Of Caste And Servitude: A Murder in Rajasthan​​

In September 2017, a folk singer was bludgeoned to death in Rajasthan. Following the murder, members from his community fled their native village. An investigation into the events surrounding his death reveals an intricate web of caste allegiances at play.

ADI PRAKASH






Every harvesting season, Mushtaq Khan and his brothers would hold their father’s hand, and take a stroll into the fields, hoping to get a handful of bajra (pearl millet). Their request to the farm owners was simple, “You’ve harvested your bajra, please give us some. We are your Manganiyars.”

34-year-old Mushtaq is a Manganiyar, a member of a caste of landless folk singers who live in Barmer and Jaisalmer, Rajasthan’s westernmost districts, where the Thar Desert stretches to meet India’s border with Pakistan. Through an ancient relic of the caste system known as Jajmani, Manganiyars are mandated to sing and perform for their upper caste patrons or Jajmans. The reward is always meagre sustenance, many times quite literally in the form of grain.

Of Caste And Servitude: A Murder in Rajasthan – A documentary
Mushtaq has broken his caste mandate. He no longer asks for food. He has scraped a living for himself as an auto-rickshaw driver in Jaisalmer for the past 7 years and now life has taken an upward turn. His new business, he tells me, is to drive tourists to various destinations scattered across the Thar. His brother Bax Khan, a businessman and social activist, loaned him the money to buy a second-hand Chevrolet Tavera and I have become his first client.

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To Ground Zero

  • Dantal is 950 kms away from the capital. (Graphic: Hitesh Singh)

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Dantal is 950 kms away from the capital. (Graphic: Hitesh Singh)
But I am no tourist. Mushtaq has agreed to take me to Dantal, a small non-descript village far from the tourism circuit. Here, a Manganiyar named Amad Khan, 52, was killed on the night of September 27, 2017, shortly after performing a music recital at the navratri jagran in the local village temple.

The first-ever mass migration by the community followed. After news broke that the Rajput Jajmans had sided with Hindu faith-healer Ramesh Suthar who along with his family members had allegedly murdered Amad, 109 Manganiyars left behind their homes, cattle and traditions and moved to a slum in Jaisalmer, 123 kilometres away. The Jajmans told newspapers that Amad died of a heart attack.

Bax Khan, Mushtaq’s brother, motivated the Manganiyars to explore a new life in the city, like he and his family had done decades earlier. Their father would warn them though, that breaking ties with the Jajmans would mean closing the option of ever returning to the village in case things did not work out for them in the city. But Bax Khan and his brothers had no interest in returning to the family predicament.

“They are humans, so are we. They are educated, we are also educated,” Mushtaq says. “If they can do what they want, why not us?”

MURDER IN THE VILLAGE

Newspaper reports make Amad Khan’s killing seem like a straightjacket incident of communal violence— a Muslim being killed at the hands of a Hindu, in turn, forcing the Muslims of the village to leave because of threats from upper-caste Hindus.

  • ​A Manganiyar house in Dantal lies vacant since the Manganiyar exodus in October 2017. (Photo: Nitin Sharma)
  • This fits into the dominant narrative. India’s largest state has been the site of several incidents of religious acrimony in 2017— Dairy farmer Pehlu Khan was killed for alleged cow smuggling and CPI (ML) worker Zafar Islam was murdered by municipal officials on a seemingly small altercation. Later, that year, Afrazul Khan, a daily-wage labourer was hacked to death and then lit on fire by a Hindu man. The perpetrator continues to release hate-videos from jail asking Hindus to unite against Jihadis. The year was brought to a close with the state hosting violent protests against the film Padmaavat by the Karni Senas.

    I crunch gravel in Dantal to try and find out if this is yet another instance of communal violence in the poll-bound state.

    "Manganiyars and Rajputs are like father and son," says Khet Singh Bhati. He is the de facto sarpanch of the village, his daughter holding the position de jure. Khet Singh's support to the family of Ramesh Suthar, the prime accused in the Amad Khan killing has proved instrumental in the Manganiyars' decision to leave the village.

    "He fainted, that is all. And there was some bleeding because of that. But there was no injury to his body. It was only that people tried to resuscitate his heart that might’ve (left some marks)," he says. "Amad Khan was a good man.”

    The men in the village have gathered to observe the passing of one of Khet Singh's relatives. A feast is organized as a part of the Hindu tradition of the ‘terahvi’ or the final day of mourning for the deceased. All of them unanimously stick to one story: Amad was called to sing at the navratri jagran in the village temple. Amad and Ramesh had an argument. Amad died. Ramesh Suthar was taken into police custody in October.

    Amad Khan's house lies vacant in Dantal. Amad was his family's patriarch and its main source of income. (Photo: Nitin Sharma)


    "Whether Amad died of a heart attack or something else only Amad and his maker know. All I know is that Amad is no longer with us. He was a good man," recounts Vikram Singh, another Rajput from the village.

