Why A Dalit Woman Is Demanding A Cremation Ground For Dalits In Her Village

In rural Maharashtra, landless Dalit families often struggle to find space to cremate their dead. Pramila Zombade wants that to change

On October 10, 2021, Pramila Zombade lost her sister-in-law, Anita Kamble. Even as they mourned her death the family had to struggle with an agonising question – where would they cremate her? 

In Walwad, a village in Solapur’s Barshi district, where the family lives, there was a time when the five families belonging to the Scheduled Caste Matang community cremated their dead on a dried river bed. But when the Jaljeeven Mission’s canal digging process started in the village in 2017 to widen the water body, this informal cremation space became unusable. But the sarpanch did nothing to create an alternate cremation space.

The lack of a space to cremate their dead is a common worry for bereaved Dalit families of rural Maharashtra. For one, in most villages the dead are cremated on the farms and properties owned by the bereaved family. Dalits being mostly landless do not have this option. And where there are constructed cremation grounds for common use, marginalised social groups are often forbidden from using them. 

The Kambles, who are landless Dalits, had to deal with this anxiety when Anita died. Mahadev Kamble, 62, requested other villagers for space on their to cremate his daughter-in-law. The Maratha and Vanjari communities said no, alleged Zombade. Broken by this denial of dignity for the dead, she protested with her sister-in-law’s dead body in front of the Barshi city council office. She demanded a cremation ground for the Dalits of the area.

Anita Kamble’s last rites were carried out only after the then tahsildar Sunil Sherkhane agreed to her demand. Two years after the incident, the cremation ground for Dalits  has yet to be built in the village.

No action was taken on the tehsildar’s letter sent to the land and revenue department on October 10 2021, Behanbox found.

‘Can’t Live Or Die With Dignity’

“My sister-in-law died after she was bedridden for five years due to a brain haemorrhage and paralysis. She was only in her 30s so our grief was unbearable. But nobody in the village would give us space to cremate her. People said: ‘Don’t destroy our soybean crop by cremating your sister in law’s dead body in our farm’. What kind of humanity is this? As Dalit we can’t live with dignity but can’t even die with dignity?” Zombade asked.

The Kambles have worked in the home of the village sarpanch for two generations – cooking, cleaning, looking after cattle, grinding grain. This kind of bonded transgenerational servitude is taken for granted from Dalit families elsewhere too, as we said in our report from rural Punjab. It is a bond that is perpetuated by an unending cycle of debt, we found.

 “Aaji (grandmother) wore the used sarees they gave her all her life. Still they don’t give us a small space to cremate our dead bodies in their farm. And mind you, my sister-in-law was a Maratha. But nobody from the upper castes in the village came to condole, ” she added. 

From left, Pramila Zombade’s father Mahadev Kamble, Pramila and her mother Vimal Kamble who work as daily wage earners despite being in their seventies as they are a landless Dalit family/Priyanka Tupe

Anita Kamble had defied her family to marry Gokul. For this her maternal family had boycotted the wedding and declared her ‘dead’. They did not even attend her funeral. 

Behanbox met the sarpanch of the Walwad village, Subhash Jadhawar, to seek answers to these issues. “There is no such cremation issue in our village. All three communities Maratha, Vanjari and Dalits live here peacefully. All have space for cremation,” he maintained. Why then did tehsildar Sherkhane seek a separate cremation space for the Dalits, we asked. “There is no such letter sent, you have wrong information,” Jadhwar shot back.  

However, BehanBox has a copy of the letter which asks the land and revenue department to mark an allocated space for cremation ground for Dalits.

Red Tape

Behanbox also visited the city council office for answers. Said the village nayab tahsildar Subhash Pade: “We only have the right to sanction the land. Then the land and revenue department has to conduct a mapping survey. After this the BDO (block development officer) has the power to allocate a budget [for the construction of a cremation ground]. Also I am newly transferred here, so I can’t really check if the matter is pending.” 

When we visited the land and revenue department office in Barshi, the superintendent was not available. The office was initially reluctant to let us check the files of Walwad village, and then said it would take two days to furnish. It took us two days to access the letter through a source in the department. The letter was sent by Tehsildar to deputy superintendent on December 13, 2021 for the mapping which isn’t done yet.

