‘Our Collective Deliverance’, interrogating the inhumanity of caste malpractice


Certain moments of life become a milestone defining the sharp turn life takes thereafter. I do not know exactly how and why, I have been always deeply troubled by things about our society which any person of sanity and wisdom, consider a curse upon us.

A ‘troubled mind’ helped instill in me an abhorrence for the ‘curse’ of caste that scars our collective being as a society. This was shaped by many instances since early childhood. There was nothing dramatic about these instances; just routine matters of normalised differentiation in valuing human dignity. Yet, they were pithy enough to impinge upon an impressionable mind. My intent here, however, is to talk about an experience that transformed the cumulative impact of these instances into a firm and abiding conviction against the institution of caste.

I was still in middle school then. Back then a television set was a prized possession, say one in every fifteen to twenty households, or may be more, actually owned one. Remember the old Onida television ad – ‘Neighbor’s envy, Owner’s pride’! Nonetheless, civility back then still obliged the proud owners to host their neighbours every weekend to watch the Hindi film telecast by the state television broadcaster, Doordarshan.

That season we were in the midst of a ‘film festival’, stretched over a couple of weeks, being organized by ‘Doordarshan’ to celebrate the works of India’s cinematic immortals. On that particular Sunday, there were two marvelous creations by Satyajit Ray that were on the offering – ‘Sadgati’ (Deliverance) and ‘Shatranj ke Khilari’ (The Chess Players) – both films being based on short stories by Munshi Prem Chand and produced by the state broadcaster ‘Doordarshan.’ Despite all its weaknesses as the mouth piece of the ruling elite, Doordarshan still helped maintain a ‘progressive’ sheen to the extent Indian state felt the need to maintain such a pretense. Without any prejudice to the cinematic eloquence of ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’, my focus here is on the other film – ‘Sadgati.’

Keeping in mind the possibility that many among the readers might not have seen the film, a brief recall of the storyline might be in order to evoke greater empathy. The plot as follows is simple:

Ignoring his wife Jhuria’s (played by Smita Patil) pleas to not leave house on an empty stomach, Dukhi, a Dalit landless peasant (played by Om Puri) who has barely recovered from an illness, rushes out early in the day, with a bundle of grass on his head to the house of the Brahmin priest (played by Mohan Aghase) to ask for the “favour” of fixing the date of marriage for his daughter in accordance with the divine benevolence of the heavenly constellations. The grass (meant for the Brahmin’s cow) seemingly was the offering for this favour.

True to the cunning of his privileged caste status, the Brahmin extracts unpaid labor from Dukhi as a de facto condition for rendering his services. Dukhi is set on many tasks, among them being the chopping a dried hard log of wood with a blunt axe. Hungry and weak as he already was from sickness, Dukhi is exhausted and collapses into his eventual death.

The Dalits of the village refuse to take his dead body from the Brahmin neighborhood of the village in protest. With fellow Brahmins in the neighborhood cursing him for having brought upon the sin of a Dalit’s dead body polluting their ‘pious’ being, this Brahmin priest finds the tables turned on him. He is forced to shun his lifetime belief and practice of untouchability. In the dead of the night the priest drags Dukhi’s body tied by the leg and disposes it off at the periphery of the village where the carcasses of dead animals are thrown.

The piteousness of the events is played out with minimalist intervention of the spoken word.

All the actors in the film were formidable in each of their own roles and one can hardly judge one performance against the other. However, the cold and ruthless subtleness of mannerism on part of the Brahmin priest, rendered superbly by Mohan Aghase was the most stunning in its devastation. It amplified the minimalism of the spoken word, used  to peel off the civilizational pride of our society, layer by layer. It was not the dignity and the life of the Dalit labourer that the priest was paring down; rather through his persona he held out the mirror for all who have normalised their privileged existence within the caste hierarchy.  

As everyone packed in our small living room watched the film in silence, I was overcome with an acute sense of self-indignation. The accident of birth that entitled me to the privilege of a Brahmin lineage seemed to have suddenly transmogrified into a cause for self-flagellation. I was seething with rage – “If only I were a Dalit, I would have shown the …………. their place.” I tried hard but failed to hold back my tears. The next best option was to bury my face in the cusp of my hands to stave off the embarrassment of being the odd gump out among a seasoned audience.

Thankfully, the movie came to an end soon and everyone broke for interval. I was quick on my feet and locked myself up in the toilet to weep my heart out. My father had watched silently all through from the other corner of the room. At the end of the show with the guests gone, he counseled, “Beta these are harsh realities of life, all that you can do is to not do this (practice untouchability) yourself.”

The point here is not that a school boy, of a privileged caste, was so touched by the plight of a Dalit laborer that he succumbed to the surge of emotions that ensued. The point is that back then, a film so well made, could cast its magic on an impressionable young ‘troubled mind’, so as to steel its resolve against the ‘inhumanity’ of the caste system. May be such magic still survives, but the situation as it obtains calls for its far more forceful manifestation in the society. 

Nonetheless, propriety demands that the catharsis of a privileged ‘troubled mind’ that perhaps found consummation in relieving of repressed anguish, be treated merely as a pretext for contending with far greater truth of other ‘troubled minds’ arraigned at the oppressed end of the caste spectrum; ‘troubled minds’ whose fate invariably gets rendered into nothing more than a statistic in the crime records bureau, i.e. if at all they were to be acknowledged.

I just hope that mention of Rohith Vemula’s name would not find us straining our memory. Rohith was a Dalit PhD scholar of the Hyderabad Central University. He was a voracious reader of Dalit literature and a forthright advocate for awakening Dalit consciousness as a member of the Ambedkar Students Association in the university. He protested for not being paid his monthly scholarship of Rs 25,000 per month for the past seven months leading to a crisis of sustainability. Resultantly, he was suspended along with four other students on a complaint filed by the local unit of Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Hindutva fountain head Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS). Among the reason for his suspension was that he had been raising “issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association.”

