The country paid rich tributes to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, on his 150th birth anniversary October 2. The villagers of Daringbadi in Kandhamal district, however, observed Gandhi Jayanti in a unique way. Ten villages of Daringbadi were officially declared as untouchability-free on this day, ending age-old caste divisions.
“Decades ago, as a kid I once climbed on to the verandah of the lone Brahmin family in my village. All hell broke loose, and I was thrown out of the verandah. As if that humiliation was not enough, the family warned me of dire consequences if I was ever seen moving around near their house,” said Bharat Pradhan, an inhabitant of Budanpippal in the Bhramarbadi panchayat of Daringbadi.
“I felt as if I had committed a crime. I felt ashamed of my origin when a woman purified the verandah with water and cowdung. I had to promise them that I won’t commit the ‘mistake’ again,” he added.
For a man who saw the ugly face of casteism as a child, abolition of untouchability has come like a breath of fresh air.
“I never thought that things will change so dramatically. Members of that Brahmin family now take part in our rituals. They visit our houses and allow us inside theirs and treat us with dignity. They depend on us when it comes to performing birth and death rituals and seek our presence at all social functions.”
It is not only the people from the upper castes, scheduled castes were looked down upon by the people of tribal communities also.
Sriram Pradhan, 40, secretary of the Forest Rights Committee of the village, recalled, “People of tribal communities used to purify their places with cowdung in case a Dalit accidentally set foot in their yard. They used to take bath if they accidentally touched a Dalit member or their belongings.”
Sriram, a Kondh community member, added, “Let alone visiting tribal places of worship, the Dalits were not allowed to have even a glimpse of the tribal deity.
“Though the upper caste people used water from the same well because no alternative arrangements were available, they used to purify the place after a Dalit or a tribal person drew water.”
There are 80 families in Budanpippal belonging to the scheduled tribe (Kondh), scheduled caste (Harijan and Ghasi) and other castes such as Brahmin and Shundhi. Nearly two decades ago, some villagers made a move to abolish untouchability, says Namojini Pradhan, a Kondh community member in her 40s. They called a meeting and discussed the evils of untouchability. The meeting was fruitful as the upper caste people and the Kondhs agreed that the practice needed to be abolished. However, not everyone in the village could be convinced and it required several such meetings, discussions and counselling sessions before changes could be implemented, she added.
Sanjana Nayak, a resident of the village, said, “We can now enter the houses of upper caste people, and no major social function takes place without our presence.”
Budanpipal is one of the 10 villages in Daringbadi which has been declared free of untouchability. Simultaneous Gram Sabhas were held in seven panchayats October 2 where resolutions were passed.
Exactly a decade ago, Kandhamal, a backward and tribal-dominated district, made headlines in regional, national and international media for all the wrong reasons. The riots that swept the district for over a month following the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati made it a place identified with bigotry, racism and caste-based discrimination. But thanks to the initiatives taken by some responsible citizens and organisations, the district is going to be known as the first-ever in the country where there is no room for untouchability.
The villages that spearheaded the campaign include Sundaradanda of Pliheri panchayat; Sripanka of Daringbadi panchayat; Ganadikamba and Sikaketa of Badabanga panchayat; Padanketa of Danekbadi panchayat; Sangudimaha, Sikapata and Jidingmala of Greenbadi panchayat; Budanpipal of Bhramarbadi panchayat; and Penaoshi of Sinagabadi panchayat.
“The Gram Sabhas’ approval of the decision to live in harmony irrespective of caste and religion was a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary,” said Kailas Dandapat, a committed social worker, who was instrumental in mobilising the villagers to make the move.
He added, “Goodwill, harmony and the desire for peaceful co-existence are intrinsic to every human being. They just need some motivation to display these positive emotions. We just did that as facilitators. A few months back, we decided to end the division among the tribals, Dalits and upper caste people living in nearby villages. We started approaching the village leaders, who accepted the proposal and launched sensitisation drives in the villages.”
