Unequal citizens, still

Published : Apr 29, 2015 12:30 IST

A manual scavenger with her tools on her way to clean dry toilets at Nekpur village near Muradnagar town in  Uttar Pradesh.

A manual scavenger with her tools on her way to clean dry toilets at Nekpur village near Muradnagar town in Uttar Pradesh.

Despite Central laws and resistance movements, social equality remains a distant dream for Dalits. Oppression and exclusion mark their lives, be they the manual scavengers of Uttar Pradesh or the “untouchables of the untouchables” in Karnataka.

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Rasna, an agricultural village in Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh, is less than 100 kilometres from New Delhi. The predominantly Hindu village has the upper-caste Tyagi, the powerful middle-caste Jat, and Dalit communities in more or less equal number. Mahatma Gandhi visited Barnawa and Baraut, small towns approximately 15 km and 40 km respectively from Rasna, in 1945-46 to attend meetings held as part of the freedom movement. The people of Rasna are said to have attended these meetings in good numbers. Post-Independence, the socialist movement took root in the village and the surrounding areas. The legendary socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia organised a Socialist Party camp in the village, which was attended by leaders such as Raj Narain. Thus, right from pre-Independence days, Rasna and the surrounding areas were exposed to slogans of liberation and emancipation. Yet, no significant changes took place in the social lives of Rasna’s Dalit community. Dalits worked as agricultural labourers in wheat and sugarcane fields and did not own even a piece of land. They were not allowed to walk in the main streets of the village or hold baarat (marriage procession) like other communities. They were subjected to despicable social practices.

It was only in 2000 that the Dalits of Rasna made bold to hold a baarat . This writer, who first visited the village in 1989 and became acquainted with the people of different communities over a period of 11 years, was invited to witness to the “historic event” in 2000. Firing guns (obtained illegally) in the air, 100-odd Dalits accompanied the groom to the marriage venue. One of the persons in the marriage procession told this writer that the shots were fired not only in celebration but also to warn the higher castes that Dalits were also armed. “It is a statement about our social freedom, not just in terms of marriages but in all walks of life,” he said. Since then, Dalit baarat , with and without gunfire, has been common in the village.

Rasna’s transition was tumultuous and was closely linked to the political developments that were taking place across Uttar Pradesh and other north Indian States. According to reports doing the rounds in the villages, Dalit resistance started in the late 1980s and early 1990s along with the movement supporting the recommendations of the Mandal Commission under the leadership of Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who was Prime Minister in 1989-90. The resistance gathered momentum through the 1990s and 2000s as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the party of Dalit assertion in Uttar Pradesh, gained electoral and political strength by joining hands alternately with the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Thus, the BSP was part of the coalition governments formed in the State in 1993, 1995, 1997 and 2002. On the last three occasions, it got to head the government in alliance with the BJP. In 2007, the BSP resorted to social engineering and forged a Dalit-Brahmin alliance against dominant intermediary castes such as Yadavs and Jats as well as their representative political organisations such as the S.P. and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

With this upward social and economic mobility, the Dalits of Rasna moved into top gear. Along with social freedom, more and more Dalits started prospering economically as well. By 2010, close to 80 Dalit families acquired landholdings. According to a Meerut-based BSP leader, Dalit landholdings constituted both title deeds distributed by the government and individual acquisitions. “Earlier, pattas [title deeds] given by the government would be with the Dalit family, but not enforced. This prevented Dalits from occupying or making use of their land. The upper castes continued to retain their hold on the land and when Dalits sought to occupy it they were suppressed. The BSP’s stints in power changed all that,” he said. Local BJP politician Pradip Tyagi said the history of the Dalits of Rasna is indeed an example of increasing Dalit assertion in politics not only in the village but in other parts of the State.

Tyagi said the changing socio-economic landscape in terms of Dalit existence was not confined to Rasna and its adjoining areas but was true of hundreds of villages in the State. However, it is not a uniformly true story in every part of the State. As recently as February 2015, a Dalit man’s nose was cut off for the “crime” of joining a baarat organised by an upper-caste group and for eating in the feast organised as part of it. This happened at Surpati village of Jalaun district, which falls in the Bundelkhand region, considered to be the most backward in the country. Incidentally, Dalits account for almost half the population of Surpati, but their demographic strength has not ensured a high social, economic or political status. Surpati’s case is not unique. There are hundreds of such villages in Uttar Pradesh.

