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Horses to helicopters, moustache to libraries — Dalit pride in Rajasthan has new wings

Barmer/Jaisalmer/Jodhpur: As media drones circled overhead, thousands of people from at least 10 different villages congregated around an open field in Bijrad village, Barmer. All eyes turned skyward as a smart grey R66 Turbine helicopter appeared, bearing not a head of state or billionaire, but Dr Tarun Meghwal, the 23-year-old son of two Dalit schoolteachers, who had come to fetch his bride on 13 December 2021. It was a moment of arrival, actual and symbolic, that the family had been waiting for.

Just over a fortnight earlier, in Salera Khurd village, Udaipur, another Dalit wedding party nervously prepared to make the 400-metre journey from the house of the bridegroom, 28-year-old Narendra Meghwal, to the nearby Char Bhuja Temple. But even though they were accompanied by a 40-strong police escort, the family’s worst fears came true. A mob of 15 lathi-wielding Jats brutally attacked the bridegroom, who was on horseback, and his relatives. “Utaro isko ghodi se (Get him off the horse),” one of them shouted, Narendra recalled when speaking to ThePrint.

The horse, in fact, was the trigger for the attack. In feudal Rajasthan, Dalits have traditionally been proscribed from certain wedding rituals, including the bridegroom arriving on horseback. Several incidents of Dalit weddings being hijacked by irate mobs have made headlines recently, leading to the Rajasthan government issuing a circular last month to police stations about making appropriate security arrangements ahead of such events.

Ravi Prakash Meharda, Rajasthan additional director general of police (ADG), law and order, said that there had been a “rise in stone-pelting and attacks” on Dalit wedding processions where the groom arrived on horseback. “We looked at the data — 76 such cases were reported over the 10 years. Recently, the Mewar region (districts such as Udaipur, Bhilwara, Rajsamand) has become a hotspot for such atrocities. This prompted us to issue a circular to the police departments,” he said.

Yet, despite the threat of violence, many Dalits are continuing to defy caste-based strictures and are using pomp and ceremony to assert their pride.

The Meghwal family replay footage from the wedding at their home in Barmer | Photo: Jyoti Yadav/ThePrint

It was this desire that also inspired the helicopter wedding, even if the rental cost set the family back by over Rs 7 lakh. Tarun Meghwal, the bridegroom, told ThePrint why the couple’s arrival on a chopper was so important to the family. “When I got engaged, my parents expressed their desire for their bride to come in a helicopter. All our lives we have seen Dalits being attacked for using horses in wedding processions. So, we wanted to do something different. It was my parents’ wish.”

Tila Ram Meghwal, Tarun’s father, said as much: “They won’t let us sit on a horse, so we will bring a helicopter.”

Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit scholar whose book Dalit Capitalism: A Self-Respect Movement is scheduled to be published next year, said that the helicopter was a symbolic statement.

“The Meghwal family did not hire a helicopter, they hired dignity for themselves. The helicopter was a modern-day elephant,” he said, a reference to people hiring elephants in earlier times to project grandeur.

Also Read: For VicKat, Rajasthan an ultimate wedding destination. For Dalits, it’s most dangerous

Cost no bar, caste no bar

In Bijrad, the Meghwal wedding was the event of a lifetime, not just for the family but for the entire area. More than 3,000 people from 10 villages congregated in anticipation near the makeshift helipad, while newspaper photographers jostled for the best spots for a good shot; the more resourceful news outlets even sent drones to capture the event.

The groom’s parents, schoolteachers Tila Ram Meghwal and Parvati Pannu, fielded calls from MLAs and local leaders, and smiled not just for the wedding album but for front page stories that would come out the next day.

While helicopter weddings are becoming something of a small fashion in Rajasthan — for example, there was one in Alwar district last November and another the next month in Duasa — the Meghwal event was different because the family explicitly linked it with their caste identity.