The villagers adopted a resolution that there will not be any physical form of untouchability; all the public facilities in the villages like sources of drinking water, village mandaps, community hall, sorting and grading centre will be opened for all; everybody will have free access to places of worship; and all will be part of community feasts arranged on occasions such as marriage, death and birth, said Dhaneswar Sahu, a key facilitator, who has been actively involved in community mobilisation to attain peace and harmony since the 2008 riots.
Elderly persons belonging to the Kondh community of Sikaketa village in Badabanga claimed that they were unaware of the term ‘untouchability’ in their childhood. “Our ancestors used to link our origin with nature – our creator. We never discriminated against any of our community members. The evil originated here after some families from outside settled down in our village and started discriminating against us.”
Things began to change after a group of youths launched a peace initiative after the riots of 2008. Currently, there is no religion or caste-based discrimination in the village that houses tribals such as Kondhs, Dalits, and people from other castes such as blacksmiths and Brahmins and followers of different religions.
The former sarpanch of Badabanga Madhusudan Pradhan said, “When it comes to occasions like marriage or death rituals, we help the family financially, provide all sorts of support and take part in the feast.”
Blacksmith couple Kalamdas Bindhani and Shobhabati Bindhani, who have been part of the village for decades, said they never see themselves as different from tribal community members. Dipanjali Nayak, a Dalit, also said that she and her family had never faced any caste discrimination in the village.
80-year-old Sashi Pradhan pointed out that some festivals like Meria Puja and Jhagada Puja have been struck from the calendar as the rituals associated with them were encouraging untouchability.
People have started working collectively for the development of the village after the abolition of untouchability, says Sarestri Pradhan. Now collective efforts are made to protect, manage and regenerate forests and make proper use of minor forest produce for livelihood. “Our guarding of forests has kept the timber mafia in check,” she added.
Badabanga Sarpanch Babita Majhi is happy that two villages of the panchayat have officially declared themselves free of untouchability. “This will have a cascading effect. Several other villages in the panchayat have expressed their willingness to become untouchability-free zones and have apprised me officially. Such a move by the residents of Kandhamal that was once painted as a communal and backward district is unprecedented in the history of India,” she said.
“Untouchability exists not only between tribals and Dalit and upper-caste people. Even among the tribals, there is caste-based hierarchy – for example, Gond is regarded as higher caste and Kondh a lower caste. This caste system has been detrimental so far as development of the tribal community is concerned. It is a very good sign that the villagers have come forward to eradicate the evil,” said Jayant Kumar Pradhan, Badabanga panchayat Gram Rojgar Sevak.
The people of Ganadikamba, a forest village, which is inhabited by 48 families, are not aware of untouchability. Many families here belong to the Kondh community and a few to Dalit and Bindhani communities. Gram Sabha secretary Sanatan Pradhan and ward member Pritimanjari Pradhan said that being residents of an un-surveyed village, where benefits of various government schemes are yet to reach, it is the unity among the villagers which helps them survive in a difficult situation. There are no roads, drinking water facilities or mobile connectivity in the village. Lack of healthcare facilities and education also makes life difficult for the villagers.
Prabhat Pradhan, ward member of Sripanka village that comprises 85 families, said that except for three Dalit families, all the others in the village belong to the Kondh community. Despite being a majority, they never discriminate against Dalits.
People of the village live like a family. The entire village gets together to support if a family faces trouble, added Sunila Pradhan, a resident.
Sikapata in Greenbadi is a village dominated by Dalit families with a fair population of tribals and people from different castes. Here even inter-caste marriages between tribals, Dalits and other castes are accepted with an open heart. Everyone has free access to places of worship be it a church, temple or others, said Nabati Mantri, a Dalit woman.
People of these villages had been living together harmoniously for several years. But, when they took the resolution in Palli Sabhas followed by approval in the Gram Sabhas, they got officially recognised as untouchability-free villages. The villagers say they are hopeful that their story will influence other villages in the country where untouchability is still rampant. “Our story will convey the message of equality, peace and brotherhood to validate the words of Mahatma Gandhi who said that all men are equal because all are part of the same cosmic being,” the villagers said.