Rohith ended his life on January 17, 2016. He truly wanted to live the ‘life of a mind’ and yet life was snuffed out of him for the “fatal accident” of his birth. Rohith was born a Dalit. Even after his death the stalwarts of the Central government and the party ruling at the Centre sought to rob Rohith and his mother of their dignity. He wanted to be a writer of science fiction, but all that he got to write was a first and the last letter before his death. Rohith wrote:

“……….. The value of man was reduced to his immediate identity and the nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics and in dying and living. ……………… All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

But Rohith still had recourse to words. What about Dewram Meghwal, the landless peasant of Jalore in Rajasthan, the unfortunate father of nine year old school boy Indra Meghwal. Indra lost his life to thrashing at the hands of his upper caste Rajput teacher for the unpardonable inadvertence of drinking water from the pot meant for his upper caste teacher.  On August 15, 2022 as the country, led by the great leader, celebrated ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ (elixir of energy of independence) on the 75th anniversary of the country’s independence, long wails of women pierced the morning air around the tin-roof house of Dewaram Meghwal.

Barely a fortnight after Indra Meghwal’s death another student belonging to Dalit community was done to death by his upper caste teacher in district Auraiya of Uttar Pradesh. That the boy had already been suffering from renal kidney ailment made little difference to teacher’s brutality.

Though less sanguinary but daringly brazen in its impact was the incident earlier in April 2022 in which a Dalit boy studying in class 10 was assaulted and forced to lick the feet of a person from the upper caste Thakur community in Rae Bareli district of central Uttar Pradesh. The victim was punished as he had gone to ask for the wages of his widowed mother who had worked in the fields of some of the accused. The accused made a video of the incident to capture graphically the coercive might of their caste status and put it out on the social media.

This anthology of our civilizational nemesis seems difficult to exhaust. The deluge is simply too overwhelming for the tender middle class sensibilities to cope with. What follows instead is the self-righteous ‘gaurav gatha’ (pride saga) feeding into the same nemesis.

The increasing belligerence of these incidents is laced with impunity that emanates right from the top most echelons of power.

Remember the case of gang rape of a 19 year old Dalit woman in a village of Hathras district in Uttar Pradesh on September 14, 2020? The Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court, in its order dated October 1, 2020 notes that:

……… a young girl of 19 years, a resident of District – Hathras in the State of U.P. was subjected to gang rape and in this process not only her bones were broken but her tongue was also mutilated presumably with the intent that she may not disclose the names of the perpetrators of this abominable crime.

The victim finally succumbed to her injuries on September 29, 2020 at Safdarjang Hospital in New Delhi. In this case, after much hue and cry, while culprits were arrested, as per media reports no action was contemplated against the police officials who refused to register FIR, or those officers who burnt the victim’s body without the consent of her family, perhaps to pre-empt any demand for a repeat post mortem.

In a most nefarious kind of coercion exercised by the UP police more than 200 personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) along with police force of 11 police stations were brought to the victim’s village to terrorise the relatives and the villagers. A distant relative was forced to stand for the cremation conducted at 3:30 AM in the dead of the night, while father and brother of the deceased along with other family who pleaded with officers of police and administration to let them cremate in the morning in keeping with the prevalent customs and religious inclinations in a decent and dignified manner, were locked inside the house. Villagers and relatives who protested were beaten. The whole operation was conducted under the supervision of District Magistrate and superintendent of police of Hathras, of course with necessary instructions from the powers that be. Quoting a media report, the High Court order mentions that an official acknowledged on “condition of anonymity that there were instructions to wrap up the cremation at night to prevent a “law and order” situation in the morning.”

The government of the state of Gujarat recently decided to commute the life sentence of eleven persons convicted in the case of raping a Muslim woman Bilkis Bano in the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. The Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) legislator from Godhra who was a member of the committee that ordered their release reportedly told journalist Barkha Dutt in her program ‘Mojo Story’  that “the men were Brahmins and since they were of so high a caste, their ‘sanskaar’ (sacrament) were good.” To put it simply what it implied was that these men of piety had earned the honour of being born as Brahmins for their pious deeds over past lifetimes and hence the benevolence of the state.

It needs mentioning that these men were Bilkis’s neighbors in her village. They not only raped Bilkis but also smashed her three-year-old daughter’s head before her eyes. They even raped Bilkis’s mother and killed several members of her immediate family.

The malady is all pervasive and the body politic reeks of caste prejudice. In August 2022, a Sessions judge in Kozhikode, Kerala, granted anticipatory bail to a noted “social activist” accused of sexually harassing a Dalit woman on the plea that it is “highly unbelievable that he will touch the body of the victim fully knowing that she is a member of Scheduled Caste.”

Forty one years back, when I thought I had met my ‘deliverance’ from caste, I suppose as a perceptive school boy, I could not be faulted for believing that we shall, as a society, meet our deliverance from this scourge sooner or later. The time seems to have put paid my hope. Caste still constitutes to be the lingua franca of social, political and to no mean extent the economic discourse not just in the corridors of power, of academia and the vast hinterland of the country, but also the halls of fame even in the Silicon Valley.

On a more realistic side, while it is good if we can overcome our individual caste prejudices, but our ‘deliverance’ from this curse can hardly be individual. It is, of necessity, incumbent upon our ‘collective deliverance’ as a society. If the tenacity of caste is anything to go by, this task is interminably tied to the task of radical transformation of our society, both in its ‘structure’ and the ‘super structure.’ 

(The authors is Assistant Professor, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University-JNU)


Workers (Bangladesh)



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