Denial in death:
Dalits in AP contend with ostracism to their graves
Friday, April 13, 2001 (Chittoor):
Across Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh, both Christian and Hindu Dalits believe that the One Everlasting who provides for the living also provides for the burial of the dead. But their buried life has always been troublesome because here, even in death, Dalits are treated as untouchables.
"We are 25 Dalit families in the village and an equal number of landlords. When someone dies amongst us, we have to bury them separately. It has always been like this here. The landlords don't let us use their graveyards even though they have more land than us. They have a whole acre and we have only a few square feet, because over time they have encroached on our space," says a Dalit resident of the district.
In this area, only those at the top of the Hindu caste ladder are cremated. The powerful, landowning Reddys and Naidus who come lower down in the order also follow the ritual of burying their dead. But while their graveyards are located within the village boundaries, the Dalits have access only to remote wastelands.
Over the years, some rich farmers in connivance with corrupt government officials acquired unused space listed as common village property in the district administration's records, for cultivation -- even though the authorities demarcated it for a burial ground.
"There are 45 families in the village for whom the government has allocated 3/4 acre of land as a burial ground. But the landlord has planted mango tress on it and has fenced the area. So we have no place to bury our dead. We put them in the drain next to it. When it rains, the bodies are washed away," rues another Dalit resident of the area. In a neighbouring village, a small pit next to the main road is all that remains of the burial ground, in use by 30 Dalit families, both Hindus and Christians.
The last decade has seen these sacred spaces disappear even faster as more land is taken over for cultivation of fruits and flowers. P Chennaiah, President, AP Agricultural Workers Union, points out, "You can see all the dry lands converting to mango, papaya, guava and other fruit-bearing crops, because the pulp industries have developed quickly. So, whatever land is with the Dalits, not only burial grounds but what they have been cultivating for years without titles, is also in danger."
In Yettir, the Dalits are totally dependant on the landlords for work and food. But their desire for life and death with dignity remain unfulfilled. Gangaiah, a bonded labourer, for instance, is forced to continue with the age-old de-human practices associated with his caste. "Whenever there is a death in an upper caste family in our village, we are sent to convey the news to all the relatives of the deceased. Some of them live more than 60 to 70 kms away. Because the news of the death has to reach them quickly, we are sent by bus. But most of the time we have to walk back to our village as they don't give us any fare," he says.
Gangaiah also has to dig the grave, prepare the stretcher for the body and beat the drums during the funeral procession. And for all this, he is paid only Re 1. "If we refuse to do the work of their dead, they don't allow us to take the body of our dead for burial through their fields. The landlords stop the funeral processions and tell us to keep the deceased person at home. They don't allow us to bathe at the public wells or draw water. We are not allowed to enter the village," says Gangaiah.
With just 90 days of agricultural work in a whole year and no increase in wages, these people are in hardly any position to protest against the capture of their traditional burial grounds by the upper caste landlords for whom every new death amongst the Dalits of the village, whether Hindus or Christians, is the real encroachment.
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