The ‘jaati’ system (or the caste system, as colonialists called it) has defined the structure of Indian society for many generations before its gradual weakening over the past century.
At its most rigid, the system dictated what people did for a living, who they married and what all they could possess.
Today, 70 years after any form of caste discrimination was made illegal by founders of an independent India, the system’s hold on these matters has loosened significantly.
The postcolonial Indian Constitution gave caste groups at the bottom rung of the system — often called Dalits, now numbering more than 20 crores — reservations in higher education and government jobs.
The society at large, too, has been making continuous progress towards the goal of an India free of any birth-based discrimination.
The progress is faster in urban cities compared to rural areas where about 67 per cent of the Indian population lives and where segregation is a defining feature of life.
BR Ambedkar famously encouraged Dalits to leave villages and movie to cities to escape the shackles of caste.
“What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” he said in a speech.
Efforts for reform, however, have long been afoot in villages even if change is slow.
Advocates of social reform and a wipe-out of the caste order such as Savarkar actively promoted inter-dining and temple entry for all in villages.
India has come a long way since the 1940s when Babasaheb made that speech.
Today, it’s not unusual for villages to not only gather for inter-dining, but also allow inter-caste marriages; Babasaheb advocated the latter as the “real remedy for breaking caste”.
“There are many castes which allow inter-dining. But it is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of caste and the consciousness of caste. I am convinced that the real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling — the feeling of being aliens —created by caste will not vanish,” Ambedkar said in his seminal but unspoken speech, ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
This article, however, will restrict itself to an inter-dining initiative in a village in Bihar that is regularly held with the singular purpose of breaking caste order.
The motivation behind this documentation are a few cases that were reported from various parts of the country during the recent lockdown, where people refused food prepared by Dalit cooks in government-run quarantine centres.
The cases were widely reported in the media (read Swarajya’s coverage of two such cases here and here), but some publications went a little too far as they used the cases to dismiss all gains made by Indian society.
One publication called casteism “the worst virus” based on a lone case where, incidentally, the person who refused Dalit-cooked food turned out to be a Muslim.
The case study I present is of Fatehpur village near Phulwaria in Vaishali district of Bihar.
The village has a Ram-Janaki Math, which is a popular venue for religious gatherings. Residents say they have been holding a bi-monthly community feast or ‘bhandaara’ for over a decade, where all castes come together, cook together and eat together.
The village has about 500 Bhumihar (upper-caste Brahmin) families, 400 Paswan families, 500 Chaurasiya (Brahmin) families, 300 Muslim families and about a hundred families from marginalised Kumhar, Badhai, Dhobi and Manjhi castes, says Vindheshwar Sharma, a member of the trust that runs the Math.
“All castes come for the feast and help in arrangements and cooking. I have been part of this for a couple of years now, but it was started by my grandfather some two decades ago. He wanted to end ‘bhedbhaav’,” he says.
Shivnandan Paswan, one of the organisers, told this correspondent that he has been part of the initiative for the last 10 years.
“As many as 1,000 people come here. There is no discrimination (“bhedbhaav”),” says Shivnandan, who belongs to one of the most marginalised Dalit castes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — the Pasi caste — that was once considered untouchable.
The 52-year-old runs a vermicompost-making business. Of his three children, one has completed graduation along with an industrial training course.
Others are in school.
Shivnandan’s father worked as a labourer in a field all his life.
“Things have changed a lot in my generation,” he says. “Education and exposure to the outside world are prime factors.”
He says that during his father’s time, the norm in the village was that the lower castes wouldn’t study and wouldn’t sit with higher castes.
Most of them did menial jobs in fields owned by other castes.
“The situation was not good earlier, but it had already improved during my time. I did not really face much discrimination. In school, I sat on the desk with other students. I also went on to join college. My father wanted us to have a good education,” he says.
Asked whether the village would display the same progressive mindset for inter-caste marriages, where one member is a Dalit, Shivnandan says there have been “three-four” such marriages already and “nobody has objected”.
Such a community feast initiative for eradication of birth-based discrimination is not limited to Fatehpur. It’s happening in several villages of India.
In April, when a case emerged from UP’s Kushinagar district of a man refusing Dalit-cooked food, the local MP, Vijay Dubey, promptly organised an event where he and his associates ate a meal prepared by the same Dalit person.
The case was of a village, Bhujouli Khurd village, where a man named Siraj Ahmad had returned from another city and kept in a state-run quarantine centre.
There, he refused to eat food prepared by the woman pradhan, Lilawati Devi, saying that his Muslim community would ‘outcaste’ him for eating food prepared by a ‘chamaar’.
The local administration later booked Ahmad under SC/ST Atrocity Act.
Lilawati’s husband, Subhash Gautam, told this correspondent at that time that the Hindu men in the same quarantine centre ate the food without complaining.
He also said that he did not recall any case where ‘upper-caste’ Hindus refused food at a wedding hosted by ‘Dalit samaj’ in the village.
Kushinagar MP Dubey, a Brahmin by surname, told this correspondent that there had been a “parampara” (tradition) of “sahbhoj” (eating together) for quite long in the area.
He credited the tradition to Hindu Yuva Vahini, an organisation floated by current chief minister Yogi Adityanath some 20 years ago, of which Dubey was a part as a young activist.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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