Swachchakar Dignity

A blog to give you first hand reports on the conditions of Swachchkar community, their issues and concerns. A campaign for complete abolition of scavenging practices and brigning forth the growing voices of change with in the community.

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Learning through working. Working at the grassroots made me realise the big difference between those who claim to represent communities as well as the communities themselves. Common man is crushed between the ambitions of various individuals to lead and dominate. The dominant and high numbered communities will always dominate our discourse and the most marginalised are losing in this entire discourse. That is the reason why Mushahar remain at the marginalised and the issue of manual scavenging still not on our top agenda and to eliminate that the community has to decide its own organisations..

I am devoted to freedom of ideas and expression. I personally feel that we in the subcontinent want to dominate and control our discourse and each one of is a ultra nationalist in terms of their caste and community. Nationalism is not just national and political but it is equally in term of religion and caste. I feel each kind of nationalism is a dominant discourse which deny the dissenter a right to speak.

At the end, we all want to listen the truth suitable to us.. we have become expertised in the art of speaking truth of convenience. As long as that remain hall mark of our society and we speak to already converts, this society will remain stagnant, it will always try to control our ideas and choices. We need to oppose any such perception, ideas that want to control our mind and victimise us.

To understand India further, I feel, it is good to do foot walk, ( Padyatras) to various parts of the country. I have so far done it thrice covering nearly 1500-2000 kilometers. It is always interesting to see how people are coping their issues and what is the reason of their exploitation.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Initiative for Change in Uttar-Pradesh