The story of neighbouring Bihar in terms of Dalit emancipation is similar to that of Uttar Pradesh. Successive governments headed by broadly Mandal-based leaders such as Lalu Prasad of the RJD and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) did pursue specific legislative and development schemes, including reservation at various levels of government as well as special education programmes. Nitish Kumar initiated special plans for Mahadalit communities such as Musahars, who are described as the “Dalitest of Dalits”. Still, large areas of the State dominated by the Dalit population continue to face social and economic discrimination.

Cases in point include even the village of the senior Dalit politician Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was Chief Minister between May 2014 and February 2015. In fact, Manjhi’s village, Makhar in Gaya district, got electricity only when he was in power. In this Musahar-dominated village, Dalits do not have landholdings or regular jobs. Almost every male works as a daily wage labourer and evidently has no regular income.

Clearly, Dalit socio-economic life in the two major north Indian States is associated majorly with the concept of retro-modern India elucidated by the social scientist Manuela Ciotti on the basis of her in-depth field study in an eastern Uttar Pradesh village dominated by the Dalit Chamar community. Manuela Ciotti has pointed out in Retro-Modern India (Routledge, 2010) that development reaches Dalits in fragments and the community is compelled to make the most of it. She argues that the modernity of Dalits is not just about the fight against social discrimination or about fundamental rights or eradication of untouchability but about the creation of distinction and class. This is a process that is continuing apace in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and will, in all likelihood, go on for a considerable period of time with mixed progress and stasis.

Manual scavengers of Uttar Pradesh “During hot and rainy days, the excreta I carried would trickle down my face and body. I could not think of another way to provide for my family [than lift night soil],” says Gomti Valmiki.

“I clean toilets in 20 houses every day. I use a tin plate and broom to remove the excrement. I collect the excreta in a basket. After the work, I don’t feel like eating,” says Manisha, a resident of a hamlet in Mainpuri district.

In Uttar Pradesh, manual scavengers largely belong to the Valmiki and Halalkhor castes. Vijay Sampla, the Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, told the Rajya Sabha recently that there were more than 10,000 manual scavengers in the State, which means that dry toilets have not been abolished even after the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2012, came into force in 2013.

A survey conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) between November 2013 and July 2014 in Uttar Pradesh found that at Kasela village in Etah district, 12 families manually clean toilets with the full knowledge of the village authorities. A survey conducted by Jan Sahas found that around 77 per cent of the respondents in Uttar Pradesh started manual scavenging after marriage. In Kasela, women scavengers would return to the houses they cleaned to collect leftover food as payment. They are given foodgrains as donations during harvests and old clothes at festival times, but receive no cash as wages. Munnidevi told HRW that she stopped going to houses that did not give any food. But she returned to work after her employers warned her that she would not be able to enter community land to collect firewood or graze her livestock. “I have to go. If I miss a single day, I am threatened,” she said.

Women wanting to quit scavenging are threatened with violence and economic and social boycott. In November 2012, when Gangashri, along with 12 other women of Parigama village of Mainpuri district, stopped cleaning dry toilets, men from the dominant Thakur caste came to their homes and threatened to expel them from the village and deny them grazing rights. But the unfazed women refused to return to manual scavenging. Soon, some 30 upper-caste men from Parigama confronted the community. Gangashri told HRW: “They called our men and said, ‘if you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up’. They said, ‘We will not let you live in peace’. We were afraid.”

Shanti of Nagla Khushal in Mainpuri district said: “I clean 20 houses in Sandawli every day. They give me rotis. They don’t give more than two rotis, but they do give us something. My husband works in the fields, but work in the fields does not come every day. If I do this work, at least we will have something to eat.”

If Munnidevi misses even one day of cleaning, she risks losing grain donations. “They say, ‘If you miss one day, we will not give you grain at harvest. We will not give you any grain or cloth during festival times’.”

In Uttar Pradesh, as elsewhere, manual scavengers are routinely denied access to communal water sources and public places, prevented from purchasing goods and services, excluded from community religious and cultural events, and subjected to private discrimination by upper-caste people. Though the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, prohibits obstructing access to water sources on the basis of untouchability, manual scavengers are often excluded from water sources. Sunita, who quit manual scavenging in 2002, told HRW: “While cleaning, I was not allowed to collect water from the well. I am still not allowed to collect water from the well.”

Shanti said that before the government installed drinking water taps in Nagla Khushal, there were times when she could not access water. “We had to wait until everyone collected water for our turn. Sometimes we were shooed away with sticks.” The government provided the Valimiki settlement its own water tap only about four years ago.

