NEWS
14/04/2018 2:03 PM IST | Updated 15/04/2018 11:16 PM IST

This Dalit Woman Is Fighting For Her Groom's Right To Ride A Horse

"Are we trying to build a temple or mosque in the village?" Sheetal said. "We are just trying to get married."

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Sheetal lives in Nizampur village in Uttar Pradesh's Kasganj district. Her family is one of the five Dalit homes in this Thakur-dominated village.

It all started with a horse.

Ram Moorti's groom tried to ride one to their wedding 20 years ago; it almost started a riot. Ten years later, at Ram Moorti's sister Santosh Devi's wedding, the groom was not allowed onto his steed at all.

So when Santosh Devi's niece, Sheetal's fiancé, Sanjay Kumar, decided to ride a mare to their wedding on April 20 this year, their families in Nizampur, Uttar Pradesh, asked for police protection several months in advance.

Their request was turned down.

"No Dalit has ever had such a groom's procession in this village, and doing so would break tradition and cause unrest in the village," Rajkumar Singh, a cop at the local police post, wrote in his report. "Permission for the procession is denied."

Sanjay and Sheetal are Dalit, a historically oppressed caste considered "untouchable" by dominant caste Hindus. Untouchability was legally abolished in 1950 in India, but caste continues to form the subtext of social and political life.

In western Uttar Pradesh, where Sanjay and Sheetal live, the Dalit community has made significant economic and political gains. But the community's rise has prompted a backlash in form of both outright violence and attacks on symbols of Dalit pride, like a refusal to let Dalits ride horses — long seen as the exclusive prerogative of dominant castes like Sanjay and Sheetal's Thakur caste neighbours.

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Sanjay Kumar, 27, talks to his fiance Sheetal on the phone.

Sanjay's desire to ride a horse to his wedding, and the repercussions that followed, offer a stark illustration of how caste remains deeply entrenched in Indian society. It is also a tale of resistance, revealing Dalit impatience with the glacial pace of social transformation.

As the wedding day neared, the conflict between the two communities would consume the local administration, police and even the High Court in Allahabad. It would prompt a social boycott of Nizampur's Dalit families, and bring their village to the brink of violence.

Each day would begin with frantic parleys with the district administration and end in uncertainty.

"Are we trying to build a temple or mosque in the village?" Sheetal said. "We are just trying to get married."

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Aerial view of Nizampur village in Kasganj, which is dominated by Thakurs.

On March 31 this year, Pradeep Rathod, a 21-year-old Dalit man in Gujarat, was killed by men from dominant castes after he bought a horse and rode it around his village. On April 2, 27-year-old Ramprasad Bamnia, a Dalit groom in Madhya Pradesh, wore a helmet as he rode his horse, even as members of dominant castes threw stones at his wedding procession.

Trawl the archives, and similar reports appear with alarming regularity: Last year, a Dalit groom in Malwa was accompanied by policemen from three police stations after dominant caste villagers threatened to attack them. In 2016, in Haryana's Kurukshetra district, a Dalit wedding party was attacked by drunken Rajput youths for traveling in a horse-drawn chariot. In 2015, a Dalit groom in Ajmer asked for police protection, while in 2014, a Dalit family in Bhilwara, Rajasthan, made the same request.

Earlier this month, when Dalits marched in towns, villages and cities across the country to protest the dilution of provisions of the Scheduled Caste Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989; the police responded with force, killing nine demonstrators and injuring several others.

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A Thakur woman in Nizampur gestures angrily while talking about how the Dalits were trying to 'break tradition' by parading on a horse.

The protests were reflective of Dalit anger against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, whose tenure has been marked by several well-publicised incidents of spectacular violence inflicted against the community. Crimes against Dalits and minorities have grown by 25% in the past decade, analysis from data journalism blog IndiaSpend shows, forming a grisly backdrop for one day, in June last year, when Sheetal's aunt came to her with a wedding proposal from Sanjay.

Sheetal accepted, and a few days later, Sanjay's family sent her a glittering green sari, which Sheetal wore to mark their engagement.