Fatehpur's Balmikis fight for Life with dignity and honor
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Chanda is a happy woman today as she has more confidence in her ability as a human being which was degraded due to her work which she was forced to do by the caste forces. In the Lalauli village of feudal Muslims and other Hindu castes, she was engaged in picking up the human excreta for nothing. Two chapatis were the things which they got in lieu of their work. But that Chapatis for the most degrading work actually took away the freedom, liberty and dignity of Chanda. Yet, when the people like Dheeraj Balmiki entered in the area with an aim to pursuade people leaving this occupation they had to face a lot of resistance. Primarily, the people were upset as what would they do in the absence of an 'alternative' and secondly and most importantly on the retailation from local powerful community of Muslims which would feel threatened as who 'would clean' their toilets if these people leave the work.
August 13th, 2010 , under the 'People's Alliance Against Untouchability' activist in different parts of Uttar-Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh took out rallies and protest marches against mannual scavenging and called for its total abolition and complete rehabilitation of the people engaged in this work. Chanda was in the forefront of that protest despite the known fact what would happen to her if things do not materialise. Actually, the confidence of Chanda had grown after participating in a conference against untouchability in Nagpur where she was asked to speak. For the first time, she ventured out of district headquarter of Fatehpur and stayed at Nagaloka Buddhist Center in Nagpur. She realised that life was much bigger outside her confined 'work' area and those domesticated world where she was always treated as untouchable and with utter contempt. Nobody would talk to her pleasanly and with respect but here in the conference for the first time she felt that she too was a human being and could shake hands with people and eat along with them at the same dining table. And then when she spoke to me, the fire in her started, ' Sir, I am now ready to fight. Now, I am changed completely. I will not at all do this work again even if I remain hungry. Even if the entire people kill me, I am not going to do this indignified work', she empahsied. Many months later when I met her in Fatehpur, one of the greatest victory for us was when the entire village of Lalauli was forced to leave the manual scavenging. After our memerendum to officials and continuous campaigning the government officials went to the village and souught clarification. The biggest threat was coming from those people who had these latrines but the officials threatened them with dire consequences if they do not close down their toielts. People like Chanda were already advocating for the community to come out of this mindset that their ancestors did this work hence they had to follow it. Its simply blackmailing of our community, she said.
Dalit Yuva Swabhiman Manch was leading the movement in the Balmiki community for voluntary rejection of manual scavenging from with in community. ofcourse, it was also part of the 'People's Alliance against Untouchability' and campaigning to collect about one lakh signature from the State of Uttar-Pradesh to submit it to the government to rehabilitate the women from this community who leave manual scavenging with five acres of agricultural land so that they can live theirilife with dignity. Today nearly 6 villages voluntarily left the work of manual scavenging in Fatehpur and our campaign is growing says, Dheeraj. The only thing people face is 'future' and 'alternative' and we have to think about it, he quipped.
'While we all know how government function in this country and that the community can not be dependent on government. We should campaign with government and put pressure on her but at the same point of time the community must also prepare itself to leave this dirty work at their own. What we were looking was a community initiative against manual scavenging and we feel happy that this has happened in many of the villages in Fatehpur where people have voluntarily left the manual scavenging', says Praksh Balmiki.
About 12 kilometer from Fatehpur is village Damapur which has a population of 1,500 people. In the five families of Balmikis 8 women were engaged in the manual scavenging who were cleaning the toilets at nearly 115 families of Muslims, Thakurs and Brahmins. Two of the families had 1/2 bigha agricultural land to cultivate. The women are now engaged as agricultural labour apart from work at the NREGA. Unfortunately, there is another grim reality of village life where even the basic facilities meant for them are not made available to them. None of the family have BPL cards to procure ration from the PDS shop. Most of them have got NREGA job card yet the payment made for the work done take three weeks to one month.
Ganga Deiya has four sons and three daughters. She left manual scavenging but has no pain though life is tougher for her. Her husband make bamboo work. In the absence of resources the children could not get education. Most of them feel that if the government provide them at least two acres of land then it would be able to create a sense of ownership and dignity among them. Some of them even felt that soft loans should be provided for buffelo rearing, goat rearing and pig rearing etc. However, they also felt that starting tea shop or grocerie shop in the village is not an option as none would buy product from them.
In the village Badanpur, which is about 6 kilometer from Fatehpur town nearly 9 women volutnarily left the work. These women were engaged in manual scavenging and after the intervention of Dalit Yuva Garima Manch, felt it important to leave the work. Here too they have the crisis of livelihood and most of them want to get some training whether in sewing or tailoring or Zardosi work. They are also demanding five acres of land from the state government so that they can live their lives in dignity and with honor.
It was a difficult work but not impossible to make people think that their dignity and self respect was more important than such non payable work which degrade them virtualy and make them 'slave' of the feudal caste Hindus and upper caste Muslims who too are in large number in some of these localities where manual scavenging takes place. According to Prakash Balmiki, its easier to complaint to municipality and then get an action but that is dangerous as it would only add to the woes of the community. The Manual Scavenging Abolition Act actually justify the victimisation of the victim and hence on many ocassions whenever we made a visit, we were careful not to send these informations to the authorities, the main action would be against the people engaged. In the past few months, many women who were doing and whose names appeared in the papers faced problems as their husbands who were working in the Nagar-Palikas as Safai Karmcharis were suspended. Such campaigns are not good in the people's interest says Dheeraj Balmiki. We can not be instrumental in targetting our own people even the Nagar-Palika. We have to understand why our women whose husbands or children work in the Nagar-Palika were still engaged in the work says Dheeraj. Most of the workers these days are being appointed on 'adhoc' and contract basis. They do not have any social security or leave benefit. Many time the salaries backlog is of over 6 months which kills them virtually. Moreover, the salaries are so low and if there is a leave then you do not get the amount too, that forces the females of the family to do the business. Dheeraj says that ' We need to be careful in such work. I have been using negative thing in my work to bring people to positivity, like leave this work otherwise we will complaint or such as giving example of what a great health and mind would be there with doing this 'work'. Some time you have to speak 'the exact opposite' for the people to understand otherwise they do not understand, says Dheeraj.
