The small hill state of Himachal Pradesh is among the top ranked in the country in terms of indicators of human development. But a series of incidents over the past month run counter to its progressive image. Episodes reported from the economic capital of Solan have had a bearing on society as a whole, as they reflect the twin phenomenon of patriarchy and caste.

It all began in late September, when representatives of Valmiki families approached the local police with a complaint that someone had supplied disposable plates to a local wholesale trader with a picture of Maharishi Valmiki embossed on them. These plates had been further sold to those running small food stalls.

Protestors said the plates would ultimately land in trash bins, and this would hurt Valmikis’ sentiments. They also apprehended that all sorts of eatables both vegetarian and meat would be served on these plates, and people had reservations about this as well.

“It was one of the community members who had recovered some of these plates from a dustbin of a roadside eatery. He purchased the remaining plates from the food stall owner and deposited them with the police as evidence supporting our complaint.

“Although the matter was resolved, we were apprehensive that certain elements could have used this episode to create trouble between communities. There were protests even in Shimla with Valmiki community members submitting a memorandum to the administration in [the state’s administrative capital] Shimla as well as Solan,” a local community leader told The Citizen.

Tempers had barely cooled when there was another incident. This time sanitation workers from Valmiki families working for the local civic body alleged a local trader and his supporters had violently attacked them when they went to remove some hoardings that had been put up “illegally”.

They were removing the posters as part of their official duty, following official directions. After the attack they approached the local police as well as their senior officers in the local civic body.

When their complaints went unheard, the agitated workers brought truckloads of filth and dumped it outside the old DC Office in the nerve centre of town. They further resorted to a traffic blockade. It was with great difficulty that the local administration managed to defuse the situation.

“It is a question of justice for the youth of our community. We fear for their safety in the days to come, because there are chances of their being targeted at various levels. It needs to be understood that they were merely doing their duties,” said a community leader.

Observers say there are obvious vested interests behind such incidents, which keep the cauldron simmering near boiling point to the benefit of those pursuing a politics of polarisation to achieve their goals.

The community also feels alienated and hurt by the gangrape of a young woman from a Valmiki family in Hathras, UP, on which they carried out a massive protest.

“No other civil society organisation lent its support to our protest. Such a thing happening to any girl from any community is condemnable and society has to rise as one to deplore such happenings. But unfortunately our society sees even such inhuman, heinous episodes through the prism of caste, community and political affiliations,” said the community leader.

After these two episodes of casteist violence, there was a reported incident of misogyny, when certain men managing the affairs of the temple of the town’s main deity Shoolini Devi prevented a woman IAS officer from participating in a havan.

The officer registered her protest with them, saying it was a matter of women’s respect. Since then she has reportedly been trolled and also targeted on right-wing platforms.

Why are these cauldrons of caste and patriarchy kept simmering, and who gains from it?

According to social activist Uma Kumari of Jagori Grameen, an organisation that combats the patriarchy:

“We need to understand the existing and widening gap between the claims and ground realities. It all begins with the reality of women still being denied the role of priests in temples. We live in a society where girls cannot even discuss biological things like menstrual health even within their own families. Phenomena like culture, rituals and tradition are used to block their access to many things.

“Activists like me face a lot of problem when we go to the villages for counselling girls who are too shy and scared to come out and talk on women’s issues. It is definitely a long battle ahead.”

All this in a state ranked high on the country’s literacy index, where the 2011 Census recorded a literacy rate of 84% and female literacy of 77%.

Matters pertaining to caste in the state are explained by Kuldeep Verma of People’s Action for People in Need who has studied the matter closely:

“It is people with political or other aspirations, who have no real issues to raise and want to be in the public glare, who keep stirring such issues because divisions and polarisation helps them realise their goals.

“Whenever there is such an incident the police, state and officials come under pressure and things are directed towards investigation, settlement or justice. People eye such events as triggers for converting passions and anger into votes,” Verma told The Citizen.

He further said that casteism exists deep down in a large number of people from the capital-rich upper castes, who feel resentment over Dalits working their way up the social and economic ladder, especially when helped by counter-caste policies like reservation.

Himachal Pradesh has the second highest proportion of people from the Schedule Castes after Punjab. Studies say around 28% of Himachalis are from lowered-caste families and document various forms of atrocities that continue to be practised even today.

Incidents like the ongoing churn in Shimla and Solan rebut the amplified claims of people from society’s upper strata that casteism is a thing of the past.