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A Dalit wedding party dances to DJ music

For the marginalised, riding a horse and playing music at weddings was taboo, but now, it is an assertion of their right to be treated as equals. DH journalist Satish Jha travels to rural Gujarat to report on the evolving caste dynamics
Last Updated 23 February 2024, 22:56 IST

Until recently, I had never attended a wedding in a scheduled caste (SC) family. This, even though I grew up around such families in my village in Bihar. The families worked on the farms, and lived on the periphery of the village. When they visited homes such as ours, located in the middle of the village, they would sit on the floor at a distance and use glasses and plates set aside for them.

Whenever a wedding was coming up, the bride’s family came to our doorstep to take the blessings of my grandparents. The grooms were mocked if they wore Western attire — shirts, trousers and shoes — on the big day. They were expected to wear a kurta and dhoti and walk barefoot. This was in the early ’90s. I was 12 or 13, too young to know why these families were being treated differently.  

These memories came into sharp focus as I headed for the wedding of a Dailt couple in Dangarva village in Gujarat on February 11. I was told activists had sought police protection because the wedding procession was to feature DJ music. I was in attendance in my capacity as a journalist.

For the Dalits in the state, riding horses and playing live music during the baraat (wedding procession) have become flashpoints. Grooms and guests have been assaulted by the upper castes. The attackers say such ceremonial practices are the preserve of the upper castes.

Caste violence is breaking out in districts such as Gandhinagar, Mehsana, Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Ahmedabad, in which Dangarva falls. A significant number of Dalit communities live here. A police van follows the groom's car during the procession

Which road?

Dangarva is located close to the Narmada main canal, an hour’s drive from the state capital Gandhinagar. The region is lush green, with wheat and castor dominating the landscape.

After a 90-minute drive from Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Gujarat, my cab reached the village. A concrete gate, locally called toran, stood in front. I had to ask about Rohit Vaas, a Dalit locality, to get to Kalubhai Makwana’s house. Two people asked me, repeatedly, if I really wanted to go to Rohit Vaas. They then directed me to a ‘shortcut’ and our car set off on a dirt road.

I arrived at my destination. A pink and blue shamiana (tent) was up and under it, 10-15 plastic chairs were arranged in neat rows. The morning breeze was gone and it was getting hot. Guests, mostly Makwana’s neighbours, were dragging chairs out of the shamiana to sit under the trees.

Makwana makes a living by selling cosmetics on a push cart. Sangita is the youngest of his four daughters and it was her wedding I was covering.

An hour before the baraat was to arrive, Makwana developed cold feet. The unease among his relatives was also palpable. Turning to two human rights activists who had come to support the wedding, Makwana asked, “Should we take the easy road instead of the main road? I don’t want anything untoward to happen today.”

I had come by the said easy route. It bypasses the ‘main village’ and leads directly to the back, dotted with 20 Dalit households. The main road, made from concrete, stretches from the village square up to the heart of the village, dominated by the upper-caste Thakor and Patel communities.

Makwana’s fear was not unfounded. About two weeks before his daughter’s wedding, a Dalit groom in the neighbouring district of Mehsana had been attacked for riding a horse and entering the village to the beats of DJ music.

Then on May 26, 2022, upper caste men had attacked the wedding procession of his neighbour’s daughter, Dhara Parmar. According to police records, the attackers wanted the DJ music stopped. Locals spoke of a similar case from 2019. In this instance, a compromise was reached and no FIR was filed.

Acknowledging Makwana’s concerns, activist Kanubhai said: “This is absolutely your call (which route you want to take) but nothing will happen. The police will ensure the baraat passes peacefully.”
While they were discussing, a police van arrived and stopped in front of Makwana’s home. The policemen assured the family that everything would go smoothly.

At the square

A posse of 25 policemen kept vigil at the village square. Many were holding lathis (sticks). A couple of cars arrived. The drivers parked under a banyan tree to find respite from the heat. These cars were decked with artificial flowers. Photos of the couple were pasted on the rear windshields. Two pink heart cutouts bore their names ‘Sangita and Haresh’ in glitter.

The DJ was ready. DJs in these villages are different from the ones you see in films. They aren’t your headphone-wearing, head-bobbing, disc-spinning kind. Piyush Chavda, the DJ, was sitting inside a pick-up truck with a driver and an electrician. There was no mixing console in sight, but a giant music system on top of the truck. Chavda wore a beige full-sleeved shirt and denims. He is from an adjoining village.

Since guests from the bride’s side were trooping in, the DJ started playing popular Hindi and Gujarati songs, sourced from YouTube. Women broke into dance, and soon, men joined. A circle was formed. The iconic garba song ‘Dholida dhol re vagad’ was a favourite. So was ‘Jamal jamalek jamaloo jamal kudu’ from the recent Hindi film ‘Animal’. A boy burst firecrackers and the woosh-woosh of rockets in the air added to the festive mood.

The groom sat hunched inside the car, waiting for his guests to arrive. The dancing slowed down. The sun was scorching, and bothering everyone. Women, dressed in finery and decked up in heavy jewellery, were sweating profusely.