Women who clean dry toilets in Kasela village are not paid and do not own the land they live on. Munnidevi receives rotis in return for cleaning dry toilets in 12 houses. She told HRW: “They do not give money. Sometimes they give two rotis, sometimes just one. One house did not give me anything for two or three days. So I stopped going there. If they give me nothing, why should I go? I didn’t go for two or three days, then they came to threaten—‘If you do not come, we will not let you on our land. Where will you get food for your animals?’ Together, we own four buffaloes. I went back to clean. I had to.”

Uttar Pradesh is also the land of the “Kumbh Mela”, the large religious gathering in Allahabad, but it is no secret that thousands of people belonging to the Mehtar/Bhangi community travel to Allahabad from the adjoining districts of Chitrakoot, Fatehpur, Kausambi and Pratapgarh during the “Maha Kumbh” to clean the ghats at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. These “cleaners” do not get any assistance from the local administration but they have to pay a circle tax and register as sweepers to earn the minimum wage during the mela.

Under these circumstances, complete rehabilitation of manual scavengers may not be possible in the immediate future. Benefits of government schemes are frittered away owing to either corruption or non-implementation. A survey conducted by the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Self-respect Movement) on the implementation of the self-employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS), 2007, instituted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, found that Rs.735.60 crore was allocated for the rehabilitation of 3,42,468 individuals. The scheme was for the period between January 2007 and March 2009 but was extended to March 2010. Only 1,18,474 individuals showed interest in availing themselves of the benefits, out of whom 78,941 benefited and 39,533 could not, for various reasons. According to the Ministry, Rs.231 crore was released under the scheme between 2006-07 and 2009-10. Only 13,275 individuals benefited from the scheme.

Madhya Pradesh shows the way

Madhya Pradesh has “zero” manual scavengers. This information, provided by Vijay Sampla in the Rajya Sabha recently, has been contested by social activists who say that dry toilets still exist in districts where people are unaware of the provisions of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2012, which also provides for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. This, according to them, is because social movements or social workers have not been able to reach those regions and the local authorities have failed to convey the benefits to these people appropriately. The State governments are responsible for conducting surveys to find out the exact number of manual scavengers employed in the inhuman profession of removing human excreta. In Madhya Pradesh, that number has increased with the change in the definition of manual scavenging. Earlier, only people who cleaned dry toilets or lifted human excreta on their heads came under the ambit of manual scavengers. But people who clean manholes and contractual employees with municipal corporations also come under the purview of the new law.

The National Consultation on Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers on the role of government and United Nations agencies, public and private sectors, civil society and corporate social responsibility, organised by Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan-Jan Sahas (a social and community based organisation committed to the protection of human rights of socially excluded communities) in association with the U.N. Women, the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) and the Poorest Area Civil Society Programme (PACS) in New Delhi in September 2014, found corruption was a major reason in the State for skewing the number of manual scavengers.

“There was large-scale corruption in preparing the list for rehabilitation by the States. In Madhya Pradesh, we found that in districts where more than 165 women are involved in manual scavenging, not a single name was included in the list and in districts having 302 such women, 2,186 names were included. Our surveys found that only 10 per cent of those involved in manual scavenging were actually included in the list. This has resulted in many eligible individuals not getting the benefits and many who were ineligible benefiting from the scheme,” the consultation report said.

The national Maila Mukti Yatra (National March for Total Eradication of Manual Scavenging) under the banner of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan began in 2012 from Madhya Pradesh. More than 10,000 women and around 50,000 manual scavengers traversed 10,000 kilometres through 200 districts in 18 States with a call for the “total eradication of manual scavenging” and urging other women to give up the inhuman practice. The two-month-long journey began from Bhopal and culminated in New Delhi. The march was led by Dalit women, including Kalabia Karve, who was harassed and abused for several years for taking an oath in front of the Sajjapur gram panchayat that she would stop cleaning upper-caste neighbours’ excreta. She along with 12 other women had burnt the baskets in which they used to carry the excreta. When the sarpanch came to her house once and offered her Rs.2,000 to remove the carcass of a dog, she bravely told him: “I will give you Rs.5,000. Please send your wife to pick up the carcass.”

Attempts were made on the lives of Kalabia Karve and her family members. Despite stiff opposition, she did not break her resolve. Today people around her call her “neta” (leader).

“When people say it has been 60 years since India won freedom, I find it difficult to believe, for we are still slaves, working for others, picking up human excreta with our bare hands,” she says.