    The village agrees that the music recital meant that the temple and its surroundings were bustling with people. Khet Singh puts their number around thirty and confidently says he saw Amad collapse and lie on the water tank adjoining the temple. No one talks about a murder. Everyone denies that a hate-crime took place.

    A few paces away, the houses of Dantal's Manganiyars lie locked and vacant, a ghost town in the desert. Relegated artifacts lie still as their shadows map the setting sun while clothes drift in the abandoned courtyards because of the evening wind.

    “An FIR was filed, almost a week after Amad’s death,” says Bax Khan. The Manganiyars had promptly buried him after the Rajputs promised to support them. “When the promises did not come through we agitated to exhume the body,” he adds.

    The post-mortem report and a subsequent Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) report released show that Amad had succumbed to head injuries. No heart attack is mentioned.

    A NEW LIFE

    Jaisalmer’s yellow sandstone fort rises above the city, gleaming in the morning light. Dubbed the Sonar Kella (Golden Fort) by Satyajit Ray in his eponymous 1971 book and 1974 film, the fort has become immortalized as a site of adventure and mystery in pop-culture.

    At its foot, in a sprawling slum, Dantal’s 109 Manganiyars have dared to begin a new life. But with each passing day, hopelessness seems to be cementing itself in the minds of the community. “I wake up in the morning and spend the day thinking about what I can do to earn money for my family,” says Anwar Khan, who now spends his days listening to songs on his mobile phone, staring at the blue desert sky.

  • ​The village temple where Amad Khan was performing on the night of September 27, 2017. (Photo: Nitin Sharma)
  • This morning he seems to have a hard time finding a ten-rupee note that he is sure is in the pocket of the pants he is wearing. After some desperate searching, he resigns himself to lying down again. Most Manganiyars, like Anwar, have been without work since moving to the city in early October.

    Living conditions are meagre and the community squats on the lands of Manganiyar benefactors, getting by on their charity. Local cliques and labour mafias have meant that daily wage labour, the most likely form of employment for the unskilled has been out of reach.

    “The Manganiyars had gone and met the District Collector,” explains Sarwar Khan, the lawyer who is fighting Amad’s case. “They asked him for plots of land in Jaisalmer but nothing has been done so far.”

    Amad’s brothers Chugge Khan and Bariyam Khan are disgruntled. Amad’s wife Kaiku is still mourning her husband. The entire community is grieving the loss with them as if Amad were their own family.

    If we were from a stronger caste like the Bhils or the Meghwals this would not have happened to us. We are living a life devoid of sovereignty. - Kaiku
    They claim that Ramesh Suthar was known to perform tantric rituals in the temple, which included being possessed by the temple goddess. The night of the murder, Suthar was angry because Amad had only brought his harmonium— and not a bigger ensemble. A folly, he told Amad, meant the goddess would not be pleased.

    What followed was a bone chilling murder – Amad had left the gathering after the argument, he was asked to come back, he was then killed.

    “My brother has been killed in that village,” says Bariyam Khan, Amad’s cousin, “I will never even drink the water of that place.”

    Others share his conviction. For them, the oppression leading up to the flashpoint of Amad’s killing lies unavenged.

    “I miss my husband, I miss my house. If we were from a stronger caste like the Bhils or the Meghwals, this would not have happened to us,” concludes Kaiku, Amad’s widow, as tears run down her cheeks behind the thin red veil of her saree’s dupatta.

    UNEASY TRUCE

    The small, dusty Kalakaar Bhawan in Baiya village is a one-room concrete structure built by the government to further the arts, which in the case of the village is the rich musical tradition of its Manganiyars. Today its bare walls contain the echoing voice of Anwar Khan, (unrelated to Anwar Khan of Dantal mentioned previously) the 47-year-old musical doyenne whose achievements have brought accolades and a sense of self-pride to the village. Children between five and seventeen listen in rapture as Anwar sings songs from the Manganiyars’ core repertoire: local folk numbers about the land and the many Hindu gods, playing with notes and time signatures at will.

    Ten rupees from our Jajmans mean more to us than 10 crore rupees from a performance. - Anwar Khan
    The Manganiyars are known to mould themselves into the culture of their Jajmans. Anwar, who serves a slew of Hindu Rajputs, dresses in a colourful turban, wears a moustache but no beard and declares that a copy of the Bhagwad Gita sits in his house next to his Quran.

    “The scholar-activist Komal Kothari has shown how the Mirasi/Manganiyars can be both Muslims and "Hindu" at once,” says publisher S. Anand, founder of the “anti-caste” publishing house Navayana. “They will observe Holi, Dussera and Eid. One’s caste and their ritual place in the village hierarchy become more important than religious affiliation. Often even formal conversion cannot release you from the burden of caste.”

