This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
Every February, Appasso Bandgar would submit an application to the municipal council. In 2019, when it was rejected for the 15th year in a row, he decided he’d had enough. His demand was simple: the Nagarpalika should set up a fund to give the family of deceased individuals Rs 2500, to complete the anth vidhi (last rites).
His fight towards this began in the 1990s, when Sundarabai Dhale passed away. An agricultural labourer from the Kurundvad town in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district, Sundarabai belonged to the Mahar caste, which is listed as a Scheduled Caste. Devasted, her son Govinda was afraid of the social stigma that would follow, during the rituals that must be performed when someone dies. Three decades later, he recalls, “We used to get aath aane (50 paise) for working ten hours in the fields. I couldn’t afford the expenses for the last rites.”
Upon seeing this, Appasso made a decision within seconds. He reached out to six daily wage earners, who were also his closest friends. “We contributed Rs 50 each and raised Rs 300 for the last rites,” he remembers. Rs 300 was a fairly large amount at the time, Appasso says as he puts things in perspective. “A kilo of wheat would cost 50 paise.” Within minutes, they arranged for 300 kilos of wood, ghee, and other items, including those needed for the cremation. He walked up to Govinda to tell him, “Everything has been taken care of.”
In the last three decades, Appasso has helped over a thousand families in Kurundvad to bid goodbye to their deceased family members in a dignified way. “Many people don’t have the money to take the body to the cremation ground or to pay for the ambulance. However, a person’s dignity should never be compromised,” he says. He pitched in with his own savings and started crowdfunding the funerals when he ran out of money. “For the rituals involving burials, seven metres of white cloth is required. The labour charges for digging a 7 x 4 feet grave are also high. How will a daily wage earner afford this?” he asks. Appasso doesn’t interfere with people’s personal beliefs and helps them finish the last rites as per their traditions.
“When someone passes away, their family members are already grief-striken. How can anyone ask for money during such a time?” he asks, adding that people need moral and emotional support during such moments. A daily wage earner who juggles selling dry food items and insurance, Appasso earns an average monthly income of Rs 7000. “A lot of people pay me after a few months for all the funeral expenses. I don’t accept this money.”
Doing this work has meant facing innumerable challenges, and opposition from people. “Every time I am asked about my caste and religion, I always respond by saying, I am an Indian.” However, for many with a “conservative mindset”, this is not a satisfactory answer. This is when Appasso asks them, “If you are a Dalit, Bahujan, Brahmin, Koli, Hindu, Maratha, Christian, or from any religion or caste, will the colour of your blood be different from mine?” Using this simple analogy has helped him to a certain extent.
We discuss an incident from the early ’90s when someone from the Terwadkar family, a Brahmin family, passed away. Later, they found out that the deceased was the grandmother, and there was no senior relative at home to complete her last rites. Sanjay, Appasso’s elder, 47-year-old son, recalls, “No one from the entire Brahmin community even came forward to lift the body,” because, “Terwadkar sarkar would never attend anyone’s funeral.”
When Appasso, who himself has been at the receiving end of casteism, as he belongs to the Dhangar community (listed as a nomadic tribe), saw this, he immediately called his friends. These friends, who are Dalits, Muslims, Hindus and Shikalgars, volunteered to do the last rites and spent Rs 500 collectively for the funeral.
He takes inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar and says, “People should be made to read India’s Constitution. As per the Constitution, we are all equal. Then how can someone discriminate?”
After helping several families, he decided that this issue needs to be regulated by the law. This is when he began the annual task of writing applications to the Kurundvad Municipal Council every February, before the Council’s budget was decided – demanding a discussion on the monetary compensation for last rites. When nothing worked, he called a meeting of 25 people in 2019, where they discussed what could be done next.
He suggested protesting by taking out a “different sort of rally” and reached out to Govinda Dhale for help. Govinda, who has previously been helped by Appasso, lent his unconditional support.
“Tirdi morcha kadhlo aamhi (We marched with a bier),” Appasso says with pride. To everyone’s surprise, it was Govind Dhale wrapped in a white cloth, lying on the bier. The instructions from the protestors to Govinda were simple: to keep his eyes shut the whole while.
Everyone thought they were going to the cremation ground on the Krishna Ghat. However, 50 protestors disguised as mourners marched two kilometres in the Kurundvad town. Surprised, the onlookers began inquiring about the person wrapped in the white cloth, and asked why the mourners aren’t proceeding to the cremation ground. ‘Govinda was alive five minutes ago, how did he die all of a sudden?’ was the discussion that raged on. People laughed when they found out about the reality of the situation.
Soon, several hundreds of people joined this unique protest, motivated by a shared solidarity for the cause that Appasso was fighting for. Of note is the reaction of Govinda’s son, which was also the reaction of the larger town — shock and horror, and subsequent laughter. A protest like this had never been witnessed before.
After garnering enough support, many people gathered outside the Nagarpalika, while Govinda was still lying on the bier. Soon the officials took note of the demands. At first it was decided that a law will be passed sanctioning funds only for those who possess yellow ration cards. However, Appasso opposed this, saying, “All the 6400 households of the town should get this service. If they can afford it, they will not accept the fund.” Initially, his demand was rejected, but with mounting pressure, the member body soon passed a resolution. “We demanded Rs 2500 as compensation, but they brought it down to Rs 2000,” he adds.
Now, the family of a deceased person in Kurundvad is entitled to Rs 2000, which is deposited in their bank account. For this, one of the family members has to submit identity proof, a copy of the death certificate, and fill a form.
Appasso credits his partner, Vatsala Bandgar, 60, for always being a pillar of support. “It’s only because of her that we could help so many people.” A modest Vatsala responds, “We should first help others and then think about ourselves.” She has always been a part of protests and has mobilised women farmers and labourers. “More than 400 women would join the protests each time because our fight was genuine,” she says.
The setting up of the fund has not meant that Appasso’s work is now over. “In case of delay in payments, I go to the Nagarpalika and inquire,” he says. Another hindrance is the delay on the part of hospitals. “Sometimes, the hospitals are overworked, and the management is late in giving the death declaration form.” During such times, he quickly intervenes and gets the work done at the earliest.
Appasso’s fight for an egalitarian society is five decades old. He remembers fighting for fee waivers and appealing to his school to grant more scholarships to the marginalised when he was in Class 10. After dropping out that year in school, he began voicing the concerns of agricultural labourers and farmers. “My mother (the late Akkubai) would always inspire me and support me in my fight for the poor,” he says. He has also helped over 500 senior citizens in Kurundvad to avail their old age pension. While others charge Rs 500 – Rs 1,000 for helping them with the paperwork, Appasso does not charge a fee.
The nature of his work is not easy, and he wonders if the next generation will take it forward. One of the biggest hindrances is rampant casteism. “If you look at the society, there is a huge gap between the working class and the industrialists. I want to fill that gap with my work,” he says.