By Hitesh Sharma and Dhananjay Bihari for Youth Ki Awaaz:
On Thursday, February 21, 2017, the ‘upper’ castes of the Rajgond Samaj of Deobhog stunned the ‘lower’ castes of the tribe with a diktat that asked upper caste tribals not to drink, eat or be friendly with a lower caste tribal.
The diktat comes as a blatant violation of Article 14 to Article 18 of the Constitution, which guarantee equal rights to every Indian citizen irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
The belief is that tribes have no caste divisions but there are sociologists who say that a tribe displaced from its stamping ground could, over time, disperse into different castes, usually low.
There are more than 20 tribes in the state which are further divided along caste lines. The Rajgond Samaj is a tribe of Chhattisgarh where the ‘lower’ castes of the tribe include Ahir (cowherds), Agaria (blacksmiths), Dhulia (drummers) and Pardhan (bards and singers). The ‘upper’ caste includes Sharmas and Pujaras.
About 220 km from Raipur, Deobhog is surrounded by jungles. Untouchability mars the social fabric and the lower castes give the upper castes the space they command even though the lower castes number nearly 20,000, almost half of about 42,000 Rajgonds.
People from different castes in Deobhog have distanced themselves and normally do not get into each other’s affairs. Though the caste system has always been in practice within the tribe, the diktat has harmed amicable relations between them.
Lower caste residents are not allowed to attend marriage celebrations of upper caste members, they distance themselves while collecting water from public taps and are also made to wash their vessels and keep them separated if they are offered food while at work in the agriculture fields of upper caste members.
The diktat is one of 83 guidelines presented by the Adivasi Samaj Antarrajya Committee, Kendra Sabha Jhargaon and Chargarh. Guideline 61 which spells out the diktat, warns that violation of the diktat would be punishable with a fine of ₹1,000.
Since caste division is already so evident in the area, it did not lead to any major tension. However, on February 22, the day the diktat came into effect, a few lower caste youth, including 101Reporters.com journalist Dhananjay, filed an application to register an FIR with the district magistrate and the senior superintendent of police after the diktat was reported by the Hari Bhoomi.
According to Subodh Dev, president of NGO Manav Samaj and one of the people who signed the application, the police did not lodge an FIR.
Sub-District Magistrate (Raipur) B R Sahi told 101Reporters.com that the administration will act only when a complaint is filed by the affected Rajgonds. Police chief Sanjeev Shukla refused to speak to 101reporters.com, saying it was a tribal matter.
“The guidelines are no less than any diktat and is not good for the country. We have filed an application against the diktat and we will move court if the police fail to take action,” said Subodh Dev. “When Article 14 to Article 18 of the Constitution gives equal rights to every citizen there cannot be any discrimination. Why then did these people come up with this diktat?”
Damrudhar Pujari, head of the Rajgond Samaj, defended the diktat. He said it was the tribe’s internal matter and was issued to serve the people of the tribe, not to hurt the sentiments of people of other tribes.
“Our Samaj has had this rule for ages, there’s nothing new in it. No one from the other communities should be bothered with our guidelines,” said a brusque and abrupt Pujara.
Addressing the issue, Pradesh Congress Committee General Secretary Arun Vohra said, “The diktat of the Raj Gond Samaj is deplorable. It’s an attempt to divide Indian society known for unity in diversity.”
Dinesh Dewangan of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said it was a “shameful act”.
Ever since its formation in 2000, the Chhattisgarh state assembly has been dominated by upper castes. Of the 90 MLAs today, 35 are upper caste while the tribal population of Chhattisgarh is 31.76%. This dominance extends to mining in the state as well.
Political parties of Chhattisgarh are loathe to take a hand because the state does not believe there’s merit in them, said Subodh Dev.
Therefore, it is not surprising that no political party has come all out to protest the diktat issued by the Rajgond upper castes or taken any concrete steps to address the issue.
About the authors: Hitesh Sharma is a Durg-based independent journalist and Dhananjay Bihari is a Devbhog-based journalist. Both are members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Saurabh Sharma, a Lucknow-based journalist, has contributed to this story.