The battle is bigger for the Balmiki community as Malti Balmiki who has been constantly participating in the awareness programmes. From her personal life where pressure at home to now going outside for studies, she face oppression virtually daily, yet her head is high. ' It is not that only upper caste inflict untouchability on us, we are isolated in our own communities and they practice untouchability with us who claimed to be Scheduled Castes and backward communities too'. Malti devotes her time to social action too and persuing her studies too even after the marriage where she is living in a very traditional family where going out of home for work is not considered good.
It is a fact that the Balmiki community was kept out of many developmental programmes. There may be many reasons for that includng local caste politics. Most of them are not even in the developmental agenda of the organisations. When issue of land redistribution comes, organisations are conspicuously silent and Balmikis outside its perview may be becasue a majority of them living in the urban centers yet a look at the rural areas would show how difficult is the life of those who have not got a job with municipality. Actually, municipality is the 'lifeline' of the community. It has worked well but also kept them isolated from other movements of the Dalit communities and when politics comes it become easier for 'leaders' to take sides.
Majority of them are landless and live in the desperate situation. Yet, the new youngs have refused to accept the defeat. In Fatehpur people like Babulal have started their own band. Dheeraj himself did not go to do the same work while Prakash Balmiki is still persuing higher education. A number of girls are now learning computers and sewing along with other girls of different communities including Muslims. Today, at attempt has been made in Fatehpur to provide them literature of great writers and liberators such as Baba Saheb Ambedkar, Jyoti Ba Phule, Periyar and many others like them to bring awareness and change in their lives. The change is coming. Fatehpur's youngs are now not sitting idol and they are preparing a new , world of their own.
The community is now looking forward. It does not sit and wait for something happen. As I write this Dheeraj informs me about a possible blockade by the upper caste people as they have closed the main passage of the community which link to the road. Such road blockade by the caste Hindus are open and blantant violation of human rights of the Dalits. The fact is they not only block the road but filed FIR against the people opposing it. In fact UP government will have to introduce such stringent laws that where ever the Dalits and other marginalised communities are not allowed passage by the caste Hindus or Muslims or OBC people, actions must be taken against them as they are blatant violation of human rights.
In the village Vinobapuri, with the efforts of community mobilsation ( and here we have Kanjar community people), a link road is being developed and primary school also will soon be there in the locality. Ofcourse, just four kilometer from district headquarter and with in the local municiple area this does not have electricity at the moment. One can understand what could be the future of the people. As, I move a few yards from the village towards the main road, I find a locality which is called as 'Balmiki-Ambedkar Aawas Yojna' but most of the villagers say it is Duda colony. I decide to get down and want to have a look to only find to my utter dismay that there is not a single Balmiki family who have got a house here. There are a few of them who are from Chamar community but most others hail from relatively better background. Its tragic that such colonies too which are being built in the name of Balmiki-Ambedkar Awas does not have a space for people from the community. There is a dire need to stop this victimisation and isolation of communities. A large number of houses in such colonies are empty and most of those living there claims that 'powerful' people come here and 'enjoy' in the night. This has made the women feel threatned and unsafe in the entire area. Its tragic that when I leave this place, I found two old women ( mother and daughter) from Ravidasi community who wanted us to request the government provide them house. Living in pethatic conditions, now many of the families have got notices from the authorities to depoist the money which they have not. Actually, the Dalals i.e. middlemen with local political linkages take money from the people and promise them heaven. Most of the people who have got into these places felt that the government has gifted them these houses for a token amount of money but now they are realising that they are in a trap when huge bills piles up for them.
In Lalauli and Dasauli village, the local Muslims were the culprits of forcing people into the scavenging work. It was painful when I saw even young girls of 7-8 years age in manual scavenging. Now both the villages have lef manual scavenging work. Ofcourse, we have to hard think what alternative could we provide to the people as well as how can we take our children further. That is a big challenge but as Maina who came into this work at a very young age of 8 years, is now liberaated and ready to fly. Though she does not know what to do as her parents did not have time to send her to school, even at this age of 17 years, she has dreams of future. Much of our battle is 'internal' says Malti, we can fight with outsiders, we know how to tackle but who will tell our parents and in laws to allow their girls to go to school, do work, learn professional courses. ' Our community is not that weak financially, as others might be, but still they do not want us to go out. At the young age of 15, the social pressure is so much that we have to get married.
Malti has decided that she will work and work for the community. She put Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Buddha's photograph in her home despite reluctance of her in laws who worship the 'Hindu Gods'. Chanda is raring to go to fight against injustice. Dheeraj is already fighting for the community and now initiaed 'Prerna Kendra' for community girls and boys in Fatehpur along with Babu Prasad and Prakash to bring community boys and girls into the world of computers and literature of the Dalit movent. Dheeraj rightfully says that It is time for the community youth to come and join hand with other like minded people and combinely fight for their rights, dingity and freedom as well as be part of the revolution initiated by Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Remarkable Journey of Koshal Panwar