***

Sanjay Kumar was 10 years old when a dominant caste Hindu shamed him for drinking water from a public tubewell.

"He pointed at me, commenting how I was polluting the water," Sanjay said.

When he complained of the incident to his tutor, his tutor prophesied that Sanjay become a District Magistrate, or "DM", one day, and would use his authority to break these social taboos.

From that day on he became "Sanjay DM", a phrase he has tattooed on his right arm.

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Everyone knows Sanjay as 'Sanjay DM'.

"It reminds me of what I can do," he said. "Those are also my parents' initials — Dushrasan and Munni Devi."

Sanjay is short, and he walks with a limp — a consequence of polio that afflicted him as a child — and when he talks, people listen.

"I will fight for this, my matter has gone international now," he said. Since the fracas began, his phone has been buzzing with messages of support from several government officials and political leaders. His mobile phone cover has a quote from Pope John Paul II that says, "The future starts today, not tomorrow."

Basai Babas, the village in Hathras district where Sanjay grew up, is a stronghold of the Dalit community, quite unlike his fiancé Sheetal's village, where the Thakur caste dominates social life. Life in Basai Babas revolves around a community park with a statue of Bhim Rao Ambedkar, and Dalits own land and play a significant role in local politics.

Sanjay, who is studying to be lawyer, is a member of the local chapter of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and sees a future for himself in politics. "Political power," as BSP founder Kanshi Ram often quoted Ambedkar as saying, "is the Guru killi (master key) that opens all doors."

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When Sanjay talks, people pay attention.

"Dalits have nothing to fear here," said Santosh Devi, Sheetal's aunt, who has married into Sanjay's family.

So for Sanjay, riding a horse at his wedding is about performing a ritual as much as an assertion of his freedom to do so.

People don't like upwardly mobile Dalits celebrating anything publicly, said Ajay Kumar, a postdoctoral fellow researching the Dalit movement in Uttar Pradesh, explaining that the idea of excluding Dalits from public spaces is still ingrained in most villages in India.

"If the dominant castes see Dalits prospering, they have some nasty things to say," he said, adding that Dalit weddings used to take place privately, without much show. "The question to ask is, who are the Thakurs to decide who gets to walk on a public road or not?"

***

When the police refused to help Sanjay, he sought help elsewhere: He went to Lucknow to meet Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is from the dominant Thakur caste. He didn't get an audience with Adityanath, but he spoke with UP Minister of State Atul Garg, who told the Kasganj's district magistrate, R.P. Singh, to help the young groom.

"The DM, who is also a Thakur, assured me he would help," said Sanjay. "But after meeting the Thakurs in Nizampur he said it was not possible to ride a horse in front of the other houses."

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A Thakur man in his home in Nizampur village.

Instead of parading around the village, Sanjay should simply ride up till his bride's house, one of the first buildings in the village, Singh said. In public statements to the media, Singh said it was not possible to change parampara, or tradition.

Then Sanjay went to Allahabad High Court; the court directed him back to the local police – the same police station that had denied him permission to ride a horse at his wedding procession.

***

Meanwhile, the tension in Nizampur village was bubbling over. Here Sheetal's family is one of the five Dalit homes that live amidst 45 Thakur houses.

The dispute, at its heart, everyone agreed, was not about the horse. Rather, dozens of conversations with villagers, and administrators and elected officials revealed, the problem was that Sanjay had decided to ride a horse through the village without seeking permission from the Thakurs.

"The Dalits took a new approach — that's why all the trouble started," said Satya Dev Sharma, a policeman posted in Nizampur.

"They should have asked us for permission," said Urmila Devi, one of Sheetal's Thakur neighbours. "We may have even given it to them."

When Sanjay and Sheetal took the matter in their own hands, the Thakurs retaliated.

"In March, without warning, they cut off the water supply of all the Dalit fields," said Madhubala, Sheetal's mother, explaining that the Thakurs were the only ones in the village with wells on their land, and charged the Dalits Rs 90 for an hour's supply of water. Soon, all their crops had died.

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Madhubala, Sheetal's mother, gestures as she stands in the middle of the family land. All the crops have died after the Thakurs cut off their water supply.

