Injured by India, embraced by Kashmir
While Kashmiris were facing problems in the mainland India, the Dalits of Rajasthan found in Kashmir a real paradise on earth.
Soon after the harsh winter was over I went for a long ride. It was on my return from the saffron valley of Pampore that my eyes landed on two tiny hands carrying one mud brick. “Those hands were meant to hold toys”, I told myself, my eyes fixed on the 4 or 5-year-old kid crossing the road while holding that brick. On his destination side I could see many other children, all of his age group, tossing some kind of dry foliage on small planks dotted with nails. A 2-year-old baby was crawling on naked ground full of dust, right near a small heap of garbage, where hundreds of Dalits live in huts – their makeshift homes. Since my camera was low on battery, I decided to come back some other day.
Later in the day while I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, I stumbled upon the manifesto released by BJP, the title reading “Sankalp Bharat Sashakt Bharat” (Determined India, Empowered India). Yes, which better a country needs this determination and empowerment where the candidates in the fray come to people’s doors begging for their precious votes, but the nation has never seen the light of development or any aid? Where farmers have been committing suicides and crime rate and flesh trade have seen an alarming increase.
After the Pulwama attack of February 14, 2019, in which 40 CRPF personnel were killed, attacks have been reported on Kashmiri students, traders and workers in different parts of the country. This hate and anger is not spontaneous, rather it has been building up for years now. Kashmiris have been declared anti-national, lock, stock, and barrel. All social media platforms are used to spread hate against Kashmiris. This hate campaign reached a level where some colleges started denying fresh admissions to Kashmiri students and some evicting the already enrolled ones. Some hotels even had put up signboards reading “Dogs are allowed, not Kashmiris”.
But it was completely opposite in the valley where hotels offered a free stay to the tourists. The same could be seen in the case of Dalits who come to the valley not only for their livelihood but for respect as well which they hardly find in their own homeland. While in the mainland India they have been facing humiliation and it is hard for them to live, their population can be seen increasing in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the valley.
The next day I visited Batingoo, few kilometers away from South Kashmir’s main town Anantnag. The place is home to several hundred Dalits from India living in makeshift tents erected on one side of Srinagar-Jammu national highway. As soon as I opened my camera on reaching there, all children came running towards me shouting “Ae bayya! meri photo lena” (Brother! take my photograph). While I was taking the photographs, a passing by chaat wala (street vendor) grabbed their attention and they ran towards him. For a moment I felt a little jealous because he had taken away my audience.
As soon as I crossed the road, the first thing that almost stopped me was the pungent smell coming from the nearby garbage heap. As I entered their colony, an old man in his sixties whom they called Nadu Ji greeted me saying “Pranaam Babuji” and laid a blanket on a somewhat flatter stone, offering me to sit there. Everyone started to gather around me, looking at my stuff, laughing and giggling.
I was still thinking of how to start a conversation when the laughter stopped suddenly and everyone made way for Dhanna, an old man in his seventies. No matter how hard you try to ignore his white beard and wrinkled face, it still grabs your attention. Dressed in a traditional Rajasthani dress and a bangle in his left arm, the name Baaldhanraj truly suited him. The name Dhanna was given to him by his people after Bhagat Dhanna, a mystic poet of Rajasthan.
Since childhood, Baaldhanraj had a deep love for poetry. He used to run away from his village Upreda, Rashmi in Rajasthan’s Chittorgarh district to listen to the traditional folk songs and later used to create his own back at home. Narrating his story, Baaldhanraj showed me a burn scar on his left leg. The scar was given to him, he told, by his father who used to scold him for his interest in poetry. He recalled how his father would become mad on him when he ran from work to see the folk performance. “We had to work hard and life was very difficult for us”, he added.
Life in Upreda hasn’t changed for the Dalits and it is still hard for them to survive there, but things have changed for the community since they came to Kashmir. As Ganga Bai was feeding her child she talked about the difficulties they face back home and how the upper caste people always mistreat them. A voice came from behind: “Kashmir mein bikri bi hota hai aur izzat bi milti hai” (In Kashmir things sell well and we get respect too). I looked behind to see Chanda, an energetic and beautiful girl in her early twenties, wearing long earrings and a smile on her face. Though her hands were too rough for a girl of her age, she was not the only one. With her stood Kesri and Manju, both 16, and I was left to wonder if they ever had lived their childhood.
These Dalits come a long way from Rajasthan to weave and sell brooms made of a specific type of dry foliage. They have been coming to Kashmir from last three years. Nadu Ji told me that they sell a broom here in Kashmir at 30 rupees a piece whereas in Rajasthan no one is ready to buy it for more than 6 rupees. The whole village has so mastered the skill of broom-weaving that even the kids could weave around 40 pieces a day and an adult around 100. Weaving is mostly done by the children, women and elderly people whereas the young males go around in different localities to sell the finished products.
While talking to them, I saw Dhanna picking a fallen bread crumb from the dust and eating it. I asked him to instead get another fresh one to which he replied, “Babu! roti keemti hai (Bread is precious, sir)”. While eating the bread crumb, Nadu Ji talked of how people in Kashmir help them and how people in Rajasthan mistreat them.
The travel from Rajasthan to Kashmir, he said, costs around six thousand rupees for a person which means, for thirteen members including six children, the family is supposed to pay around forty-five thousand. After bargaining or due to the heavy booking by the whole village, however, they pay around thirty thousand only. This is, however, undone once the police chowkies and toll booths extort money from them on their way to Kashmir, often in the name of tax on the raw material they carry, obviously without any receipt, or just ‘looting’ them for being Dalits.
These people who are victims of the caste system prevalent across India see the disturbed valley of Kashmir as real paradise on earth. Speaking of caste violence in Rajasthan, Dhanna said, “Thousands of Dalits have been killed in the last decade and hundreds of our women and daughters have been raped. We are in conflict with no one; they kill, we die. We can’t speak. As they don’t consider us among their own the nightmare of being born Dalits haunts us more.”
The author is a student of Journalism and Multimedia Production at Government Degree College Boys, Anantnag.