all over the country earlier this year, would further threaten the position of the lower castes, Himachal has offered a befitting argument.

Himachal as per the 2011 census is 95 per cent Hindu, which means Muslims and other minorities are so sparsely populated or small in number, they can hardly even build a ghetto.

To which, we must ask some important questions about the nature of the violation and its roots seeped in the history of the state. Taking a life is essentially an act in two parts. The first is the motivation, possibly provided by Jindan’s activism itself. And second, is the exercise of power, the feeling that even a momentous lapse of sense and morality will be met with little form of repercussion. That, owing to Jindan’s Dalit status, was already an empirical fact. I have no doubt in my mind that an upper-caste Rajput aur Brahmin might have been spared his life, let alone the indecency of the protests against him in the afterlife.

Himachal as per the 2011 census is 95 per cent Hindu, which means Muslims and other minorities are so sparsely populated or small in number, they can hardly even build a ghetto. Half of this Hindu population is upper-caste, that make-up two of the three biggest electoral groups in the states – the third one being the scheduled castes. In its entire electoral history, other than the 17 seats reserved for the scheduled castes, no leader from the community has been given a ticket by either the Congress or the BJP on the unreserved seats. Only one has ever been a minister in any of the governments. All the chief ministers have either been Rajputs (the dominant political faction) or the one Brahmin (the kingmakers). And to put it mildly, the upper-caste cabinets, ministers and power-brokers have done well to snuggle any attrition with the “lower castes” into the cushion of the states broader, better image.

From separate cremation grounds for Dalits, their absence from kitchens and separate mid-day meals for their children, the state, instead of addressing the problems within, has turned to the panacea of spinning its glittery mountains into narratives of wonderment, discarding what happens in their shadow. Even the “maal”, the drugs, and a readymade environment for their consumption play a role in masking issues that are internal to the social setup. A state that can find a reason to separate its children, can easily find reasons to disregard them as adults. The 25-odd per cent of SC voters of the state have perennially been offered a rotten deal. Only 13 per cent of the land in Himachal is owned by people from the scheduled castes. Most business families and affluent traders belong to rich Rajput families that broker power one way or the other.

Activists from the state and outside have tried to raise their voice against discrimination in Himachal, but dewy-eyed readers fail to see beyond its gorgeous vistas. Jindan’s murder is not a precursor, but tragically the loudest in a long line of alarms that urge us to introspect at the role caste plays in the state – especially at the way discrimination has empowered some.

Jindan, were he part of an affluent well-connected upper-caste family, would probably have been spared. But then, he wouldn’t have had to be an activist either. Despite whatever Himachal might want to call itself next – Devbhoomi, land of gods – it can’t escape the evil of caste.