People of the barber and washerman castes continue to face ostracism for struggling against the 'jajamani' system. The administration and legal system have largely turned a blind eye towards their systematic exploitation.
People of barber and washerman castes have been fighting ostracism for years. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
Puri: Lord Jagannath, the reigning deity of Puri in Odisha, is adored by people of all castes and creeds. But the people of Puri themselves, unfortunately, are unable to live harmoniously with each other. If the shoving of President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife in April highlighted the caste discrimination that prevails on the temple premises, the stories outside the temple, in the villages of Puri district, speak of much uglier everyday caste atrocities.
People of the barber and the washerman castes in Puri district continue to face social ostracism for fighting against age-old customary systems of bonded labour called jajamani. Though abolished after the introduction of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 in many parts of the state, the jajamani and bartan systems still prevail in some villages. Under the jajamani system, people of the Barika (barbed) and Dhoba (washerman) castes are expected to provide various services to the upper castes, without any remuneration. The bartan is a form of payment, where bonded labourers receive a one-time paddy consignment, which is calculated according to the number of married males in the upper caste family they are bonded to. The upper castes belong to the Karan or Khandayat communities.
During their struggle against the barbaric system, people of the Barika and Dhoba castes have faced torture, humiliation and ostracism. Fighting as they are for freedom from verbal and physical abuse, remuneration for their services and freedom to choose other means of livelihood, the victims say that the state government and the legal system have been of little help.
On the morning of July 23, at around 9:30 am, some 20-25 villagers barged into Ashok Sethi’s house in Nuagon village in Brahmagiri block, Puri district with the intent to destroy it. Sethi, who belongs to the Dhoba caste, was not at home. The villagers asked Sethi’s wife to leave the house. When she pleaded with them not to destroy it, adding that her family had been living in the house for generations, one of the villagers pushed her to the ground. When she tried to escape, the villagers pulled her hair and tore her saree. Hearing her scream, her sister-in-law, Rama Sethi, came rushing, only to be attacked with a sharp knife that slashed her left arm. Ashok Sethi claimed that the mob also pushed his pregnant daughter-in-law, who was standing nearby.
Rama Sethi’s left arm was slashed with a knife by the upper caste mob. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
Later, other villagers joined the mob and ransacked Sethi’s house and looted valuable items. The family’s land deed, bank account papers, certificates and Aadhaar cards were also destroyed.
When Sethi went to the Brahmagiri police station to file an FIR, the police initially dilly-dallied, saying they were “busy with the rath yatra“. But when ten members of the family sat on the verandah of the police station, the police finally accepted an FIR and nabbed three persons while others remain scot-free. Sethi now fears going back to the village.
Ashok Sethi and his family members at the police station. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
This is not the first time Sethi has been attacked by the upper castes. In 2000, the villagers had attacked Sethi and his family, imposing a social boycot for refusing to receive bartan and asking, instead, to be paid in cash for their jajamani services. “When I decorated my house and erected a shamiana for my marriage, the upper caste people came and destroyed it,” said Sethi.
Ashok Sethi. (R) Ashok Sethi’s house destroyed by the mob. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
After he was attacked, Sethi and his family stayed away from the village for a few months, before returning with the support of the district administration. “But the villagers ostracised our family,” he said. “Because I protested against their exploitation, I have been socially boycotted for two decades. No one in the village talks to us. We are leading the lives of prisoners. So many years have passed, but the administration continues to turn a deaf ear towards this matter,” he said.
Hina Sethi, wife of Pahala Sethi, a washerman who has also been ostracised for years in Birakesharipur village said, “When we refused to carry a loaded basket, the upper caste people looted our property, forcing us to abandon our house for three years. We have returned, but they still impose restrictions on us.”
Jajamani system is rampant in Puri
“The constitution guarantees freedom and right to live for every citizen, but we do not have it,” said an angry Sheshadeb Barik, 27, of Belapada village in Delang block of Puri district. In 2011, his father Laxmidhar Barik (now 58) decided to flee from customary bondage – called goti shramika – imposed on his family for generations. The family’s bondage to the upper castes of the village included cutting their hair, washing their feet, picking up their leftovers and other tasks. The female bonded labourers were expected to cut the nails of upper caste women and painting alta (a red liquid women paint their feet with during auspicious occasions).