The glitzy wedding represented what is a broader trend among Dalits to assert themselves through lifestyle choices, according to Chandra Bhan Prasad. When Dalits in Rajasthan’s semi-urban and rural areas flaunt smart gadgets, sport moustaches, ride horses, or wear branded clothes and shoes, they are subverting caste expectations and norms.

“Whatever was denied to Dalits — be it shoes, the freedom to keep a moustache, to ride a horse… they are doing these small acts as a kind of revolt. This is a Dalit uprising,” Prasad said.

Acts of new rebels and rattled Rajputs  

Sona Ram Meghwal, 18, turns heads as he navigates the roads of Jaisalmer — not in a car or bike, but on his sleek black horse Badal. His chosen mode of transportation is a direct act of rebellion that even his parents tried to dissuade him from.

“My father told me that I should forget about keeping a horse at home. He asked me, ‘Have you seen even a Dalit groom on a horse?’” Sona Ram said.

If anything, this spurred the teenager on even more and in late 2019 he bought a 1.5-year-old horse. “I have grown up seeing Dalits being denied wedding processions on horses. So, I rebelled against everyone,” he added.

Sona Ram with his horse Badal in Jaisalmer | Photo: Instagram/sonaram38

The horse, Badal, is four years old now and Sona Ram enjoys sharing photos and videos of the pair on Instagram. The reactions on the streets of Jaisalmer, however, are not always complimentary. Sona Ram said that he is used to casteist slurs such as “Yeh Dedh ab ghode bhi palenge (these people of the weaver caste will even keep horses now)” and “Dekho, ghode pe gadha jaa raha hai (Look, a donkey is riding on a horse).” He brushes off the insults, because he is still the man who owns a horse.

Ashok Jogal, 29, lives more than 200 km away from Sona Ram in Adrim ka Tala, a border village in Barmer, but he too is driven by a spirit of rebellion. He rides a bullet, maintains a moustache, and scrolls through social media on his new iPhone, knowing that all of these acts irk some of his dominant caste neighbours.

“People from the dominant castes burn because this lifestyle is accessible to us too. Someone mocked a friend of mine who is from my community for buying branded online clothes and trying to adopt a certain lifestyle,” Jogal, who owns a small provisions store, said.

For young Dalits, lifestyle, education, and internet visibility offer a chance to break free from the confines of old rules, spoken or unspoken.

New social initiatives are also facilitating the process of change, such as the blue-painted Meghwal Samaj Sewa Samiti Library, situated near the foothills in Chohtan block, 50 km away from Barmer city.

“This library is the next step to the awakening that Dalit youth here have achieved through the internet,” Suresh Jogesh, a Dalit activist based in Barmer, said.

However, caste divisions run deep in Rajasthan where crimes against Scheduled Castes/Tribes are not just among the highest in India but have also increasing since 2018, according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data.

Even moments of triumph, like the Meghwal wedding, often have a painful back story.

Also read: Can a Dalit wear Armani and Zara? Why most Indians would still say no

An ‘angry, helpless’ father’s personal resolve

ThePrint met the Meghwal family in the second week of January, a month after the famous chopper wedding, at their modest home in Mansuriya Colony, Barmer. Almost all the walls were filled with pictures of Dalit icon Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar and the bookshelves were stocked with Dalit literature and copies of the Indian Constitution.

Tarun Meghwal said that once the family had decided on the helicopter idea, they immediately started looking for a suitable service. A Google search led them to a company called Anjali Charter Services.

“They said it would cost us Rs 6.5 lakh, but the only thing we had to do was get permission from the district magistrate,” Tarun said.

The permit came through and the family was delighted, but when the letter from the nagar nigam (municipal corporation) was leaked to the media, they were immediately nervous. “We were apprehensive that some people may try to create a problem,” Tarun said.

These fears were not unfounded.

When the day of the wedding dawned, everything seemed to go to plan at first. The charter service had already sent over two technicians, the paperwork was done, and everyone was dressed in their finery. But, just as the baraat was about to start from the city, the agency called.

“They said they couldn’t send the helicopter. They denied us their service,” Tarun said.