    Anwar has agreed to meet me and show his village on two conditions: That he is not asked about the goings on in Dantal and he is not probed about his relationship with his Jajmans.

    Anwar sings from the Manganiyars’ core repertoire: local folk numbers about the land and the many Hindu gods, playing with notes and time signatures at will.
    Anwar Khan is much richer than his Jajman Kesar Singh Bhati. With seven passports, an international touring calendar and well known protégés like Bollywood singers Mame Khan and Swaroop Khan, his reputation in his village Baiya flirts with celebrity status. Even though he has a plush house in Barmer, Anwar’s village home is a small turquoise structure with two rooms, no furniture and the simple markings of AK as the only wall décor.

    When Kesar Singh or anyone from Kesar Singh’s family, including children, is in the vicinity, Anwar must stop what he is doing, approach them and greet them with folded hands and bowed head. This is called a mujra, an acknowledgement of the caste superiority of the other person and is part and parcel of life for the Manganiyar. Not stopping for a mujra might be construed as impertinence by the Jajman.

    Though everyone in the village including Kesar Singh seem to know of Anwar’s affluence, a charade is on display.

    “We gave him a ring and a camel, when he came to sing for us he was but a little boy,” says Kesar Singh imperiously. A medium-set man in his mid-sixties with a permanently quizzical expression and yellowing teeth, Kesar Singh does not have a commanding presence. His position is only made apparent by the fact that Anwar has seated himself on the ground at his feet, legs folded and eyes transfixed at the sandy ground in obeisance.

    This, as Anand explains, is a gesture followed by the ‘lowly’ artists to not outrage his semi-literate master and in turn, to avoid facing music, quite literally. “In a rural-feudal context, such as the one in which the Manganiyars or Mirasis are caught, material wealth or success can only trigger jealously, envy and hatred,” Anand says.





    Anwar nods as Kesar Singh talks. When Singh finishes, Anwar looks up and says, “Ten rupees from our Jajmans mean more to us than 10 crore rupees from a performance. If they say you have a performance in Delhi today and there is a wedding here in the village, no matter how much they pay me, even if they make me a likeness in gold I will not go (to Delhi).”

    As the sun hangs low over Baiya, Anwar brings his family to pose for a photo in front of his house. There are well over a dozen people and the process takes twenty minutes. Finally, a photo is clicked.

    The next day as I talk to Mushtaq about the events of the previous day he says, “He (Anwar) just cannot show that he is richer than the Jajmans. I know him. Anwar never cancels a program in the city for his Jajmani obligations.”

    Frames

    A documentary on the events that unfolded after the murder.

    In Photos

    Cogs In The Wheel - profiling people whose lives remain connected to the murder .

    Frames

    A performance by Anwar Khan singing songs from the Manganiyars’ core repertoire.
    SOPHIE'S CHOICE

    Many Manganiyars seem to believe that the name ‘Manganiyar’ originates from the word mang (to ask) because the Manganiyar asks his Jajman for money after each performance. A few say the name originates from the word Mangal, which means auspicious.

    “The Manganiyars’ musical tradition is because of the Jajmans. Without the Jajmans there is no musical tradition,” explains Bax Khan. “If I start saying to them (the Jajmans) that you mistreat the Manganiyars, you don’t pay them well etc., then I can climb into my car and go to Jaisalmer, but who will give them matchsticks to light a fire, who will give them bread, who will give them flour?”

    Even if the Manganiyars don’t come back, our rituals will not stop. - Khet Singh
    The Manganiyars are on the cusp of a difficult choice. They must choose between life in the musical tradition, located in the village or break away from it and relocate to the city. The oppressive Jajmani relationship is both the source of their music and the cause of their present exploitation.

    They have lived with this for centuries, demure and unorganised. Then there was the killing of Amad Khan and the talk of a new life away from Jajmani became a reality for 109 people. The road ahead does not look easy but the road back may have well been closed for good.

    “Even if the Manganiyars don’t come back, our rituals will not stop,” says Khet Singh gruffly, shortly before showing me the Manganiyars’ vacated houses in Dantal.

    Rumour has it that a community of Hindu dholis now sings and performs at ceremonies in the village, which was once the home and the whole life of its Manganiyars.

    Credits

    Story - Adi Prakash
    Video Producer - Adi Prakash
    Video Documentary Editor- Nitin Sharma
    Additional Video Production- Nitin Sharma
    Camera, Sound and Recording- Nitin Sharma & Adi Prakash
    Graphics - Nitin Sharma & Hitesh Singh
    Photos - Nitin Sharma & Adi Prakash
    Video Production Support- Tijo Thomas
    Video Voice Over - Arunoday Mukharji
    Illustrations - Mir Suhail
    Production for web - Sheikh Saaliq