Barhampur or Mahisha-Barhampur is an island-village nestled into Chilika lake, located in Krishnaprasad Tehsil of Puri District of Odisha. A news concerning some Dalit families leaving this village under compulsion due to the incidents of ethnic harassment and social ostracise buzzed around in various media. After leaving their village Barhampur, these migrated Dalit families took shelter in a temporary hutment, built by them on a patch of government land in the village Nathapur, located on eastern side of the Chilika lake. For that, the inter-caste conflict also escalated in Nathapur locality. As a result, at the midnight of November 07, 2021, the hutments and belongings of the displaced Dalit families were set on fire. This news was spread in the media. We, the members of Ganatantrika Adhikara Surakshaa Samiti (GASS, Odisha) and P.U.C.L., Odisha, visited the spots (Nathapur and Barhampur villages) to know about this sad and shocking incident of arson.
Journey to Dalits’ Original Village Barhampur :
We, on a country boat, started our journey from Satpada Ghat, on the bank of Chilika Lake and reached the island village Barhampur which was the native place of the displaced Dalit families. Our team discussed with the villagers present there. Initially the villagers were reluctant to have a discussion with us. Subsequently, a couple of people came forward and started narrating the incident. Barhampur village is mainly inhabited by Dalit communities. In this Dalit category, the Khatia community (Scheduled Caste) comprises about 80 per cent and the Bauri community (also Scheduled Caste) 15 per cent of population. The rest of the people are of communities like: Brahmins, Vaishnavas, Malis (gardeners), Baniyas (Smiths), Dhobas (Washermen) and Bariks (Barbers). The Khatia community has a traditional authority to fish in Chilika Lake. Besides this, they also cultivate.
Out of a total 600 families living in that village about 42 families belong to Bauri community. Since the Bauri community is not authorized to fish from Chilika Lake, they make a living by assisting the Khatias in their farming, fishing and selling of fishes, and by helping the villagers build houses etc. Many youths from this community, now-a-days, have moved to different cities of the country to work in unorganized sector. It is made customary for the Bauris to carry SABARIS (Palanquin which was used to carry a bride to her groom’s home) during the marriage functions and blow the CONCH during the festivals. There is always some tension in the village as Bauri people becoming reluctant to do this traditional work. Their protest, however, had never turned violent.
Villagers say that caste persecution and ethnic restrictions in the village are not so strict, but sometimes it turns violent. Corona scenario and the consequent Lockdown are mainly responsible for the departure of some Dalit families, mainly Bauri community from Barhampur to Nathpur village. The nationwide lockdown measures taken by the Central government across the country due to corona virus infection made many people unemployed, those who left their villages and lived in distant cities were forced to return to their villages. The youth of Bauri community of Barhampur also returned to their village during lockdown. They tried for fishing from Chilika Lake to maintain their livelihood. On the plea that this action of Bauri youths undermined the traditional rights of the majoritarian and influential Khatia Community (Larger group of the village) to fishing from Chilika Lake, the Bauri youths were prevented from fishing. Such restrictions imposed by the majoritarian Khatia community gradually worsened financial conditions of the Bauri families and thus they did not oblige to such imposed restrictions. They again tried to fish from Chilika. This irked the Khatia community and their opposition turned violent. Out of anger, they immediately imposed very inhuman decisions like ‘social ostracise’ on the (numerically minor) Bauri community. As a result, the Bauri families were prohibited of using roads, shopping from village markets and going to work. The members of Bauri community, being hopeless, apologized and refrained themselves from fishing. The incident, which initially was taken as a small issue, suddenly turned violent before being completely erased from the minds of the people.
Expulsion of numerically minor Dalit families from the village:
Once a sweetmeat hawker came to the village, while taking sweetmeats from that hawker there was some altercation on some ticklish issue between one Dalit youth and a group of youth from Khatia community. (names of the youths involved are not disclosed knowingly), even it came to blows. In no time some supporters of both sides got roughed up, and then things took an ugly turn. In response, ‘social ostracise’ was again imposed upon Bauri community by the Khatia community. The members of socially ostracized Dalit families face a lot of difficulties as the roads and market places were kept closed for them. They used to purchase their daily requirements from a neighboring village and come out of Chilika through the Ghats of neighboring villages. Since Khatia community stands majority in number, they started imposing restriction on giving work to the Bauri people. As a result, being deprived of work, their financial condition waned day by day.
According to Sangram Mallik, a member of the victim family, in protest of such ‘social ostracise’ had approached the District Collector, Puri and the Superintendent of Police, Puri and lodged complaints before them several times in this regard but the social ostracise remained in force for several days. Although the restriction imposed, for not to use village roads and not to purchase from local markets, were lifted due to mediation of the District Administration, their financial condition had not been improved as there was little job opportunity.
On the plea, ‘providing job is one’s discretionary issue,’ the numerically majoritarian group of the village tried to keep the lives of the numerically minor group under some kind of control. According to Sangram, about 35 Dalit Bauri families being disappointed and dejected, were forced to leave their village Barhampur on 24 April 2021. After they left the village, one hut in Bauri Sahi had been burnt into ashes. For this, 15 people from Barhampur have been booked. No one was arrested in connection with house burning case till we went to that village on December 15. We saw that most of the houses in Bauri Sahi were locked. But the houses remained intact.