Theatre of Reservation »
Seema Duhan
Tags: caste, dalit, JNU, modern, sanskrit, university, woman | 5 comments | 869 views

My first exchange with her left me with a sense of pleasance and an attraction yet to be understood, however, it was enough to thrill me to explore the depth of her persona and not let the opportunity slip away. Subsequently, I proposed her for an interview with me. She was Dr. Kaushal Panwar, an emerging Dalit thinker and intellectual. Before I begin unveiling my understanding of her, I shall explain that though I had decided to structure the interview in formal question and answer fashion, but during the interaction I lost my track and just flowed with unfoldings and decided to give it a biographical touch while setting down. There is a deliberate attempt to not let it appear as merely a dialogue between two individuals but a textured narrative account.

What led Kaushal Panwar – a girl born in the most marginalised caste of ‘Valmiki’ among the subaltern Dalit castes of a village ‘Rajoud’, Kaithal District, Haryana, to become Dr. Kaushal Panwar – a Sanskrit Scholar? The journey in itself is a saga of uprising for liberation from bondage. Kaushal as a child was closest to her father in the family and youngest of the three siblings. She learnt the ways of being a rebel in the early age and the course is continuing. Brothers who could not leap beyond high school were never treated specially against her. Father, who was a daily wage labourer, taught her early in life not to compromise upon the consciousness of righteousness.

History is witness to numerous instances, when oppression meets rebellious character; it had been the oppression mostly that had to retreat finally. In Kaushal’s case too, history was willing to absorb one more incident. In sixth standard, yet a child, Kaushal had to opt between Home Science and Sanskrit. She never wanted to study Home Science, background for which was nurtured by the non-liking for the daily household chores. Playing, studying and roaming around with her father used to consume her everyday life. Nevertheless, she had hunch that her decision to opt for Sanskrit would be meeting such an outrageous reaction. Her desire to study Sanskrit instead of Home Science caused enough heartburn to the subject teacher Surender Shastri – a Brahmin. Initially he tried to dissuade her by passing abhorring comments like “What use do studies have for you? After some years you have to do cleaning in our houses only”, “What a corrupt time is it, even Dalits can dare to study Sanskrit?” All kinds of humiliating passive tactics when did not pay well, then one day Surender Shastri resorted to thrash her before the entire class to break her determination. He was perhaps unaware that his vengeful and biased discharge was deciding the course of life for Kaushal. It was then, that Kaushal took resolution of becoming atleast a bigger scholar of Sanskrit than him, while another fact is that she never liked Sanskrit as a subject for which she even earned her doctorate from Jawahar Lal Nehru University. In her words, “I have gone through dilemma in my life because of Sanskrit. It was a subject whose literature and text is awfully rich with brahminical idea of hierarchical and unjust society, full of discriminatory and exploitive illustrations against Shudras and Ashudras – Dalits of contemporary times. However, I had no option but to face that text on everyday basis which loathed my own identity and origin. Since, my consciousness had pledged to study that only, I had to sacrifice my favourite subject of History.”

On being quizzed about the worth of Sanskrit Literature and its contribution in the development of the language, she explained that worth and progression of any language in the contemporary times can be evaluated by the positive contribution of its literature in the progression of social-political and philosophical systems. In that context, Sanskrit literature is in catch-22 situation. While on one hand it has rich text available on medical sciences and environment, poetry, drama in its archaic literature; the other hand it is a rigid language. Literature favours exclusiveness, Vedic deliberations and fortification of belief system without reasoning. It is this inflexible nature of Sanskrit that it is not able to communicate with the advancements in other branches of learning, be it Humanities or Basic Sciences.

