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Dalit discrimination in Shivratri Festival of Mandi (Himachal Pradesh) – Is the case ‘Rightly’ interpreted?

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Mohit Kapoor
Dr. Mohit Kapoor is an alumnus of TISS Mumbai and did his Ph.D. from the University of Paris. He is a social scientist working in and for the Himalayas for the last eight years.

On February 29, 2020, news has come up in a few national and regional newspapers of Himachal Pradesh that ‘Dalits were forcibly pulled out of a community feast during the International Shivratri festival in Mandi district’. Mandi district, belonging to old Himachal, has unique traditions and cultures and the Shivratri festival is one of that. The hundred of deities from different villages come to the main town center and take part in the procession along with ‘Madhav Rao’ (Lord Krishna), the chief ruling God of the district.

During a week-long event, people across the town invite their house/clan diety to their homes and organize a feast where everyone and anyone can have food. This particular incident has taken place in one such feast, where few anti-social elements may be involved, but to blame religion and the whole community (esp. high castes) for an incident is just too generalization of the specific event.

Many Dalit writers, scholars, and left-liberals have pointed out this issue in social media and try to interpret the situation from the aspect of the Brahminical hegemony of the religion. Some of them claim that Dalits were only regarded as Hindus at the time of election or in the event of riots. I strongly condemn this incident of caste discrimination but the interpretations (of the incident) of most of the scholars are too general in nature. Himachal is one of the peaceful states and has never witnessed riots in post-independent India. Himachal is also one of the developed states among Kerala and has high indicators of literacy and human development while socio-economic and political situations of Dalits are far better in comparison to other states.

Unlike the plains of India, the religion in upper Himachal (esp. Districts of Mandi and Kullu) is governed by the mixture of Animism and Hinduism. Every village has its own God/Goddess who has executive and legislative power. They never propagate caste- biases, in fact, behave as a protector of people (of all castes/gender) and nature. The life of every individual and even functioning of the institutions are governed by the Gods irrespective of their castes and affiliations (e.g. Abolition of construction of ski-village in Kullu district as Diety feels it may harm the environment of the region).

Temple societies in these areas are composed of Priests, Gurs (Shaman), and Kardars (Caretakers of God/Temple). Out of these three, ‘Gur’ is the messenger of God and can be of any caste (even Dalit) and is given the primary importance in the village society (as every individual speaks to God through the medium of Gur). Thus, the relationship between castes in the religious sphere of villages of upper Himachal is more in the form of patron-client rather than pure Brahminical hegemony.

The Brahmins are the part of temple society, but they are not always at supremacy or in absolute power like other temples of Northern plains of India. Besides that, during a procession of God/Goddess to local festivals (e.g. Dusshera of Kullu or Shivratri of Mandi), there is a division of work and each caste is responsible for a particular task (such as cooking, carrying God’s palanquin, playing music instruments, etc.). They follow caste-related duties but never discriminate against each other publically, esp. to avoid hindrance in the smooth functioning of the rituals and responsibilities towards village God.

There are incidents of caste discrimination in Himachal in the private sphere of life, but Religion and Deities of upper Himachal (Mandi and Kullu district) have been never biased in favor of one community. On the contrary, religion and gods are the only force that help to keep village societies intact and peaceful in the Himalayas, at least in public spaces.

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Mohit Kapoor
Dr. Mohit Kapoor is an alumnus of TISS Mumbai and did his Ph.D. from the University of Paris. He is a social scientist working in and for the Himalayas for the last eight years.
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