These victim Dalit families along with their essential belongings left the village and took shelter in Nathapur village (under Brahmagiri block in Puri district) beside Brahmagiri-Satpada road, outside Chilika. The victim families say they considered this village their perfect place as the Dalit family members, displaced earlier from Barhampur, were settled in this Nathapur village. During ‘zamindari system,’ inhabitants of Nathapur, being ‘vassals’, rendered unpaid labour for their ‘feudal lords’ and in return for which they were granted seven acres of land. They occupied the land and used to cultivate cash crops and plant tress like polang, cashew nuts and earn a living. However, overwhelmed by seeing the plight of their fellow beings, the Nathapur Dalit families offered a piece of their occupied land to the Barhampur Dalit families for latter’s settlement in that piece of land. We left Barhampur and came back to Nathapur. We met the victim families who were recently displaced from Barahampur and also met the neighboring villagers. We had plans to meet the local police, the elected representatives and the concerned revenue departmental authorities, but these could not be materialized, even till the preparation of this report.
While taking shelter in Nathpur village:
The displaced villagers of Barhampur built temporary houses on the government land given by Nathapur villagers and lived there. The upper-class people living in nearby areas of Nathapur objected to such a government land being ‘occupied’. They likely informed the local Brahmagiri Tehsildar in this regard. Tehsildar himself came to Nathapur, inspected the place and asked them (the displaced villagers of Barhampur now settled in the temporary houses built on that land) to leave the place as well as summoned them to the police station. In the presence of representatives of ‘Panchatirishi Mauza’, an ethnic organization, comprising upper caste people of Nathapur area, the victims were asked by the Tehsildar to leave the place and one ‘undertaking’ in this regard was also signed. By the by, ‘Panchatiirishi Mauza’ (35 Mauza, i.e. 35 Revenue villages) is the name of the ethnic organization embracing people from Khandayat caste of 35 of villages in Brahmagiri block of Puri district. This organization of 35 villages also includes 10 Dalit villages encompassing Nathapur.
We interacted with one influential public personality and former teacher of Nuagaon village under Nathapur Mauza. According to him, the Tehsildar immediately asked the Villagers of Barhampur to leave Nathapur and entrusted ‘Panchatirishi Mauza’ with the said responsibility. Our team, however, is not sure about its veracity as we could not meet the Tehsildar. Accordingly, the members of ‘Panchatirishi Mauza’ held frequent meetings with Dalit families to try to take the Dalit families back to their native village Barhampur. They also confirmed all promises so that the displaced Dalit families could be able to lead a dignified life again. This was followed by a meeting held in May (2021), where all parties (district representatives of Dalits, representatives of Panchatirisi Mauza and Mahish villages) offered their assent to an agreement on the return of Dalit families.
The final consequence of dissimilar or diverse caste equation:
However, the Dalit Bauri families were reluctant to return immediately to their village as per the decision. Because of two reasons they took much time to return to their native village; firstly, the uncertainty concerning their livelihood and secondly due to their apprehension that if they leave Nathapur this might cause humiliation to their Nathapur fellow community. This action of the Dalit Bauri families was taken as an insult to the residents of Panchtirishi Mauza as the common decision was violated by such lower cast people. The delay in implementing the ‘collective decision’ (how collective this decision is when one of its parties is not willing to implement the decision?) was just like inviting danger for the Dalit people. The fierce indifference and apathy of local administration and the open support of the upper classes worked on it as fuel. The members of ‘Panchtirishi Mauza’ who were stricken with false humiliation, joined in a conclave one day. They summoned the Barhampur Dalit families. And being vengeful and vindictive, the members of ‘Panchtirishi Mauza’ set fire to houses of the victim Dalit families on November 07, 2021, in retaliation for not resolving the matter.
The untoward incident like incineration of Dalits’ hutment took place in Nathapur in the event of disturbing caste equation. While endorsing the similar views of a vast number of people, we are of the opinion that if the Dalit families of Barhampur stay with the Dalit families of Nathapur, Nathapur’s strength will be increased, thus they can face the challenges of Khandayat group. On the other hand, local upper caste people were apprehensive of their prestige being hampered if the Bauri settlement increased in Nathapur. We went there about a month after the incident had happened and found that most of the houses were completely burnt. A few polythene roofed bamboo mat surrounded huts were left untouched. Had the migrant workers of Barhampur village been provided with government sponsored facilities for which we have demanded many times in many places this sad situation would not have happened. The Khatia caste people of Barhampur village were also supposed to realize the condition of poverty-stricken people of their village. Despite the constitutional right to provide land for the landless, it is the biggest fault not to show any sympathy for the landless families who have been deported from the village and taken shelter, and to be deported from the shelter without making alternative arrangements for them. It is completely condemnable.
As per latest report, these Bauri families after being deprived twice from having a roof over their head within 8 to 10 months, are now taking shelter at the Cyclone shelter home of Khirisahi inside Chilika lake. They remain in that shelter home fully depending on whatever relief is being provided by the administration and the voluntary institutions. Six of those families have been forced to leave Kheerisahi and return to Barhampur due to non-availability of any job at that shelter place. The youths of Khatua community again have gone to outer states to work there.
Debi Prasanna Rath is an activist