Earlier this month, when Congress Rajya Sabha MP Kumari Selja talked about her experience about a visit to a Krishna temple in Gujarat in 2013 when she was a minister, the Upper House of the parliament broke into chaos. She claimed that she had faced discrimination at a temple in Gujarat after a priest had asked about her caste. Responding to the comment in a bid to protect ‘home turf’ — Narendra Modi’s model state of Gujarat — BJP members in the Rajya Sabha attacked Selja with BJP MP and Power Minister Piyush Goyal even terming the comment a case of ‘manufactured discrimination’.
Losing no opportunity at a hit-back at the BJP, the Congress came to Selja’s defence, asking the BJP to stop ‘insulting’ a Dalit woman (Selja). On the other hand, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is also the leader of the Upper House, went to the extent of procuring Selja’s comments on the visitors book of the temple which he thought she was referring to. He, perhaps, wanted to shatter the ‘notion’ that such discrimination exists in Gujarat at all.
“Nothing like that had happened with the Congress member. Her statement is merely a gimmick,” said Jaitley citing that Selja had complimented the temple. It turned out that Selja had referred to another temple and not the one that he got the remarks from. Once the confusion was settled, he withdrew his initial statements saying that it was a misunderstanding that has now been clarified.
This brief round of heated debate in the Rajya Sabha lays bare some important aspects on the caste question. Firstly, why was it so hard for BJP members of the Rajya Sabha to accept that such discrimination could have taken place in a temple in Gujarat? Is it a case of mere ignorance of the fact that even today, many temples and religious bodies in the country openly practice caste discrimination? Or is it that politicians have made it their project to sanitise the image of the nation that should not be ‘tainted’ by criticism of any kind. The recent intolerance debate has also been attacked by many as an attempt to ‘defame’ the image of the country
Perhaps, caste discrimination of the kind that Selja claimed to have faced is so rampant across the country that an upper caste public has taken it to be the norm. And the media does not usually take interest in the norm. Therefore, it is hardly reported until something extreme happens. For instance, in October, a 90-year old Dalit and his family tried to enter a temple in Bilgaon village in Hamirpur, Uttar Pradesh. They were stopped by an upper caste man and when they persisted, he is said to have allegedly attacked the old man with an axe and set him on fire. The horrific incident made it to the news. However, it is not an exception but an extreme of widely practiced caste discrimination that goes unreported and is responsible for such incidents.
For the present government, Gujarat is Modi’s model state of development which they try to shield from all criticism. But, they cannot defend what is out in the open. A visit to Gujarat reveals the rampant casteism that is practiced in various forms in the state, where temples have installed boards stating clearly that they do not allow the entry of ‘lower castes’. Perhaps Jaitley should tour the state he was defending so vehemently in the Rajya Sabha.
To point out the obvious, since it needs to be pointed out again and again when it is ignored so, Tehelka contacted people from Gujarat who have faced such discrimination in temples there. “We are barred by the upper castes from entering the two temples in our own village,” says Vaju Bhai Parmar, a 52-year-old Dalit from Navagam village near Ahmedabad. “If we have to worship, the priests ask us to do so from outside the main gate of the temple. They have even drawn a line outside the temple that we cannot cross. It leaves us furious but who can we go to? So we have built our separate temples in our houses.”
Sukha Bhai, 42, from Pipardi village in Rajkot district, also recounts the instances of discrimination he and his community have to face on a daily basis. “Our village has four to five temples and there are around 300 Dalit families in the village. But we are not allowed to enter any of the temple premises,” says Sukha. He says that since such discrimination has always existed, the Dalits of the village don’t even question it. “We are not even allowed to have prasad after pujas. If, at times, we are offered prasad, we have to have the left over after upper castes have had it. Lower castes can come for some big pujas, but we have to sit in the last row.”