Another woman who has stood up against the inhuman practice is Lalibai. She was made to work as a scavenger after her marriage under the pretext of carrying forward the jajiri (patronage system) of the family. When she protested, with support from the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, she was harassed not only by the village residents but also by her husband and mother-in-law. Non-Dalits attempted to burn down her house and cattle. She filed a case of atrocity. Lalibai survived social boycott and became a community leader instrumental in liberating hundreds of women scavengers.

Tasleembai from Kaiyatha village in Ujjain district worked for more than five years as a scavenger. She faced double discrimination for being a scavenger and also a Dalit-Muslim. But she decided to quit the work and contested the local body elections to become a panchayat member.

“Although the new law has provisions for rehabilitation, a proven model of rehabilitation of manual scavengers is lacking to scale up the initiative at the national level. We are determined to develop a model rehabilitation programme on a pilot basis, which can be replicated and up-scaled by the government and other stakeholders. The United Nations Development Programme supported Jan Sahas’ pilot programme for the rehabilitation of 500 liberated manual scavenger families. The project primarily focussed on developing a pilot scheme for comprehensive [socio-economic and political] rehabilitation,” Ashif Sheikh of Jan Sahas said.

Shakuntalabai, Sushilabai, Harubai and Mamtabai are among 20 women of Siddikgunj village in Sehore district who have given up manual scavenging. They used to be paid around Rs.200-250 a month. These women have built a community-based organisation at the district level. When the issue of dignified livelihood opportunities arose, Sushilabai responded by proposing the option of pisciculture. She and the other women formed a small group called Anusuchit Jaati Machhua Samooh (Scheduled Caste Fisherwomen Group). They filed an application with the government office situated 24 kilometres away to obtain the lease of a pond situated in their village. The initiative faced opposition but the women stood their ground and finally obtained the lease. They started their business by breeding 1,25,000 fish in the pond. Today, they earn Rs.75,000-85,000 a month and live with dignity.

There are several such initiatives by the community, supported by social organisations locally. But for total eradication of the practice, it is important that a correct estimation of the number of people involved in scavenging is provided by the government and efforts are made to reach out to them.

Dalits among Dalits

Pavan is in 10th standard and tops his class. He wants to join the police or the army, because “no one in his community has managed to get there”. Pavan lives with his parents in Relli Veedi, a street named after the Dalit community he belongs to, on the outskirts of Bheemunipatnam in north coastal Andhra Pradesh.

Pavan’s father Srini is reclining on a chair in their government allotted two-room row house. It is noon, and he has just returned home for a break from his job as a sweeper in the Bheemunipatnam Municipality. He leaves at 5 a.m. every day and is usually back by 10 a.m., and returns to work at 2 p.m. and comes back at 5 p.m.

This is the routine municipal sweepers of Bheemunipatnam follow. Pavan’s grandmother Parvati is a sweeper and so too is his aunt, Kumari. Parvati’s salary as a permanent employee after 37 years of service is Rs.35,000. Not bad, she says, only she is “still repaying the loan” she took to treat her husband, who died of a heart attack. Parvati also provides for her son’s family as he is unemployed right now.

In the three north coastal districts of Srikakulam, Visakhapatnam, and Vizianagaram, which have a significant population of Rellis, members of the community are mainly engaged in picking rags, cleaning the tracks at railways stations, collecting garbage or working as sweepers. Some of them sell fruits on the streets of Bheemunipatnam or the nearby big city, Visakhapatnam.

The Relli community has 13 sub-groups. The 2001 Census estimated the Relli population at about 1.2 lakh. Community elders, rights activists and academics feel the estimation is not accurate. Rellis have migrated in search of jobs to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal and are constantly on the move. There is a sizable population of Rellis in Guntur and East and West Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh. Migration has, however, not meant social or economic mobility. Almost everywhere they go, Rellis end up doing menial jobs, which reinforces their low position in the caste hierarchy.

Dr Dalai Adams, 73, is a retired Chief Medical Officer at the Port Trust Hospital in Visakhapatnam. Standing ramrod straight, he gives a firm handshake. He is one of the few from his community to have had access to education, that too in the 1950s. Adams says: “Though I have come out of poverty, I still have the stigma that I belong to the Scheduled Caste. Moreover, we are Dalits among Dalits.”

“My mother was a fruit seller and my father a sweeper. I was the third child and the first to survive. My parents believed that Christ would save them from the recurring deaths of their children. My mother would take me to school on her way to the local market where she had her stall. I graduated from school and cleared the medical exam. I was one of two Scheduled Caste students who did that in 1957,” Adams said. He runs the Ambedkar Seva Sangh, a non-profit organisation located in the largest Relli neighbourhood, actually a ghetto running along four streets in the heart of Visakhapatnam.

