Though the children’s parents had taken permission from the school authorities, Marathas from the village asked the school to end the Republic Day event early and to not sing the song as it was not ‘part of their tradition’.
On Republic Day this year, a primary school in a village in Maharashtra organised a programme to mark the occasion as most schools do. Since Republic Day commemorates the day India adopted its constitution, a group of Dalit students wanted to dedicate a song to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the leading voice in the struggle against caste-discrimination and the driving force behind the constitution.
But the programme was cut short when the children’s turn to perform came. The children belonged to the six Dalit families in a village where the rest of the population, in a clear majority, belongs to the Maratha community – an ‘upper’ caste.
Vinod Wankhede, Community Correspondent who reports from Buldhana, Maharashtra, first heard of the incident on a WhatsApp group. The group is run by members of the Bauddh Janhit Sangharsh Samiti, a Dalit rights group in the area.
“I decided to find out more but I was apprehensive of going to the village alone because I also belong to the Dalit Buddhist community, the same community as the children. So, I contacted my acquaintances in the local media and went with them,” says Wankhede.
The families of the Dalit children had requested the school authorities to allow them to perform the song. But the programme was stopped abruptly. Wankhede says that some local Marathas asked the school authorities to stop the programme, arguing that such songs were not part of the tradition in the village.
This incident in Buldhana is not the first of its kind. In Madhya Pradesh too, four school students were allegedly told that they could only sing songs on Prime Minister Narendra Modi or songs from films. Last year, on Independence Day, a principal and a teacher of a junior college in Uttar Pradesh were accused of and subsequently arrested under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for stopping a student from singing songs on Ambedkar.
In Buldhana too, the Dalit families, especially the women, opposed the authorities’ decision to stop the programme and approached the police although the headmaster of the school wanted to resolve the matter internally. According to Wankhede, the police ignored the complaint of the women and it took leaders from block-level social organisations to initiate a conversation with the police and the accused. Eventually, a First Information Report (FIR) was registered. But at the same time, the accused apologised and a “compromise” was reached, so the police did not pursue the case further. But things took a turn for the worse once the women came back from the police station.
“The Dalit community was socially boycotted and threatened with violence. Their livelihoods depend on the Marathas because they all work on the farms owned by them. The atmosphere remained tense”, says Wankhede.
When the boycott and threats did not cease, the women went to the police station once again but the police was of no help. Wankhede says that the Maratha-dominated village council would have been of no help either. So, the community then directly approached the district magistrate with an application. Acting on the application, the DM visited the village and provided police protection to the Dalit families.
Wankhede also went back to the village and spoke to the Maratha community about the boycott. “They said that they were simply not interacting with the Dalits in the village to avoid further conflict. I tried explaining to them that that is exactly what amounts to boycott and that the latter’s livelihood is being affected. The situation is better now but not like it used to be before the incident”, he says.
The situation may not have been so visibly tense before the Republic Day incident but untouchability has always been rife in the village. Payal, the child Wankhede spoke to about the school programme, says that the teacher scolds her if her hand touches him; Dalit children are also served food in the school premises whereas ‘upper’ caste children eat at the Hindu temple next to the school.
When asked where the children are taught these songs, Wankhede says that most of them pick up these songs from the cassettes and CDs their families play at home. Ambedkarite songs of resistance have been an important part of the struggle against caste-based discrimination, and individuals and groups have kept the genre alive. Ambedkar himself had reportedly said that even ten speeches by him would not have the kind of power as one song by a shahir or a performer.
The incident in Buldhana was not only about stopping a group of students from singing a song central to their identity and culture but also telling of a greater problem – the everyday caste-based discrimination and threat of atrocities that Dalit communities live with and fight against, a problem that becomes even more grave as the SC/ST Act seems to be dangling on the edge of a knife.
Video by Community Correspondent Vinod Wankhede
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team
This story has been co-published with The Wire.