DEWAR: The Caste and Its Identity
It gives me the mixture of pleasures and pains to write about my caste-DEWAR and the path it has experienced in the socio-economic spheres of Indian society and economy. Pleasure, of course, is due to an opportunity to write on my own community, and pain, because my community is placed in the disadvantaged position even today. Like other castes and communities, Dewar caste has its own history and way of life. Like other vulnerable groups and low castes, it has been the victim of social, cultural, economic and political exclusion in the reality of rural India. At the same time it has been actively struggling to preserve its identity and culture and to stake its legitimate claim on the nation’s available resources.
Dewar caste (also known as ‘Kaibarta’) is specifically referred to the fishing communities, who live near coastal areas. Dewars are located in different coastal parts of Orissa and some other parts of Tamil Nadu with different sub-castes. The present article primarily deals with the Dewars of Orissa, though it has highlighted some of the problems of Dewars in other parts of India. Fishing is the primary livelihood of these people. Besides fishing, they are often seen to get engaged in cultivation and as wage labour.
Dewar caste has its own folk cultures, which are popularly known as “Chaiti Parva” and “Chaitighoda Nacha” (Horse Dance). Though the two festivals are organized in the same month, they are quite unique in their own sphere. In this era of modern dance and pop culture, the traditional culture of this low caste community is still deeply entrenched in the rural India.
Chaiti Parva is organized in the full moon night in the month of Chaitra (the first Oriya month which falls in the month of April). This is the major festival of Kaibartas which is celebrated with much fanfare and rejoices. They get to forget their daily-sorrows and get actively engaged in enjoying the momentary pleasures. Performing “Daanga Puja” (worshiping Boats) respects the age-old culture of Dewars. This puja is considered as one of the alternatives to the brahmincal supremacy, that helps them to worship their boats by themselves and they do not require any brahmin to do that. Another significance of “Daanga Puja” is that it brings unity among Kaibartas, who unitedly perform it with their traditional classical songs.
Chaiti Ghoda Naacha is the folk dance of Kaibatas’ which is observed in the honour of their caste deity Vaseli Devi. A wooden horse, well-dressed and made up in variety of colours is taken as the idol of the Devi. There is a horse rider who is called sipahi. The Ghoda Natcha requires a Gayak, a Rout (a male dancer and singer) and a Routani (female dancer and singer) besides dholia and mahuria (a person who beats drum and plays flute respectively). Their combined effort gives a lot of pleasures and attracts a large audience. The festival brings unity among Kaibartas and makes them determined to preserve the identity of Kaibartakula (Kaibrata Community). This month-long festival ends with the Munda Kata (Immersion of the idol) which is generally held in Behera Daanda (in front of the house of the head of the community)
Interaction with Other Dalit Castes
The interconnections among Dalit castes in rural Orissa are unfortunately very poor. They are more confined to their own caste and community. They have little sense of togetherness among Dalits which often leads to the isolation of one caste from others. Each caste feels discriminated in the hands of dikus in their own ways, but at the same time they are not seen to have interaction among other like-minded discriminated castes to unitedly fight the caste oppression. There are reasons for this low level of interaction among Dalits. These are: lack of education, lack of mobilization and more importantly lack of Dalit-related Social Movements in Orissa.
About Ambedkarite Movements
Again due to the lack of education and mobilization and movements, Dewars, like other Dalit castes in Orissa are little informed about Ambedkarite movements. These people are engaged with their own struggle which is no less significant than Ambedkarite movements, but having no networks with any Dalit-Ambedkarite Movements. It is unfortunate but real that, most of these people have little knowledge on Dr. Ambedkar and his identity and contribution towards Dalit’s development.
Their Struggles and Challenges
From the very beginning Kaibartas have been engaged in the movements to claim their legitimate rights, though as it is mentioned on the above paragraph that they have little knowledge on Ambedkar and Ambedkarite Movements. It is noteworthy to mention that the dikus have till date, been attempting to subvert the identity and livelihood of Dewars by interrupting their fishing. They just want to drive out Dewars from fishing in the rivers and claim the rivers as theirs. This strong force has been a great challenge for Dewars. This is nonetheless a movement for Dewars. But fortunately they have not let their rights be taken away in any way.
Kaibarta Mahaasangha, a devoted institutional mechanism of Kaibartas, is actively engaged in the interest of Kaibartas. This has become movement for these low caste people.
But the problem is that no other Dalit sub-caste has so far come forward in the defense of the Kaibartas. It is largely, as it is mentioned else where in the article, because of the lack of interaction among Dalits in rural Orissa. They feel isolated in their long-standing movement. Nor are other Dalits seen to have shown solidarity with these people.
Besides the discrimination from the upper castes, these fishing communities have been the victims of all natural disasters, whether it was the Super Cyclone in Orissa in October 1999 or Tsunami killer in most parts of South Indian states in December 26, 2004. What is more unfortunate is the practice of discrimination in the post-disaster scenario that treats these fishing communities as a polluted people.
Not only these people are discriminated by their country men and rulers, the foreign ruler does not even spare them. These fishing communities are often arrested by foreign authorities when they cross their country’s border.
Need for An Inclusive Approach
Our aim is to remove caste discrimination and the social oppression our people have been facing. At the same time it can be argued that, this cannot be achieved unless we eliminate all discrimination of all Dalits in all areas. For this there is a greater need to make an inclusive approach which will help us include all types of sufferings of all Dalits into a single network. Any challenge posed to any Dalit caste is to be treated as a challenge to the whole Dalit community and its identity.
Of course Dewars have so far not let any forces (both external and internal) to subvert their identities and culture despite many sufferings. But the future of their struggle is likely to yield little success unless this is joined by other Dalit groups. In other words, there is a great need for making the struggle of Dewars a full-fledged Dalit movement. Not only this struggle, but any struggle of any of the Dalit community must be recognized as a Dalit movement as well so as to preserve the identity of Dalits. For this there is need for a larger consensus among Dalits. The entries of devoted groups as well as people other than the Dalits are most welcome.
Notes: The words ‘Dewar’ and ‘Kaibarta’ have been used inter changeably in this paper.
[Sudhir Kumar Behera is pursuing his Mphil in the Centre for Political Studies (CPS), JNU, Delhi]