Rellis migrated from Odisha’s southern coast to the Andhra region following a devastating cyclone some 150 years ago. The Relli language is a dialect of Odia without a script. Desperate to earn a livelihood in their new domicile, they took whatever came by. Bheemunipatnam, the country’s second oldest municipality and a fast growing town, needed civic maintenance. Rellis arrived just in time.

The Odisha government has categorised Rellis as a Scheduled Tribe, thereby ensuring benefits for the community under the Tribal Sub Plan of the Central government. Adams said Rellis of Andhra Pradesh should also be treated as S.Ts. Rellis are the third largest S.C. community after Madigas and Malas (who together constitute 15 per cent of the population) in Andhra Pradesh, where S.Cs constitute 16.2 per cent of the total population. There is constant friction between the communities as government welfare policies become political battlefields.

The State government recognised Rellis as a most backward, or category “A” community under a controversial four-tier grouping in 1997 when N. Chandrababu Naidu was Chief Minister, giving it 1 per cent reservation within the 15 per cent quota allotted for the S.Cs (7 per cent for Madigas, 6 per cent for Malas and 1 per cent for Adi Andhras).

The Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Caste (Rationalisation and Reservation) Act, 2000, was passed amidst protests by Malas who questioned the constitutionality of the categorisation, saying that the Assembly did not have the powers to legislate on the issue. The larger political issue was that 58 of the 59 S.C. communities of Andhra Pradesh accused Malas of cornering a substantial portion of the benefits. Malas challenged the Act in the Supreme Court. Citing Articles 341 and 342 of the Constitution which empower the President alone to take decisions on matters of classifications of S.Cs and S.Ts, the Supreme Court struck down the Act in 2005, much to the dismay of the other castes. Adams said the Act had benefited Rellis. ”When it was in force, 40 members of our community became doctors in one year!”

Adi Murthy lives in a modest home in the ghetto atop a hill that has a spectacular view of Visakhapatnam’s bay. He is delighted that a reporter is interested in the community. Murthy is educated and is a “sanitary public health worker” in the corporation. When asked about his views on B.R. Ambedkar’s legacy, he says, “He fought for us. He lifted us. He showed us the way. I don’t know what the Constitution says, but we were told this by our grandfather.”

On the edge of the margin

IN the socially stratified setting of most of rural India, Dalit settlements are usually found on the fringes of towns and villages. Chikkanayakanahalli, a taluk headquarters town having a population of around 20,000 in Tumkur district in southern Karnataka, is no different. The town, located some 130 kilometres from Bangalore and situated off National Highway 4, has residential segregation on the basis of caste. While the houses of Kurubas, Lingayats and other dominant castes are found in the main residential area, the houses of Madigas, the numerically strong Dalit community of the region, can be found on the other end of the town, on the outskirts. A cluster of Dalit houses usually signifies the end of a town or village in much of rural India. In Chikkanayaakaanahalli, a couple of kilometres away from the last Madiga house is a clearly marked graveyard meant for members of the lower castes.

A graveyard is usually located outside a settlement because of the ritual impurity associated with it. But in this town, a hodgepodge of kaccha (crude) houses and some thatched hovels are located opposite the graveyard. Nineteen families of Dakkaligas, the most socially backward nomadic Dalit community, live here. At the entrance to the settlement, there is a large name board with the word “Gandhinagar” on it.

D. Shantaraj, a short and stocky man with a bright smile, is getting ready to leave for work. He sells hairpins, scrunchies, plastic toys, and other cheap knick-knacks that will find buyers in small towns and villages. Shantaraj, who has studied up to third standard and just about manages to read and write Kannada, is one of the literate adults of the community. “Dakkaligas mostly do street vending for a living although some work as coolies,” he said.

C.H. Dwarkanath, former Chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, described Dakkaligas as “untouchables among untouchables”. They are numerically insignificant: informal surveys by researchers and activists have estimated that there are only around 400 Dakkaliga households in the State.

Most of the Scheduled Caste communities in Karnataka belong to the two numerically large groups, Holeyas (right hand) and Madigas (left hand). Sociologists and close observers of social backwardness agree that Madigas are relatively more socially deprived than Holeyas. There are a number of minor Dalit castes, including many nomadic communities.