The bus ferrying the baraatis (guests) arrived by noon and the mood picked up again. The dancing resumed. The procession started in no time. It was guarded by two groups of policemen, one in the front and one at the back. A police jeep followed the groom’s car.

The procession danced and walked through Patel Vaas, Brahmin Vaas, and 40 Ghar Thakor Vaas. The streets were empty and the houses and shops were shut. The residents did not want any fracas, I gathered from the guests. Additionally, the police had ordered the seven men accused in the 2022 wedding procession attack case to leave the village for the day. They would be held responsible if anything went wrong, the police had warned them. They are out on bail now.

Reclaiming space

The procession stopped in front of the Mahakali temple near Thakore Vaas and the entire group began dancing with renewed vigour. They performed garba for 10 minutes.

The spot held special significance. This is where Dhara Parmar’s baraat was attacked by seven Thakor men in 2022 — her younger brother Mayur and some relatives were injured. The Thakor community is categorised among the other backward castes (OBCs) but its members in the region describe themselves as Kshatriyas. They had told the wedding party that only the upper castes could play music at weddings, as was the ‘tradition’.

I spotted both Dhara and Mayur in the procession. Dhara was dancing with abandon. “Like any other girl, I wanted DJ music in my baraat,” Dhara said, looking back on the ‘worst nightmare’ of her life. But the attack hasn’t deterred the scheduled castes in the region. “It has stirred up our courage,” she said.

Her brother Mayur went in for a court marriage after the attack. He didn’t want to invite undue attention from the upper castes. But today, he wanted their attention. He was riding a racing bike through the procession. “I was waiting for this moment ever since my sister’s baraat was interrupted. I rode my bike to show them that we are not inferior,” he said.

The siblings told me that discrimination in the village was routine. Growing up, some friends would not enter their home or share food with them. But such violence had still come as a “shock” to them.

A groom riding to the bride’s home with pomp is a fixture in north Indian weddings. Symbolically, the groom becomes a prince who takes his princess away on a horse. In recent years, the Dalits are using it to assert their place in society, and demand equal rights, I gathered from interviews.

I was curious to know how the local DJs negotiated the friction. “I am only concerned about the bookings, which I get from both Dalit and other communities. If we are told to turn off the music, we do it. I haven’t been in trouble ever,” said DJ Piyush, 25.

Ambedkar song

The procession reached the bride’s house. The baraatis danced again to popular Gujarati songs. The day was as hot as before. The last song was in honour of B R Ambedkar and the movement he started for Dalit emancipation. ‘Bandharan vaalo mara kaleja ni kor’ has become an anthem at Dalit social and cultural events in Gujarat. It is a call for the assertion of their identity. 

Sangita and Haresh went through the wedding rituals under the vigil of policemen. Amid giggles and chatter, the guests gorged on puri, kala chana curry, aloo gobi, sweet dal, potato chips and mohanthal (a gram flour sweet). “I was sure nothing would happen as we had already called the cops,” the groom said.

Sangita’s father Makwana folded his hands and thanked the activists Kanubhai and Kirit Rathod for pushing the authorities to provide security. Rathod said they seek police protection if a village had a “history” , and if families were up for a “dare”.

Makwana’s wife joined in to say thanks. She shouted ‘Jay Bhim’. Others followed. Makwana almost choked with happiness.

Pride and prejudice

On my way back to Ahmedabad that evening, I kept thinking about the unwritten rules that divide us. And Rathod’s words: “We have tried to counsel village elders and leaders (in the region) but the meetings have not been fruitful. Dalits are not equals, that’s their mentality. And it is the youth who are at the forefront of such violence. They  have the support of the old generation.”

Next day, news came from another village, Chadasana, of a Dalit groom being slapped for riding a horse. Four men from the Thakor community had forced Vikas Chavda, the groom, to travel to the bride’s home in a four-wheeler instead. His cousin Sanjay Chavda had filed an FIR and the men had been booked for assault, and under various sections of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

“Riding a horse and playing DJ music is not that important... The point is (for us) to live with dignity. Our ancestors were treated badly. At the weddings, they were not even allowed to play a dhol or set up a mantap. A traditional Indian wedding calls for these things,” Sanjay Chavda, a clerk in a school, told me over a call.

He is optimistic, though. “Earlier, such news wouldn’t travel beyond a village, but today, because of news channels and social media, it is going far and wide. It can inspire 20 to 30 (adjoining) villages,” he said.

Dhara’s sister-in-law, Rina, is happy things are changing but “will be really proud when our marriage can take place without police protection”.

Low conviction rate 

Although Gujarat doesn’t figure in the top 10 list of states in caste atrocity cases, its conviction rate is one of the lowest in the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau report of 2021, the conviction rate is the highest in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh whereas in Gujarat, only five in 100 cases result in convictions. 

Kirit Rathod’s NGO Navsarjan works for the rights of the marginalised in Gujarat. “Sometimes, even after a family files a complaint, it is forced to compromise or withdraw the case, or they are socially boycotted,” he said.

Like this story? Email: dhonsat@deccanherald.co.in

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(Published 23 February 2024, 22:56 IST)

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