An odd twosome defies caste line

Brig Gurinder Singh (retd)

I WAS in my teens and still too young to figure out how they intrigued me. Roshni was a middle-aged, outspoken and extrovert who loved her land more than anything, and Bagha Ram, on the other hand, was a quiet, introvert, hardworking man in his mid-thirties. Every evening, she went to the city and returned the next morning. They worked, rested and ate together as if nothing else mattered.

Much later did I learn that Bagha was not a Harijan (as Dalits were known then), but from a Bishnoi (upper caste) family from a nearby village. He was thrown out by his brothers with one ox as his share in the property. Nowhere to go, Bagha was offered shelter by Roshni, a temperamental, lean Harijan widow who owned six acres allotted to her family during land distribution to Harijans in the early ’60s. Her children and grandchildren were engaged in shoe making/mending work and lived in Hisar city, some 10 km away. They did not have any interest in tilling the land.

With only one ox, the stout Bagha filled in for the second ox, with Roshni holding the plough. They started cultivating the land. Bishnois and other upper-caste men chided Bagha for being a ‘servant’ to a foul-tempered low-caste woman. Bagha maintained stoic silence, but he was unforgiving to his own community for abandoning him.

Harijans, who were looking to grab Roshni’s land, questioned her alliance with a man from the upper-caste. Roshni often hurled abuses at them and often quarrelled with anyone who questioned her relationship with Bagha. Finally, one day, when asked by her sons, she boldly declared her resolve to live with Bagha for the sake of the land. Later, they purchased a pair of oxen, and their jhuggi under a kikar tree gave way to a mud-plastered house.

Almost 50 years ago, it was extraordinary for a low-caste widow to live with an upper-caste man in a Harijan-majority area. Illiterate Bagha and Roshni had the steadfastness to uphold human values despite widespread untouchability and caste and community divide in those days. Firebrand Roshni had the tenacity to not only stand up to criticism, but also question the morality of such people. By displaying willingness to mix up with Harijans and despising the upper-caste, Bhagatji, as Bagha was affectionately called by few well-meaning people, questioned the caste narrative in the 1970s.

Recently, when the Haryana Government decided to relocate Dalit victims of Mirchpur violence at Dandhoor village in Hisar, it brought back the memories of this couple. Dandhoor is less than 2 km from Bagha and Roshni’s land. They both are long gone, hopefully their spirit will guide the people of Dhandoor to accept and absorb the migrants forced out of their homes. But I do wonder why must the Dalit victims migrate? Let the errant elements and criminals be shifted out of notorious Mirchpur. Is it not time to change?

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