Shesadeb Barik with his father, Laxmidhar. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
“Whenever I refused to take bartan and asked for remuneration, I was beaten up. Finally, one day I decided to flee,” Laxmidhar Barik narrated. “When I protested, the upper caste people asked me to leave the house and the farm land that we had received from the zamindars,” said Laxmidhar Barik.
Laxmidhar’s deceased father, Bhramar Barik was also beaten up many times for refusing to be a bonded labourer.
“My father became paralysed and was admitted to a hospital. I lodged an FIR, but all in vain,” said Sheshadeb.
Having decided not to be humiliated at the hands of the upper caste people, Sheshadeb decided to seek help from Baghambar Pattanaik, who is leading a campaign against the jajamani system in the state under the banner of Odisha Goti Mukti Andolan. Pattanaik advised Sheshadeb to meet both the superintendent of police (SP) and the then collector, both of whom ignored Sheshadeb.
Sheshadeb then sat on a dharna for nearly three months in front of the collector’s residence, hoping that the administration would come to his aid. “During a heavy downpour, I stood in knee deep water for a whole night, but the collector did not relent. Rather, I was thrown out by the police,” Sheshadeb said. “My final attempt was to knock on the doors of the court.”
Baghambar Pattanaik filed a public interest litigation (PIL) and the high court ordered that Pattanaik, the collector and the SP prepare a joint enquiry report into the matter.
Decades-long struggle for dignity
The struggle against jajamani system began in the 1980s, when bonded labourers refused to wash the feet of guests, clearing up leftovers after feasts, carrying heavy loads, cleaning utensils and other such tasks. This caused a conflict between the barber caste and other castes. Those of the barber caste – even women – were thrashed, their belongings looted and asked to pay fine for refusing to be exploited.
“In 1986, when Bhramar Barik of Sanabenakudi village refused to perform jajamani services, upper caste people thrashed him. They tied a band around his neck and dragged him to the village square, where they made him sit like a donkey, hung bells around his neck and waist. He was made to crawl around the village with two persons sitting on his back. His wife was stripped and paraded naked by the upper caste villagers. The police rescued and admitted him to the hospital as he was in a state of mental shock,” said Kishan Patnaik, general secretary of Ambedkar Lohia Vichar Mancha (Odisha).
Baghambar Pattanaik has been leading the anti-jajmani movement in Puri. Credit: Rakhi Ghosh
Land rights and bonded labourers
“In the name of ‘custom’, they were exploiting us. Our children were deprived education, health care and nutrition. We want to break this cycle of oppression and exploitation,” said Biswanath Barik, 52, a former bonded labourer, from Gopinathpur village.
When land reform measures were carried out after Independence, people of the barber and washermen castes who received land for serving the upper castes wanted land records to be transferred to them. Their demands were not accepted and land records are still in the names of the upper caste people or village communities. “Now, because we are protesting against the customary services, they want to snatch from us the farmland and houses where we have been living for generations,” said Ashok Sethi. “We have served them for generations without any financial compensation and it is our right to have land and house in our name.”
Biswanath Barik of Gopinathpur village is not only facing ostracism for 12 years but his house was destroyed. He now lives in a makeshift house. “We are poor people. Where will we get the money to reconstruct our house?” he said in a choked voice.
Some good news, but a long way to go
The continuous struggle of the barbers and the washerman has yielded some positive results. Beginning from 2011, the Odisha government has identified and freed around 2,040 barbers and washerman from bonded labour. Although the inhuman practice still persists, there have been some changes in the behaviour of the upper castes towards the barber and washerman castes. “The number of people exploited by the jajamani system was enumerated in the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011. The report has not yet been published by the government. The number of people freed will increase after publication of SECC report,” said Baghambar Pattanaik.
Ashok Sethi’s house deed before it was destroyed by the upper caste people.
A jajamani certificate issued by the district administration.
The Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) directed the state government in April this year to identify and release bonded labourers working under customary bondage and increase their rehabilitation package. OHRC acting chairperson justice B.K. Mishra held a sensitisation meeting with collectors, sub-collectors and tehsildars of Puri, Cuttack, Khorda and Nayagarh districts for complete elimination of bonded labour system in July 2017.
Shesadeb, who is now an elected ward member in his village, says, “Our struggle will continue until we get proper financial remuneration, respect and dignity for our services.”
Rakhi Ghosh is an Odisha-based freelance journalist. She has held media fellowships with National Foundation for India and Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women among others. She has thrice received the Laadli Gender Sensitive Award, given by UNFPA and Population Firsts.