The backwardness of Dakkaligas is attested to by the fact that historically members of the community did menial jobs and begged for food and money from Madigas. Their place in the caste hierarchy of the region is so peripheral that they are not allowed to beg from anyone except Madigas. For such an extremely backward and numerically insignificant community, Dakkaligas have a well-entrenched notion of the origin of the universe and their place in it. They consider themselves to be the “adopted children” of Madigas, although Madigas consider them untouchables. Dakkaligas consider it their right to beg from Madigas.

Dodda Yellamma, an elderly Dakkaliga woman, demonstrated how they used to go begging in Madiga villages until a few years ago. She stood up, and shouted shrilly: “Your adopted children are here, give us some food.”

Dakkaligas are not allowed to enter the houses of Madigas. The food would be left outside for Dakkaligas to pick up. Yellamma still begs from around 50 Madiga houses although she does not give out a loud shout to signify her arrival anymore. “I get two seers [about 1.8 kilograms] of ragi and Rs.10 from each house,” she said.

Dakkaligas are mostly unaware of their social and educational rights guaranteed through affirmative action. But in Chikkanayakanahalli, their situation is slightly better as community members have gained some awareness in the past few years. Dr C.S. Raghupathy, a veterinarian and social activist, and Dwarkanath organised the few members of the community to agitate for their rights between 2009 and 2011 and managed to secure the small plot of land opposite the graveyard where they now live. Asked why Dakkaligas continue to live in huts and do not construct kaccha houses for themselves, Shantaraj said, “Possessing land, even if it is a tiny parcel, is a new phenomenon for us and some of us are satisfied with anything to call our own space.”

Dakkaligas voted for the first time in 2009. There are only two or three graduates from the community across the State.

Microscopic communities of Dakkaligas live all over Karnataka on the margins of Madiga settlements, since vestiges of that historical relationship with their “patrons” still remain. Like many nomadic communities in Karnataka, they speak a dialect of Telugu and only marry within their community. Whenever there is a marriage in a Dakkaliga household, members of the community from all over the State congregate for the celebrations.

Some of the younger members of the community Frontline met spoke of continued discrimination. One young man said: “When we go out to sell our wares, we ensure that we visit villages that are far from here so that people don’t recognise us. People living in villages close to our settlement will recognise us and refuse to let us into the village.” Some of them said they would pretend to belong to slightly better off nomadic communities such as Dumbidasa, Koracha or Handi Jogi in order to escape discrimination in the villages they visit.

Raghupathy, who has been working among the Dakkaligas of Chikkanayakanahalli for several years, says the community is one of the most neglected among Dalits. He said: “A special financial assistance package needs to be provided for them. I request H. Anjaneya [Minister for Social Welfare of Karnataka] to spend a night among Dakkaligas so that he can understand the backwardness of the community.” The Minister has been visiting and spending time in tribal villages.

At the mercy of land owners

Haryana not only has a significant population of Dalits, but it is also a State where conflicts between Dalits and non-Dalits, mainly the dominant land-owing castes, have been on the rise. While some assertion by and upward economic mobility among Dalit groups have been a feature in recent years, the condition of the majority of the 20 per cent Dalit population in the State continues to be pathetic.

Dalits are mainly employed as agricultural labour. If the period after Independence signified a gradual breakdown of the old feudal and patronage system of jajmani relations, where despite the deeply iniquitous and exploitative nature of economic and social relations the jajman, or landlord, was responsible in a feudal sense for the landless agricultural labour employed by him, the neoliberal economic reforms only worsened the situation for Dalits and other landless groups. With increasing mechanisation of agriculture and fragmentation of land, traditional feudal relations underwent a change. If there has been anything in recent times that affected the availability of work for the Dalit agricultural worker, it is the combine harvester.

“Things have taken a turn for the worse in some senses,” Ram Avtar, general secretary of the All India Agricultural Workers’ Union, told Frontline . A Dalit himself and a graduate, he said less than 3 per cent of the members of his community had college education. The literacy rate for Dalit men of Haryana is slightly higher than that of Dalit women but nowhere near the national or even State average. He said the tradition of keeping Dalits marginalised and oppressed continued. Social and economic boycotts are new features of the oppression. The latest trend is to pit various Dalit sub castes against one another.

While Dalits themselves were not getting enough agricultural work, he said small farmers and artisans were also competing for the same because of the conditions in general. “The maximum work available in one agricultural season is 10 to 15 days,” he said. The minimum wage for agricultural work has not been revised and is much less than the rate prevailing in the labour market.