"I don't go to the fields because it makes me cry," Madhubala said, as she stood in her dried fields. Around her bare patch of land, the fields of Thakurs were lush with wheat, millet, and tomatoes. "Why are they kicking our stomachs in this fight?"

With the fields dry, Sheetal's father is supporting the family by digging toilet holes for a government project. The work paid Rs 250 a day.

The district administration, HuffPost India found, was unconcerned, believing the issue had been 'resolved', and did not care to intervene. The village pradhan (chief), Kanti Devi, who lives in the neighbouring village of Qutubpur, dismissed the allegations, even as a Dalit man from Nizampur, Dharamvir, who was laying bricks nearby attested that his water supply had been stopped.

"Why do you think I am here instead of tending to my fields?" he retaliated, adding that he owns four bighas (one acre) of land and all his wheat had dried up. "We asked for water, but they refused to give it to us."

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Puttulal, another Dalit farmer in Nizampur, sits at the edge of his small farmland. All his crops are dead because the Thakurs cut off his water supply.

Singh, the Kasganj DM, acknowledged that the water supply had been cut-off, but claimed it had since been restored.

Even so, Singh had a ready explanation for this social boycott of the Dalits.

"If you're having some disagreement with the people," he said, "why will you share what is yours?"

The intimidation of the Dalits of Nizampur has taken its toll. Four policemen now stood guard outside Sheetal's home. The family was particularly worried about Sheetal's brother Beetu, who had a special armed guard who is deputed to stay with him around the clock.

"I'm scared they will come after Beetu once attention on the village goes away," said Madhubala, breaking into tears in the privacy of her bedroom. "We want our rights but at what cost?"

Sheetal wore a permanent frown, her young face drawn and grey.

"Everybody keeps threatening us," she said. "What are we doing wrong? Don't they have daughters and sisters too?"

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Sheetal shows her engagement sari, gifted by Sanjay's family last July.

When the national media picked up the story of the Dalit groom who was not being allowed to ride a horse, District Magistrate Singh bestirred himself.

"We cleaned the dirt from their minds and hearts and made them patch up," he said.

Yet, rather than uphold the Constitution, Singh sought to forge a compromise that on closer examination appeared rather lop-sided: Sanjay and Sheetal's wedding procession would not encircle the village but would cut diagonally across the settlement. There would be no political speeches and no consumption of alcohol. The procession would spend no more than 10 minutes in the Thakur neighbourhoods.

A Thakur wedding, scheduled a few days later, was under no such restrictions. But Sheetal's family was just relieved that the wedding was finally happening.

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Sanjay stands in front of the Ambedkar statue in a community park at his village in Basai Babas, Hathras.

Yet with 10 days before the festivities, the compromise fell through.

At Sheetal's home, wedding preparations had already come to a halt. No invitations were sent out, and the house was yet to get a fresh coat of paint. No wedding clothes had been bought yet, the wedding caterer had been told to hold off cooking, and no women sang ribald songs of marriage and mother-in-laws.

Neighbours averted their gaze as they passed by Sheetal's house.

The bride sat inside, stone-faced and glum after spending a day with her brother at the DM's office, waiting for a meeting that never took place. She was fasting that Monday for the first time, in hopes that the gods would listen and send them some relief.

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Sheetal wants to wear a red lehenga choli for her wedding. She is fasting for a day in hopes that the gods will help her.

The Thakurs had dug up Sheetal's school certificate. By their calculations, she was only 17 years and 10 months old, two months shy of the legal age for marriage in India. Sheetal insisted she was 18.

The latest 'compromise' thought up by the district administration was a medical examination to ascertain her true age. Sheetal had had enough.

"I don't have any happiness inside me," she said.

A day later, Sheetal refused a medical examination.

Sanjay, her fiance, was unmoved.

"If my bride doesn't want a test, then we will postpone the wedding till official documents say she is of age," said Sanjay, adding that this meant the wedding was postponed till July.

And then he would ride his horse.

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Two Sarus Cranes, state bird of Uttar Pradesh and a threatened species, at Basai Babas village in Hathras.