Being a Sanskrit academician, she knows in and out of the literature that juxtaposes with her identity of being a Dalit woman and that cauldron is producing a fierce campaigner for Dalit rights, culture and identity out of her. The bitter truth of untouchability and humiliation as by-product of her identity became apparent to her in tender age when she started noticing that the colour of school uniform for Dalit and general caste students was different. Since, it was obvious to people outside the premises of school, hence for her, colour of school uniform joined the league of many other symbols of repression. The rebellious tender soul however was restless and the rules of the society were not acceptable to her as this example overtly expressed, “Once I was very thirsty and therefore drank water from the pitcher in school, which I generally did not do. That matter was sent to the notice of class teacher who was from general caste, by my classmates. Teacher scolded me badly and warned for drinking in future. It infuriated me and I shot at the pitcher of water to crack it. In that juvenile age fissuring of the pitcher felt like a win.”

At one level is the pain of prejudice that she endured while even more concerning is that society still conditions or rather forcefully indoctrinates the individuals to become oppressors and take part in discriminatory activities either by reward or by punishment. Such a situation exposes the bigoted mask of the social system which is harbingering to become out and out modern. “An incident I remember starkly, made clear to me that my every successful and assured move would be counted as failure of my fellow living beings who ‘fortunately’ but by chance are carrying titles from general castes. My all classmates, once were punished because I learnt a lesson by heart given as a part of home assignment, while none of them could. General caste students were beaten, scolded and sarcastic comments indirectly hinting towards me were made by the teacher to make them realise that a ‘Valmiki’ girl who on first account should not be sitting in that classroom itself could do her work properly but ‘they’ who the society considers by default to be the ‘productive and meritorious’ could not.”

Listening to her anecdotes of discrimination and hardships was sending chill down my spine and she was a living spirit sitting before me, forcing me to acknowledge that there is no end to endurance of human spirit. At the same time, it was making me caustic towards entire system of repression of which I am myself a part. This system of tyranny, prejudices is so deeply ingrained and systemically constructed no matter how educated, well travelled, read, at good socio-political standing one is. From her case, I understood that oppressive actions of the system were intensifying, evolving with her evolvement as an individual as if something was at stake, which could be gathered only by downing her. After completing her schooling, she used to commute 60 kms to and fro by bus from village to Kaithal town for graduate studies. The financial situation at home was too bad to encourage her for further studies. Yet, while simultaneously working as a daily wage labourer right outside the college campus she laboriously earned her graduate degree. For pursuing Post-Graduate studies she took admission in Kurukshetra University. She had struggled hard to get to that spot and yet in her heart of hearts she knew, her exertion was going to prolong and intensify with financial-social bottlenecks. She could not afford to get herself a place in university hostel and completed her post-graduation while renting a ‘jhuggi’ in the slum which was in the backyards of boys’ hostel. Every day for two years she was subjected to derogatory remarks. To make her ends meet and continue studies she worked part-time. All father could afford in such a situation was to give his daughter the much needed moral support and value system. During those days she joined Ambedker Students Union in KUK University. From Kurukshetra University only she did her B.Ed. During that time she opted to rent out a place with other classmates on sharing basis. But it was she who had to move herself from one place to another atleast 10 times during one year, owing to preconceived notions of people about her identity. She said, “There was a general tendency among people to ask me directly or indirectly to do cleaning in their houses. Since, I never entertained all such moves, hence I paid price in the form of inviting their hostility.”

Afterwards, for her M.Phill she went to Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak where again accommodation was a riddle for her to solve. Persons at reputed positions in the department, to her dismay, upon knowing about her caste explicitly or implicitly tried to take advantage of her situation. They expected her to do the same job for them as most of the people from her caste were ascertained to do historically, in lieu of helping for accommodation crisis. Finally, she decided to stay off campus on sharing basis. How vengeful attitude is structured as a product of prejudices and frustrations of not being able to stop the progression of someone from Dalit castes is beautifully presented in her effortful life. Her dissertation topic was completely changed by the advisor just a day before final viva. A student having undergone such a process in any given normal circumstances knows the extent of anxiety at that time but there Kaushal was forced to walk on the edge of the sword that had numbing effect. Not only did she complete M.Phil, but also got admitted to JNU for doctorate.

