India: Dalit woman’s body taken off funeral pyre in Uttar Pradesh

Anger at caste discrimination flares after a group of men in Agra prevents the woman’s cremation on communal land.

Funeral pyre
The funeral was being held in northern Uttar Pradesh state's Agra district when about 200 men stopped it [File: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images]

The body of a Dalit (formerly referred to as “untouchables”) woman was taken off a funeral pyre in India by a group of men belonging to more privileged castes who said she could not be cremated on communal land, police said on Tuesday, a case that prompted angry calls for an end to caste discrimination.

The funeral was being held in northern Uttar Pradesh state’s Agra district last week when about 200 men stopped the cremation, saying the site was not meant for villagers from less privileged castes, police and the woman’s husband said.

“My family and I… begged them to let us perform the last rites but no one listened to us. The police were also called, but nothing was done,” said Rahul Bajaniya, the woman’s husband.

“We had to take the body to a different cremation ground, which is about four kilometres [2.5 miles] away, and perform the last rites there,” he told Reuters news agency from Kakarpura village, which lies close to the iconic Taj Mahal.

Bajaniya said caste discrimination in the village was so entrenched that people from the more privileged castes “even object to us when we fetch water from the [community] hand-pump”.

An online video showing men removing firewood from the pyre as a body lay on the ground had been viewed nearly 200,000 times.

The incident sparked anger on social media, with politicians and campaigners demanding justice for the woman’s family.

Kumari Mayawati, a Dalit political leader in Uttar Pradesh, described the case as “most shameful and most condemnable” in a tweet.

“In this casteist and most disgusting incident, a high-level inquiry should be done by the… government and the culprits should be given harshest punishment so that such an incident is not repeated in the state,” she said.

BS Veer Kumar, the local deputy police superintendent, said his team could not take any action unless the woman’s family filed an official complaint.

“The family has raised their demand for a separate cremation ground, and that is being looked into,” he said.

Bajaniya said he had decided not to file a police complaint because he wanted to “live peacefully in the village” where he was often given part-time jobs by the residents who belonged to more privileged castes.

India banned discrimination based on caste in 1955. But centuries-old biases against Dalits, who fall out of the caste system, and Hindus from less privileged castes persist, making it harder for them to access education, jobs and homes.

A growing population and rising pressure on land to build homes, highways and industry is triggering conflicts, with Indians from less-privileged castes often facing eviction, particularly in rural areas where discrimination is strongest, campaigners say.

Their traditional burial and cremation grounds are also targeted, with Dalits sometimes forced to keep relatives’ bodies for days until they can find a place to bury or cremate them.

More than half of the people belonging to India’s less-privileged castes are landless, according to census data. Several states have laws aimed at giving land to Dalits, but few have produced results, according to Dalit activists and leaders.

SR Darapuri, a Dalit rights activist based in Uttar Pradesh’s state capital, Lucknow, demanded that the government do more to meet the needs of poor minorities.

“This is not a new case or a new thing as it keeps on happening in India,” he said.

“The only solution to end this caste discrimination is making separate community centres in every village for lower-caste people where they can go and talk about their problems and requirements.”

Source: Reuters