For a State having a high per capita income, untouchability and other forms of social discrimination continue to be prevalent in Haryana. Not allowing Dalits access to public wells and preventing Dalit bridegrooms from mounting the horse as part of the baarat , or wedding procession, are common. A few years ago, a man’s hand was chopped off as he dared to drink water from the vessel that belonged to an upper-caste landlord in Daulatpur village in Hisar district. “If a Dalit boy were to elope with or marry a non-Dalit girl, the result would be certain death. However, the reverse is acceptable, an upper-caste boy having a relationship with a Dalit girl,” he said. He said that Dalits were not even allowed to speak of the forms of discrimination against them in open forums such as panchayat meetings. “The environment to articulate these grievances is not there. If they ask for the payment of their wages for the work done, they are abused and shooed away,” he explained, saying it was high time Central legislation for agricultural workers and their conditions was enacted.

He said while the previous government had declared the allotment of some plots of land for Dalit homes, the implementation of the same was only on paper. “If the land is allotted, then the registration is not done. If the registration is done, then obstacles to possession are created,” he said. The All India Agricultural Workers’ Union had helped some Dalits take possession of the plots allotted to them in 20-odd villages. But the economic situation of Dalits changed from bad to worse because of the changing nature of agricultural operations. Many of them, who were engaged in livestock rearing, had no land left to graze their livestock. Much of the common grazing lands had been forcibly acquired by the land owners, leaving Dalits at the mercy of the dominant communities. “Some of the landed [gentry] keep Dalit families almost captive, giving them some place to stay in the fields. In lieu of that, they get the labour of the entire family for free. The women and children rear and clean the livestock and do other menial jobs while the men and women work in the fields of the landowner. They have nowhere to go,” he said. The women are subjected to sexual exploitation as well.

Nearly 60 per cent of the Dalit population is concentrated in 1,143 of the 6,000-odd villages in the State. “Despite their presence almost all over the State, the situation is pathetic,” he said. The S.C.&S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was seldom invoked and when invoked, it was never implemented. Interestingly, organisations involved in the “ghar waapsi” programmes, rather than raise the economic issues of Dalits, targeted them for purely sectarian reasons in order to “return them to the fold of Hinduism”. The name of B.R. Ambedkar is being used by Dalit organisations to create their own constituencies, which has the effect of increasing caste polarisation.

Dalits share their economic conditions with other communities among the Backward Classes such as Lohars, Khatis, Kumhars and Nais. Like Dalits, these artisan caste groups are also engaged in agricultural work. The slow dismantling of the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has been a great source of financial support for these sections, has worsened the situation for those dependent on land for livelihood. “Even for the implementation of the MGNREGA wages, we have had to wage struggles. Where our union has a presence, we managed to get the wages released,” Ram Avtar said, adding that there was a concerted campaign to “fail” the MGNREGA.

Inderjit Singh, former State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said a small section of the Dalits had benefited from reservation. “They are a kind of neo elite striving to carve out an independent space in the socio-political arena and hence also try to mobilise people of their caste and give an illusory feeling of empowerment among the brotherhood. They are often co-opted by various mainstream parties,” he told Frontline .

There was, he said, some kind of assertion among the Dalit communities, which was in a formative stage. Ambedkar used to be mainly seen as a leader of a particular caste, but his appeal as a Dalit icon has spread among all Dalit sections and even among other democratic sections, especially as the issue of social justice is assuming more relevance in the context of reaction (by the dominant castes) against the assertion by the socially oppressed and economically deprived sections.

Act of shame

THE despicable act of a caste Hindu man urinating in the mouth and face of a Dalit youth in Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district on March 2 has demonstrated that caste discrimination remains entrenched in the State despite the lifelong campaign for an egalitarian society by the social reformer “Periyar” E.V. Ramasamy. The incident took place during a temple festival at Karuvanur village in Veerachikuppam panchayat.

M. Aravindan, who was working in a welding unit in Bangalore, came to his village for passport verification since he had got a job offer from Singapore. Aravindan and his friend R. Dinesh of the nearby Chinnakanakampatti village, both belonging to the Kuravan Scheduled Caste community, were watching a street play at a local temple festival when they were accosted and abused by a few caste Hindu men. When Dinesh stood up to them, they started beating him. Aravindan was attacked when he tried to intervene. A few other young men soon joined the gang. Armed with wooden logs, the gang divided into two and dragged the two Dalit youths to different locations near the village public toilet.

