Riding a horse is tradition for Indian grooms – except Dalits, who face caste violence. One district is fighting back

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A cousin takes a photo with Manoj Bairwa during a pre-wedding procession in Bundi, Rajasthan, India. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nina Masih

NEEM KA KHEDA, India – On a hot February afternoon, as Manoj Bairwa hoisted himself on a horse for a wedding ritual with people cheering, a creeping fear gripped his heart.

In 1990, when his uncle rode a horse similarly for his wedding – an important rite for Indian grooms – he was pulled from the horse and beaten mercilessly by men from higher castes. His headgear was snatched and clothes torn. For the next 32 years, no man from the village’s small Dalit community dared to ride a horse at his wedding.

Female relatives of Manoj Bairwa dance at a pre-wedding ritual in Bundi, Rajasthan, India. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nina Masih

“I had never even entertained such a wish,” said Bairwa, a 24-year-old laborer with a wispy mustache. “This was one of the things that we were not allowed to do.”

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In India, grooms traditionally ride a horse for pre-wedding rituals and the wedding procession. But for men like Bairwa, who belong to the Dalit community, formerly untouchables, the act can lead to violent reprisals: Dalits are routinely attacked for what upper caste groups see as acts of assertion and equality, including entering temples, sporting mustaches and riding a decorated wedding horse.

Now, local officials in Bundi, a small district in the state of Rajasthan in northwestern India, are trying to change that. Last month, they began a program to encourage members of the Dalit community to use horses for wedding processions by providing them security and educating the villagers on caste discrimination. Bairwa was one of them.

Acts of violence against lower caste groups are an “indictment of the Indian society” that shows that the dream of equality is still out of reach, said Dhrubo Jyoti, a Dalit commentator who writes about caste. “The economic and social prosperity in the country has not brought about [the] eradication of caste,” he said.

Dalits, who constitute nearly 17 percent of the country’s population, are relegated to the bottom rung of the caste system, a discriminatory system of birth in Hinduism. As a newly independent nation, India adopted a constitution in 1950 abolishing untouchability, but caste discrimination remained entrenched in society. The problem is not limited to rural areas, persisting in cities as well, studies show.

Manoj Bairwa, a Dalit groom, is shown with his family at a pre-wedding celebration in their village in Bundi, Rajasthan, India. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nina Masih

In 2020, a crime was committed against Dalits every 10 minutes, according to the country’s most recent crime statistics.

“Laws are not enough,” said Jai Yadav, the district police official in Bundi who launched the initiative. “We have to change the mind-set.”

Yadav’s team created what it calls equality committees in dozens of villages in the district, composed of members of different castes and village-level officials. He said experience showed that providing security during the wedding was not enough. The families could face harassment later. “Now, by including the community, we have made it a collective effort,” Yadav said.

Since the project launched in late January, it has helped 15 Dalit grooms ride a horse as part of their wedding celebrations. The state government has taken note of the program, and Yadav is hopeful that it will be replicated across the state.

“This is one step towards equality,” one groom declared in an interview with the Indian Express. Another man sent Yadav a photo of himself atop a horse with a crown emoji on his head and captioned it “King.”

A former village headman from an upper caste greets Manoj Bairwa at his house in Bundi, Rajasthan, India. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nina Masih

The same week Bairwa got married, the home of a Dalit groom 200 miles away in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh was pelted with stones by upper caste groups. The tent erected outside the home was destroyed, and the food prepared for guests was ruined. Six people were injured in the attack.

Rajesh Ahirwar, the groom, said he and his family members hid inside the house for half an hour during the attack. The upper-caste men had warned Ahirwar against riding a horse and hiring a DJ, but he had refused to back down.

“It’s our right. Why should we not?” Ahirwar asked. “Someone has to step forward and make a start.”

Jyoti, the Dalit commentator, said Dalits asserting themselves and claiming their rights trigger pushback from upper castes.

“It is important for upper castes to hold on to social dominance at a time when the economic and social mobility of Dalit people is threatening the caste order,” he said. The most visible aspects, Jyoti said, of this social dominance are in matters of religion, customs and marriages.

Besides abolishing untouchability, successive governments have introduced legislation to curb caste-based violence and to provide lower caste groups opportunities they were denied for centuries. Still, the national crime bureau recorded a 17.5 percent uptick in caste crimes between 2018 and 2020.

In Neem Ka Kheda, a village in India’s hinterland, signs of progress and prosperity are visible. Dirt tracks have given way to paved lanes. There is round-the-clock electricity. A large government school looms at the entrance of the village. Most homes are made of brick and mortar.

Modernity has also meant that young men now wear jeans and watch Marvel movies on YouTube. While clothes and smartphones have been easier to adapt to, beliefs have not. The lives of many Dalits are still marked by things they cannot do.

Leeladhar, Bairwa’s younger brother, and Hemant Singh have been friends for years. The two sat next to each other in school and now study at a local college. The young men have the same haircut – a neat comb-over in the front, a close crop at the back. They play cricket in the evenings with men of all castes.

But neither has ever eaten meals at the other’s home. “We aren’t supposed to do that,” said Leeladhar, 20. “He is from a higher caste.”

Manoj Bairwa, a 24-year-old Dalit man from Rajasthan broke the taboo and rode a horse for his wedding, an act that has often led to violence from upper caste groups. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Nina Masih

Inequality persists even in death. At burial grounds, separate enclosures are marked for the lower caste groups, locals said. Bairwa’s sister-in-law, Kavita, a young woman dressed in a veiled red dress for the wedding, said that many people wash the hand pump used to draw water after Dalits use it.

The village equality committee set up by the administration held four meetings to educate and create awareness on the issue among villagers before Bairwa’s wedding. One of the members, Ram Prasad, a former village headman from an upper caste, said the initiative would break the taboo associated with the act.

For the pre-wedding ritual, a small van fitted with a DJ kit blared popular hits as Bairwa’s friends and family danced with abandon. Dressed in slim-fit pants and a waistcoat, Bairwa sat on a horse fitted with a red saddlecloth and neon pompoms to mark the occasion.

For two hours, under the watch of a few plainclothes policemen, the wedding party crisscrossed the village, including passing the road where Bairwa’s uncle was beaten decades ago. Members of higher castes walked alongside to show their support.

On the way, Prasad invited Bairwa inside his home for a cup of tea as villagers watched. Bairwa also stopped at a temple that Dalits have traditionally not been allowed to enter.

At the end of the ceremony, Bairwa was relieved and thrilled at the many firsts. “It felt great!” he said. “I felt respected. What else do we ask for?”

The family plans to rent a horse again for an upcoming wedding. Next time, Bairwa said, with a wry smile, “I will dance.”

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