One-and-a-half-years ago, Srinivas Kelagi and other Dalit activists staged a protest in front of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Gulbarga district with a dead body. They had brought the body to the district headquarters from Aland, a city around 40 km away, refusing to leave until the DC came outside and assured them that the district administration would set up a burial ground for them.
Such a turn of events is not unheard of in Karnataka's villages where Dalits are either not allowed to bury their dead by the upper castes in the same burial grounds, or have no space to do so in the village. However, if a 2014 order of the Karnataka government is implemented in letter, in some villages at least, it will uphold the spirit with which it was issued.
In a circular issued on September 11, 2014, the Revenue Department had urged the deputy commissioners of all the districts to ensure that villages which do not have facilities to perform the last rites, land should be identified and developed for that purpose. It also says that all existing “rudrabhoomis” or “smashanas” must have sign boards which declare that they are “government” facilities, which would be a “common place for people of all communities to perform last rites”.
It is ironical that the government specified this, because the Constitution does not allow the state to discriminate on the basis on caste. Elected representatives, however, are well aware of how things work on the ground when people have to dispose of their deceased kin.
In a large number of Karnataka’s villages, and even towns to a lesser degree, the “untouchable” castes are not allowed to use public burial facilities. Most crematoria and burial grounds in the state are located within a single facility developed and maintained by the state Revenue Department, but have often been appropriated by people of powerful castes. In Karnataka, except for the Brahmin and Vaishya communities, it is unlikely that any other community cremates their dead.
While the order specifies that villages where there is no crematorium or burial ground facility, the government should identify land and if it is not available, it should make arrangements to purchase it. However, it appears that despite existing caste hierarchies practised in life have been perpetuated in death too.
“Unless there has been a really bad disease or accident, most communities bury their dead. But upper castes do not allow us to bury our dead in the same place that they bury their relatives. Forget about the villages, you will see this even in Kolar town,” says Venkatappa Muniv Budha, Kolar-based state convenor of Bheema Sene.
In Kolar district, he says, the Madiga (disposal of animal carcasses and leather work) and Holeya (near bonded labourers, who often helped Madigas clean animal carcass in exchange for the meat) castes are considered “untouchable” and are not allowed to bury their dead in government-run grounds. Vokkaligas and the other Shudra castes however, use the same facilties.
“In the pahani (title deed), it will show revenue department as the owner, but these people do not allow us to use the burial ground,” says Venkatappa, a retired Hindi teacher.
Even when his own father was alive, the people of his village N Gollahalli shared a burial ground with the neighbouring village. Only people of the Madiga and Holeya communities would be buried there. This cemetery, like others in the district, is maintained by the government.
In Gulbarga, one of Karnataka’s northern-most districts, Kelagi says that burial grounds are very few. While the Lingayats and Reddys run the social and economic lives of the people, they also dictate how people should bury their dead. The lack of a government-run burial ground does not affect these communities as much as it does the “untouchable” castes.
“Lingayats and Reddys have (agricultural) land. But only around 10 percent of us own land. They can bury their dead on their own land, but we have to go to far-off places and find a river,” says Kelagi, the Gulbarga district convenor of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti.
However, Dalit communities might have something to look forward to, if government documents are any indication.
The September 2014 circular says that people of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be given preference in government facilities.
The order notes that in the House the revenue minister Srinivas Prasad noted that the scheme had been created with the intention of breaking caste barriers. He said in the House that “During his lifetime, man is unable to escape the superstition (mouDhya) that is caste, but at least through the performance of his last rites in a public burial ground, (one can get people to understand) the humane principle that regardless of caste, all people are one.” The circular notes that the House “unanimously” endorsed him.
The state government has released funds to all the districts which they may use depending on requirements.
“We can use the money to purchase land, if we need it. But if we have government waste land available, then we can use the money to ensure that the premises of existing facilities are fenced, and that amenities such as water are provided,” said an official who requested anonymity.
Dalit Sangharsh Samiti state-secretary Mavalli Shankar, however, remains sceptical. “It would be great if this order is implemented. But there’ve been orders for years. We’ve been making demands for access to burial grounds or new burial ground for years, and nothing happens. We tell the DC, the DC will tell the Tahsildar and then there’s no news.”
Describing the state of Dalits in the country, he said: “We have land neither to till, nor to bury our dead.”