Dalits, Humanism and Human Sacrifice

A Day Charged with Humanism

The Leadership Training Camp for Dalits that was being organised in
Suryapet town (14 and
15 July ’07, Andhra
Pradesh
, India
) through the International Humanist and Ethical
Union’s support was going on full-speed. Mr. Veeraswami the leader of Spoorthi, the local implementing organization,
and Mr. V.B. Rawat, Director of the Social Development Foundation,
the event’s sponsor were participating as resource persons along with Hyderabad-based
Dalit women’s rights campaigner, the sociologist Sujatha. There were
a hundred Dalit youth, men and women, eager to learn about modern science,
about the situation of Dalits and that of women in the country, about
superstitions, and about the plight of untouchables worldwide. 

 

It was a day charged with Humanism, which the newspapers would report
later as being the only alternative for Dalits. Amongst the participants there
was a keen sense of involvement and a burning desire to change their lot – this
was the first time I saw that participants stayed on in the meeting hall till
well past midnight discussing and sharing information. Of course, during the
day they had heard many ideas challenging long-held views. We had questioned
whether they really thought they were Hindus, whether they needed to be part of
the caste system, whether affirmative action was really benefiting them or
diverting them from the real issue of emancipating themselves culturally and
socially. This was also the first Humanist event in
India where participants after their
self-service lunch washed their own plates. It feels good to spend a
few days amongst those who speak of the dignity of labor and who also practice it.

 

 

 

 

 

New Resolve

When
at the end of a full day of discussions and lectures, Chandraiah the
miracle-exposure activist that we had invited concluded his demonstration, many
of the Dalit youth, several of them superstitious themselves, had a change of
orientation. Some of them declared that they were now inspired to work against
superstition in their community as they understood the tricks being played
on them by charlatans, and as they now realised the harm it does to their
fellow Dalits. Some others informed us that they heard of plans in their village
to kill a suspected witchcraft practitioner, and that following the day’s training
they were now determined to prevent it by educating the villagers and also
informing the local authorities. Veeraswami then clarified to us that the
reason the next day’s miracle-exposure programme was going to be held in Pasunur
village of Tungathurthi Administrative region was because the Dalits in the village were
traumatised and terrified – there has been talk of human sacrifice for some
time there. 

 

Killing of witches? Human sacrifice?

 

As
what we heard sank in, I could feel goose pimples of disgust and horror all
over me. We were just 6-hours away by car from
Hyderabad – one of India‘s Hi-tech show piece cities – and how time
rolls back a thousand years in this short distance!

 

Because the Gods Want it

“In
the 60s whenever a rice mill or a new industrial unit was to be inaugurated in
the region, one of the workers or a villager would mysteriously die in the
factory premises. Everyone remained silent, but all knew that the gods wanted a
sacrifice and they were now satisfied; the victim’s family would get ten
thousand rupees and all was forgotten,” Chandraiah was talking to me and to V.B.
Rawat about his experiences as a child who grew up in the region. In the other
car were Veeraswami and other Dalit leaders from the region, along with a
reporter from ETV, (one of most important TV channels in
South India), who we woke up at 5.00 am to take with us. We had to urgently intervene.

  

On
the way the situation was explained to us: the government had constructed an
impressive school building at the expense of 3.5 million rupees, with wide,
spacious and well-ventillated rooms: it was the pride of the region, yet, because
the building was awaiting a sacrifice, no classes were being conducted one
month into the new school year. It was the practice that goats or chicken were
sacrificed at the time of a house warming, but this was a special case: a man ‘possessed
by God’ had declared that the school building demanded ‘aarambham‘ of 6 children before it could be inaugurated safely. Aarambham is the local code for human
sacrifice.

 

Pasunur Village Dalit Colony

At the Dalit colony a welcome party was waiting; meeting banners were
set up, and a man with a drum went around the village summoning everyone
for the morning meeting. Quite agitated in mind, I asked the village president
about this matter of aarambham.
He denied it. When we asked the other villagers they denied any knowledge of the
matter. V.B. Rawat said children always tell the truth – so we had a talk with
the children and asked them why they were not going to school. When the
children spoke, and this time to the TV cameras, the adults had no choice but
to acknowledge that they were in fact terrified that their children might be
sacrificed for the school inauguration and that was why they were not sending
them to school. After all, who heard of upper caste children being sacrificed?
If it were to happen, it would be theirs that would be the victims.

 

We soon realized that it was a ‘skeptical’ crowd that had gathered to
listen to us, and to the local elected official. One woman loudly whispered
“Are you going to give us money for coming to this meeting? Because of you
our men are not going out today to work”. It was a Sunday, but in the
Dalit colony life is on a day-to-day basis and everyday one has to work to get
some money – after all in this period of India’s vertiginous but jobless
growth, the National Employment Guarantee Programme provides employment
support for a mere 100 days per year per household – did not Charles,
from the Dalit Social Forum tell us the previous day that Globalization
was of no real use to the common, hungry, downtrodden Indian? When I was
speaking, one of them shouted “You tell us what you know and we will tell
you what we know”. She, and her fellow villagers knew a lot about ghosts,
and how they possess people. They were aware of how spirits kept a cloth dipped
in water from becoming wet – their local godman had already demonstrated this.
They knew about spontaneous roof fires, and they knew about getting healed
through mantras or magical
incantations.

 

Now, Chandraiah proceeded to create fire by pouring water on sand. He
cut a lemon which dripped blood-red juice. He dipped a piece of cloth in
water and it came out dry. He broke a coconut and out came blood-red water. He
performed every feat the local charlatans performed, and then also explained
the tricks behind what he had done. He over-turned a glass full of water but
the water did not spill fall, supported by a paper – some said it was not
science and tried to do it themselves. They soon got the trick – it was not a
spirit that was holding the water up, it was atmospheric pressure. As the
interaction continued, and when Chandraiah first played with a piece of burning
camphor and then swallowed it and claimed it was tasty, the mood relaxed. When
he made the children do the same, there was much excitement.

