PATNA India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The government in India’s northern state of Bihar has ordered an investigation after reports that a Hindu temple was cleaned and its idols washed after a visit by the state’s chief minister, who belongs to a lower caste community.
Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, a member of the Musahar community, said he had been told the shrine in Bihar’s Madhubani district was “purified” after he visited it last month.
“I have asked the local divisional commissioner and inspector general of police to probe the case and bring out the truth,” Manjhi, who is from the Janata Dal United (JDU) party, told journalists on Monday.
He said he had ordered the investigation because it was important to highlight caste biases in Indian society, adding that if the reports were true, those responsible would be punished according to the law.
Caste-based discrimination, or “untouchability”, was banned in India in 1955, but centuries-old feudal attitudes persist in many parts of the country and Dalits (low-caste people) still face prejudice in every sector from education to employment.
Manjhi became chief minister of Bihar in May after his predecessor resigned following a poor performance by the JDU in general elections.
Low-caste people make up 15 percent of Bihar’s population and Manjhi is the state’s third Dalit chief minister since India’s independence from Britain in 1947.
Leaders across political lines condemned the incident and said stern action should be taken against those responsible.
“Untouchability is a crime in the country. It cannot be allowed to take place to even ordinary citizens,” said food minister and prominent Dalit politician Ram Vilas Paswan.
“What can be more shameful (than) when a Chief Minister says the temple was cleaned after his visit?” asked Paswan, leader of the Lok Janshakti Party which is part of the ruling coalition.
Last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch said hundreds of thousands of poor low-caste Indians were being forced to clean human excrement from dry toilets and open drains, despite a ban on the discriminatory and undignified practice.
Editing by Nita Bhalla and Tim Pearce