Pramila Zomabade showed us her files full of applications and correspondence with different government authorities for several issues Dalits have been facing/Priyanka Tupe

The current deputy superintendent of the land and revenue department said his office is finally seized of the matter. “We will send a letter to the gramsevak, informing them of the fees to be paid. After the payment, we will conduct the mapping within six months. For this they need to pay Rs 3000. And if they want urgent mapping that takes a month, they need to pay Rs 12,000,” said Faiyaz Shaikh, deputy superintendent of the land and revenue office in Barshi. 

The official had no answers to how poor Dalit families could collect Rs 12,000 just for the cremation ground mapping especially when the delay lay with the department. “We can take this matter in the very urgent category if we get a recommendation letter from the collector, but fees need to be paid,” he insisted.  

‘No Priority For Dalits’

The Maharashtra Land and Revenue Code (Act) gives the collector the discretionary power to waive off the land mapping survey charges that need to be paid to the department if they find it a fit case for exemption.  

To understand how long it takes for the BDO to sanction the budget, we visited his office. We were told that the Jilha Niyojan Samiti (district planning commission) which is headed by guardian minister of the respective district has a Jansuvidha fund, which can be allocated to build the utilities like cremation grounds. And its allocation takes between a week to a month.

“This process of moving paperwork from one department to another is in general very time consuming and tedious for common people and when it comes to Dalits, it becomes more lengthy. Nobody pays attention to their issues or treats them urgently,” said Keshav Waghmare, a Dalit rights activist and researcher.

Pramila Zombade has experienced this red tape. 

‘Common Grounds Are Denied To Us’

“I visited the concerned authorities in their offices several times, but they had no concrete answers to my questions about what stage the proposal was. When my family members and others were opposing the idea of protesting before the city council with a dead body, I had to convince them that this is a fight for our rights,” Zombade said. 

Ganpat Bhise, an activist of Lal Sena, a Parbhani-based organisation, has been working on the issue of Dalit cremation grounds for 15 years now. “We did social mapping of several Maharashtra villages and found shocking details. Several villages have 12-13 cremation grounds, different ones for each community. The Mahar, Mang, Dhor, Chambhar communities, and even some Other Backward Classes (OBC) face this issue. In villages with no cremation grounds, people perform last rites on a river bed or common lands which are owned mostly by dominant caste people. But while they earlier allowed cremation on their lands their successors don’t. We have seen hundreds of cases where Dalits keep their dead bodies for two-three days for this reason,” he said.

Bhise filed an RTI in 2006 to the land and revenue department of Maharashtra. It revealed that there were no constructed cremation grounds in 17,000 villages of Maharashtra for any community. “Not much has changed today, but other dominant caste people at least own some agricultural land, so this doesn’t affect them much, where would Dalits go?” he asked.

Waghmare, a Dalit rights activist, has shared his personal experience with Behanbox. “Last year when my aunt died, we had to keep her dead body at home for 24 hours, because it was raining outside and there is no constructed graveyard in my village. The dominant caste people don’t suffer like us because they have land holdings, their farms are closer to their homes.” 

It is not just the cremation rights that are a problem, said Waghmare. Dominant castes do not even like having a Dalit antyayatra (death procession) pass through their lanes as they consider it “ashubh (inauspicious)”. “After my aunt’s death I spent Rs 15000 to build a tin shed on my village common land and set up a cremation ground. Village sarpanches can build a cremation ground from gram panchayat funds, but they are mostly dominant caste Marathas, and they don’t pay any attention to Dalits in rural Maharashtra,” he said.

Behanbox reached out to chief minister of Maharashtra Eknath Shinde who also is the state minister of social justice for answers to these issues. We will update this copy when he responds. 

Dayanand Gaikwad from the Borgaon village in Barshi block shared with us the documents of his plea to civic bodies for the construction of a cremation ground. “The land allocated for the cremation ground in our village is on vahivatichi jaga (common land) but it has been encroached by dominant caste people and they are not allowing construction work to happen and also not ready to set aside the claims. I am tired of writing letters to the concerned authorities now, nothing changes. We don’t own land, so we even have to beg for the firewood for the funeral sometimes and people don’t help. Is it not the issue of our human rights?” Gaikwad asked. 

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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