 

It
was a quick thaw for a group of villagers who were till then
terrified that their children might be sacrificed for the inauguration of
the school building, and for those who feared that ghosts lived in the shadows
and in the trees. The show continued to work its magic – and soon the children
were shouting with Chandraiah “There are no ghosts! There are no miracles!
We are not superstitious”. Sujatha was mingling with the children and
asking them about the talisman they were wearing and explaining how hygiene,
rather than the talisman, was a better cure for diarrhea. Meanwhile, Chandraiah
made an old woman feed milk to a statue of Ganesha, in imitation of a shameful
hoax that fooled
India for two full days over a decade ago.

 

Soon,
some of the men came to us to say that they agreed with us, but that they still
had some doubts. So I made bold and asked, “How many of you are ready to
tackle the rascal who said that the new school building asked for human
sacrifice and caused you so much of suffering?”.

 

We Will Defend Ourselves

Several children came forward, as well as some ten men. Because it was
not an entirely safe activity and as we had no security with us, we set out
with just a few children and the adults. As we walked through the slush of the
recent rains to confront Devudu Chandraiah the goat herd who claimed to receive
divine messages (no relation to our own Chandraiah!) we encountered many who
were going to the temple where Chandraiah was – they were going to seek his
blessings to cure infertility or to cure sick children. His weekly earnings
were estimated to be about Rs. 10,000.

 

But word that we were coming reached him before we did, and he was
nowhere to be seen. We had an altercation with his sister at the temple who we
questioned about her brother’s desire to see human blood. She denied it, but
both children and adults who were witnesses to his pronouncements said they had
heard him say this. There were angry confrontations and we threatened that we
would get them all arrested. I cannot forget that the woman said to me that if
people die at the time of an inauguration they are not responsible. She asked
whether coconuts are not broken at a function? She did not dare say more, but
we all understood the dangerous mindset of the people.

 

It
was disgusting and alarming, but this was a good day for the TV reporter who
could capture what was happening and turn it into a good news item and also turn
it into a Crimewatch-style story.

 

The Relevance of the Humanist Approach

We
went back to the village, determined to spread the word that a group of Dalits
from the village decided to confront the charlatan who came from a higher caste
and that he fled the scene or did not dare to come to the temple that he regularly
haunted, because of us. We agreed that we would at the appropriate time print
posters of the charlatan and display them widely so that his humiliation would
be complete and the self-assertion of the Dalits would be announced to the
world. Spoorthi also intends to file
a police complaint for incitement to murder against him if they hear the mad
ravings of this blood thirsty charlatan again. But it will be some time before
he will recover from the disgrace. And we had to balance the educational
elements and the confrontational elements of our campaign in the area.

 

We
then moved to the school building itself where the reporter wanted to do a
special interview. There we met with representatives of the well-known M.V.
Foundation which was organizing a training program for literacy workers. We
were cordially invited to join them, and to tell them about our work. But soon
we were disappointed to find out that the idiom they were going to use to
encourage the people to become literate was a religious one, and that their
mobilization of the people would be on the lines of and in the context of Bonalu, a festival where animal
sacrifice is called for, and where people swoon and get ‘possessed’ and  speak on behalf of God. The MV Foundation
officials are of course against superstition and animal sacrifice, and expect
that literacy will drive away the bad practices – they seem to ignore the counter
evidence of the number of educated fools in the country who patronize cheats in
religious garb and are willing to perform similar animal sacrifices. Sujatha
found the use of the religious idiom inappropriate – and specially this
particular one – after all, the original demand for sacrifice of human lives
was voiced during a bonalu like festival!

 

Reviewing
the events of the past two days we found that this was one of the most
satisfying of our activities in recent times. While the preparation and organization
for putting in place these training and demonstration events took a few weeks,
the Dalit leaders found what they were looking for – a route out of the
traditional religious thinking, and a forum where they could discuss these
ideas as equals. They found a new determination and resolve to take their lives
into their own hands.

 

And
in one single magical morning from amongst a group of cowering, frightened and
terrorized villagers we found enough number of people who were willing to
challenge superstition and confront the source of their terror and deal with
the problem. They do not need outsiders to defend themselves anymore, because
most satisfyingly, they have found amongst their own colony members the
resources and the strength to help themselves. At least in that area there will
not be anymore witches or witch killings; and enough noise has been created to
be sure that none will speak of human sacrifice or suggest it in that little
pocket of Andhra Pradesh as the police and the local elected officials are all now
alert to this danger. The disinfecting power of reason and the light of science
and scientific temper made its first entry even if only through a narrow crack.

 

We
will now have to nurture the new desire and ability to think critically which
we kindled, so that a permanent defense can be created in their minds against
medieval and barbaric practices and pave the way for a society of equals where
modern values will prevail.

 

Photo Captions:

Picture 1: Veeraswami of Spoorthi welcomes the Dalit Youth

Picture 2: Training Session in progress

Picture 3: The abandoned School building

Picture 4: The children speak to the television cameras. Sujatha looks
on.

Picture 5: The villagers watch the demonstration

Picture 6: Chandraiah shows a trick to an old woman

Picture 7 and 8: The expedition to confront the charlatan

Picture 9: An argument with the magic man’s sister

 

 

Babu Gogineni

International Director

International
Humanist and Ethical
Union

www.iheu.org

Join the Intellectual Anarchy!

No tags for this post.

About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

There is one comment

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published.



  
Please enter an e-mail address

Contact information || Privacy information || Archives