Tila Ram’s eyes filled with tears as he recalled that moment. “Humne socha tha ki agar helicopter nahin aaya toh hum ghar se baahar nahin nikal payenge (We thought that if the helicopter didn’t come, we wouldn’t even be able to leave the house),” he said.

The Meghwal house is full of Ambedkar memorabilia | Photo: Jyoti Yadav

Tarun, however, was in no mood to give up. He frantically called several other service providers until, finally, an agency from Udaipur agreed to send a helicopter. The only catch: the fee was one lakh higher than the previous provider.

The family took the deal. “Humne socha ki ab ek lakh aur sahi (We thought, what’s one more lakh),” Tila Ram said.

Back at the village, the bride, Diya, 22, and her family could barely contain their excitement.

“No one in the village had seen a helicopter from so close. Earlier, I had seen a case where a Dalit family in my village could not use the horse they had booked because the Rajputs objected — but my in-laws brought a helicopter,” Diya, who has an MSc and is studying for junior research fellowship entrance examination, said.

In a state where Dalit grooms are often not allowed to ride even a horse, the helicopter represented a moment of transcendence. It gave the family a chance to demonstrate that they had risen high above the caste system that had oppressed them.

Tila Ram told ThePrint a heart-rending story of how Tarun was denied admission in Barmer city’s only hostel in 2003 because of his caste.

“We both were teachers [in the ancestral village] so we wanted Tarun to have a good opportunity. The hostel in-charge first enrolled him, and then asked me whether or not I was a Chaudhary. When I told him that I was a Meghwal, he simply refused to enrol my child. Imagine this is being done to the child of government teachers,” Tila Ram said.

He said he still remembers the anger and helplessness he felt that day. “I was sweating and trembling, but I decided to do something about this,” he said, counting off his successes since then.

“I not only bought land in this area, but also started this school named after my son. I sent my daughter for higher studies in New Delhi… and now, I brought a helicopter for my son’s wedding,” a proud Tila Ram said.

For the police, though, protecting Dalit grooms on the ground is still a challenge.

Also read: Violence goes viral — Dalits in Rajasthan have a new tool against atrocities, their phones

A trial for police — providing dignity 

Several attacks on Dalit grooms in Rajasthan have made headlines over the last few years. Most such incidents take place because higher castes believe Dalits are trying to rise above their station by using horses in their wedding processions.

In 2020, Bhilwara’s Smodi village simmered with tension when Arjun Regar, 22, booked a horse for his wedding. The dominant Ahirs (who fall under the Other Backward Classes or OBC category) threatened the family with dire consequences. Police protection, drawn from four thanas, ensured that the wedding went off smoothly, but after the procession had left, Ahir villagers cleaned the roads with water and gaumutra (cow urine). The Dalit family spent another month under police protection.

Dalit groom Arjun Regar on horseback, with police keeping watch | Photo: By special arrangement

A year earlier in Hadwa village, Barmer — about 5 km from where the helicopter wedding took place — 25-year-old Parsu Brijwal was dragged off his horse and beaten by seven Rajputs despite police protection. The dominant caste goons in the village had earlier failed to prevent the Dalit groom from riding to the venue on a horse.

Such attacks led the Rajasthan government to issue a circular to superintendents of police (SPs), telling them to either protect Dalit weddings or face action.

The circular directed station house officers (SHOs) to collect relevant information about such weddings and deploy a police force at venues.

SPs and other top officers in the districts were also directed to hold meetings with community representatives, village heads, and other influential people to set in place preventive measures and also take prompt action if any such attack took place.

Ravi Prakash Meharda, Rajasthan ADG (law and order) told ThePrint that even one case was too many.

“After more than 70 years of Independence, if even one such case is reported, it should really worry lawmakers and law enforcement agencies. Seventy-six cases (reported over the last decade) where Dalit families were denied dignity is a huge number,” he said. “The state police have to provide dignity to Dalit grooms.”

Source: The Print

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