JNU – Jawaharlal Nehru University – a dreamland for student life with its liberal ambience, culture which makes learning experience even more bountiful had a distinct truth for her in its clasp. A Brahmin classmate upon knowing her caste “Valmiki” which is at the lowest rung among the Dalit sub-castes, used it as a pretext to isolate her in the class. Kaushal who had seen enough farce in her life, still had real difficulty in ramming a bigoted facet of the university life of JNU down her throat. Proceeding further in the story, she was mentally tortured by her room-mate who was a doctorate student of Japanese language and had travelled a lot, seen the world outside while for Kaushal a routine commutation was an affair to be thoughtfully settled on every day basis. The uneasiness and hatred which was woven by room-mate around the presence of Kaushal went to the extent of usage of some witchcraft to harm her.

All instances gave a glimpse of never ending tale of despotism, one by one pointing towards intensification of chauvinism in the form of institutionalised structure. In order to safeguard this biased fortification only, ‘fortunately privileged castes’ whip up question of merit recurrently which is nothing but an attempt to maintain the exclusive purity of the institutional discrimination and consequently utilization of those structures for gross tortures. In the face of such systematic repression, where one is being socially, mentally, economically, historically lashed out regularly, how little is being done and even meagre is accomplished through affirmative action. Hah!! And then policy of reservations is also considered as some sort of charity by many so called benevolent and progressive people.

After coming to JNU, Kaushal got associated with SFI and after the completion of Ph.D, she joined Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and worked as an active member till one day when she had to resign since the allegation levied was a direct assault on her dignity. Her notion about the party which means Communist Party of India (Marxist) is both critical and favourable. She said, “Casteism is tacitly prevalent in the party, however party may deny it. Outside, in the society caste discrimination is right in your face, you can pin point the incidents what is what. Due to insinuating presence of caste discrimination in the party, it becomes difficult or rather impossible to point out. Further, sense of being discriminated has subjective appeal. What I may find as intimidating or discriminating, a progressive person in all his good intentions might not be able to comprehend. It requires right amount of sensitivity along with progressive thoughts, consistent efforts to understand the situation of a discriminated caste/ class/ gender or any other category. In that light, just see, it is easy and fashionable to deliver discourses on the rights of subalterns but empowering them down right with in the circle of your social and political existence generally takes diversion. It is here the structure of the party hierarchy crumbles in ensuring adequate representation of Women and Dalits at every level of its functioning across India. Although, it is better off among all the other political parties in India”

When I asked Dr. Kaushal, about her own take on her identity and the facets it disposes before her. She said that she identified herself as a woman from the most marginalised sub-caste of Dalits. And owing to it she felt that her every move should be directed towards the liberation of Women and Dalits from the shackles of discrimination, oppression and superstitions. Her knowledge of holy texts and scriptures of Hinduism written in Sanskrit has made it clear to her that casteism, spiritualism and superstitions are the pillars holding this faith and have created a fallacy around it.

Being Dalit is a humiliation, it was made vivid to her by the society quite early in childhood. To be born as a female, the first sign of embarrassment, remorse is generally felt within the family, which fortunately did not become part of her experience. Neither did her immediate social system consisting of Dalit households give any sickening expression. Quite strangely, however it is true that families bearing daughters were always held with regard in any congregation of Dalits. Opinion of families bearing daughters mattered more in case of civil disputes. How humiliating being a woman can be that realisation was granted to her by the feudal-patriarchal nexus existing just outside her Dalit hamlet.

Summing up her life’s learning and remembering her father with tears in her eyes, philosophically she said, “When I received my first salary being an Assistant Professor in Delhi University, which was a good sum, I could not believe myself that there were those days also of abject poverty which we as a family survived. Now, when I could buy few moments of happiness which had been eluded due to poverty, my father was not with me to share them. Sometimes, I am not able to understand if this life is an illusion or was it then.”

When interview was over, I kept seated in the couch for sometime in anaesthetic state where body doesn’t move but a chain of reactions leading to big collision was taking place inside the head. Will we be able to subvert the historical cruel order sitting with in and reflect it beyond our own personal spaces? Despite all the scientific advancements, talks of human evolution, how much are we conscious in fighting the prejudices with ourselves, in families, in the immediate social networking?

February 19th, 2011 | Category: caste, gender, self | (3 votes, average: 4.67 out of 5

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