Aravindan said that on being beaten badly, he swooned. When he regained consciousness he asked for water to drink, but one of the assailants allegedly urinated in his mouth and face and left him behind the public toilet, bleeding profusely. Meanwhile, Dinesh managed to escape and alert others in the village, who rushed to Aravindan’s rescue. Both were admitted to the taluk hospital at Uthankarai. On March 3, a police head constable from the Kallavi police station visited Aravindan at the hospital and obtained his statement on the incident. Later, Aravindan was shifted to Dharmapuri District Medical College Hospital. “When I returned on March 12 to the village after treatment, I found my house ransacked and valuables missing. I also realised that the police had neither included the act of urination in their FIR [first information report] nor invoked the provisions of the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities Act) 1989,” he said.

He and his widowed mother approached the district unit of the Tamil Nadu Kuravan Palankudi Makkal Sangam (TNKPMS) and the local unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Pressure from these outfits forced the police to file a fresh FIR on March 13, recording offences punishable under Sections 147, 148, 294 (b), 355, 324 of the Indian Penal Code read with 3 (1) (x) S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989. When the activists demanded the invoking of Section of 3 (1) (1) of the S.C./S.T. Act, which makes punishable the act of forcing a Dalit or a tribal person to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance, the police, curiously enough, invoked Section 3 (2) (V a) of the S.C./S.T. (Amendment) Ordinance, 2014. “The police did not realise that the amendments introduced by the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government to the Atrocities Act had lapsed,” said an activist from the district unit of a Kurava forum, which has been helping the victims in this case.

When contacted, the Krishnagiri police claimed that Aravindan had made no mention of the urination when the first FIR was filed. “Later he claimed that he was subjected to this abuse. Hence we summoned him to the police station and made him to re-narrate the whole incident. On the basis of his submissions, we have filed a revised FIR. A team of Dalit police officers are conducting an inquiry into the incident,” said a senior police officer. Six youngsters, including three juveniles, were arrested on March 21 in connection with the incident.

But the case soon took a nasty turn. Three weeks after the incident, the police accepted from a few people in the village a counter complaint against Aravindan, accusing him of eve-teasing during the temple festival. Karuvanur and the surrounding hamlets have 70 Kurava families. According to M. Jegannathan, president of the TNKPMS, Kurava youngsters have been denied opportunities to pursue higher education because they do not have S.T. status. He also alleges that the police still tend to see Kuravas, once included in the scope of the colonial Criminal Tribes Act, as belonging to “criminal tribes”.

Other atrocities

On September 7, 2002, Sangan, an agricultural labourer from Goundampatti in Nilakottai taluk in Dindigul district, was dragged out by some caste Hindus from a local tea shop to a nearby bush, where they urinated in his mouth before assaulting him.

In another incident the same year, six caste Hindus force-fed two Dalits with human excreta at Thinniyam village near Lalgudi in Tiruchi district over the allotment of group houses under the Adi Dravida Welfare Housing Scheme in the village. Several Dalits, detained in Tirukkadaiyur and Thirukkalur police stations in Nagapattinam district in 2003 on the charge of causing nuisance to the public, were roughed up by the police and forced to drink urine during the investigation. There have been no convictions in almost 90 per cent of the cases registered against such repulsive crimes. Activists say that delays and an unwillingness to act by the law-enforcers have characterised investigation into cases of atrocities against Dalits.

“Under pressure, they reluctantly register cases. Investigating officers’ caste biases and ignorance of the provisions of the Atrocities Act are the major reasons for such delays and reluctance,” says Henri Tiphagne of the Madurai-based People’s Watch, the human rights organisation that intervened in Sangan’s case. Tiphagne, who is the national working secretary of Human Rights Defenders Alert India, points out that “the irony is that even the judiciary has never questioned these delays during the hearings of such cases”.

The ‘other’ Dalit

While Dalits suffer social discrimination, Puthirai Vannans, a Dalit subsect in the State, face discrimination from Dalits. Puthirai Vannans, who wash the clothes of Dalits, are numerically insignificant, with a population of around 40,000 scattered across the State. J.H. Hutton, the commissioner of the 1931 Census of India, recorded in his findings that even the shadow of a Puthirai Vannan was considered polluting and hence caste Hindus allowed them to appear in public places only after nightfall.

Although the State government has listed them under the S.C. category, they have not benefited from the provisions of reservation. A separate quota within the quota, such as the one provided for Arunthathiyars, could benefit Puthirai Vannans socially and economically.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan (Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), Divya Trivedi (Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh), Kunal Shankar (Andhra Pradesh), Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed (Karnataka), T.K. Rajalakshmi (Haryana) and Ilangovan Rajasekaran (Tamil Nadu).

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