PUCL Bulletin, July 1999

Dalits & Human Rights : The Battles Ahead -- II
By P. Sainath

(continued from PUCL Belletin, June 1999)

Historically, in many places, dalit colonies were settled to the south of the village, on the outskirts. This is apparently based on a principle of 'Vastu' which says that Lord Yama Dwells in the south. So the elites of the Hindu social hierarchy were advised not to even sleep with their heads facing South. In Rajasthan, apparently, dalit colonies are kept on the east and south of village settlements. Why? Because they have been condemned to work in traditionally so-called "polluted" professions; scavenging, skinning of carcasses, disposal of the dead, curing of hides and so on. So in this state, they've been positioned in a direction away from the winds that blow across Rajasthan. This way, the smell of their labour may not disturb the sacred nostrils of the upper castes.

Across this country, in most of the major states, dalits are not allowed to draw water from common wells and, in some places, even from handpumps. This state is no exception. It is in fact a fine example of the rule. In some villages where a dalit woman has tried to defy this ban, she has invariably paid a terrible price for it. And apart from the price she pays, you will find people washing that handpump she has touched seven or eight times to 'purify' it. But it happens in the cities, too, though obviously in lesser degree. In Mumbai, the Shiv Sena once 'purified' the Hutatma (Martyrs) Chowk with 'Ganga Jai' to clean it after a dalit rally had been held there. The major newspapers of the city did not even condemn this in their editorials. Indeed, they didn't even know enough to point out that a huge number of the martyrs for whom that Chowk was named were in fact dalits.

Even naming a public institution or a public corporation after a dalit is very difficult in this country. Everyone knows how many years the controversy over the renaming of Marathwada after Dr. Ambedkar lasted and how much violence it generated. In Tamil Nadu, the entire south of the state was rocked by - still continuing - violence after a transport corporation was named after a dalit general who had fought the British relentlessly. Upper castes just could not tolerate it. Finally, all names of districts and corporation that were after individuals were dropped. Now, this was never a problem so long as corporations and districts were named after upper caste heroes.

In schools in many parts of this country. Dalit children are made to sit separately. They cannot drink water from the same pitcher. Often, they're not allowed to sit on the same pattis that other children sit on. I have come across several cases, where the little girls take their own sacks to school and sit on those. When the teacher asks someone to fetch him or her water, you can be surest won't be a dalit. In this state you can find examples where, when a Balmiki girl enters the room, the other children who've absorbed the prejudices of their parents, their teachers and the social order, start singing: bhangi aayee hai! Is it surprising then, that drop out rates in dalits are much higher than for other communities?

In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu there have been cases of successful dalit students being punished for their achievement by conservative elements in society. In one case, a girl who was the first in her particular community to complete her education with a first class had her face destroyed by acid, thrown not in a fit of rage during the altercation, but in cold deliberation.

In many villages, barbers refuse to cut the hair of scheduled caste people; dalit grooms are not permitted to ride a horse in the baraat. And dalits are required to stand up when members of the upper castes pass by. In an astonishingly large number of villages in this country, separate glasses continue to be used for serving dalits and non dalits in teashops. This is prevalent right here in this state. I was saddened to find it in many parts of Telangana in AP, with its radical traditions. In Rajasthan you'll find places which keep sakoras meant for dalits and glasses meant for non-Dalits. You can see this today in Nathadwara town, let alone the villages, in Rajasamund district.

One issue that was prominent between the 1920s and 50s but which is rarely talked about today is temple entry. Again, across a surprisingly large part of India, dalits are still banned entry into temples. Indeed, this practice has been one of the issues in some of the conversion controversies that erupt from time to time. Still, we prefer to keep silent about this. In several villages here in Rajasthan, as a dalit, you'd be taking a huge risk to even think of entering the village temple. I don't mean remote villages. Try doing it in Viraatnagar in Jaipur district, you'll know.

A huge section of bonded labourers in this country are dalits. It follows that they are amongst the most debt affected people in India, along with adivasis. Dalit women and children pay a huge price for this. It is these children who labour from a very early age, "paying off" a debt that will never end because it is so patently fraudulent in the first place. There are girls forced into the sex trade in Kamatipura in Mumbai because their grandparents took a loan of Rs.10 or 12 decades ago in some distant village in the countryside of Kalahandi, Orissa.

No other groups are so systematically criminalised by the police as dalits and advasis are. The ruling classes have simply found this the best way of dealing with these sections - to criminalise them. Almost any single action of a dalit or adivasi can lead to their being charged with some crime. Their own legal access is the worst for any sections in this country. This is Rajasthan, where the High Court has a statue of Manu 'The Law Giver' in its compound, while the statue of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar languishes at the street corner as if its been out there to conduct the traffic.

In East UP, say, in Gazipur, when the officer heading Ghazipur jail needs to clean his establishment, he simply sends out a jeep load of police. They arrest the first 10 Musharas they can find and charge them with "planning a dacoity". These people are then thrown into the jail to clean up the human waste, the rubbish, mop up the place; then they're allowed to go. It happened after the jail bharo of one of the political parties. The jail held eight times its capacity for three days and was therefore filthy.

So after this, the jeep went out and arrested several Musharas and the jail was cleaned up. We're not talking about twenty years ago but about as late as 1996-97. The police stations there practise begar. At Janmashtami time, the Musahars have to do menial work for days on end to keep the station happy. Framing them in various false cases is one way of ensuring this relationship continues. After learning how this works, I couldn't help wondering: what will happen if we actually adopt the election commission's dream: bar all those with criminal records from contesting elections? You could end up preventing countless numbers of innocent people from participating in the democratic process.

In urban areas, you'll find discrimination in posting, portfolios and housing even in public sector companies, in banks, in universities, in a medical college in the national capital, a battle is still raging. SC students have been subjected to torture, violence and humiliation. They've all along been hurdled up onto two floors and no non SC student is ever allotted a room there. This is common in some other cities, too.

In banks rural and urban for instance, you'll find that dalits usually the bad postings. You'll rarely find them in charge of loans and advances in banks in the countryside. In Tamil Nadu, one of the biggest unions in the country, the BHEL union, split on caste lines in 1996. The dalits from all unions complained of discrimination. It was found that barring one national union, none of the eleven unions on campus had a dalit office bearer. That there was clear discrimination in housing allotment. In Rajasthan, there are 70,000 posts in government lying vacant. You can guess who are the main sufferers. There's been only 7 per cent fulfillment of a 28 per cent quota. There are 450 PHCs in areas that have more than 20 per cent SC population in Rajasthan. Almost 80 per cent of nursing posts in these are lying vacant. Also, nearly 30 per cent of medical officers posts. Remember that disease, death and infant mortality rates are much higher in these sections. Malnutrition is also much worse among these sections, compared to others.

Atrocities against dalits have been rising. Between 1981 and 91, crimes against scheduled castes went up by 23.24 per cent. Dalit Women, hemmed in by factors on caste, class and gender, have probably borne the worst of it. Rape, murder arson and grievous hurt are very common - yet even the figures that shown them to be so are very poor. There is a huge amount of under reporting. Rajasthan must be one of the worst states in this regard. Sexual abuse and tyranny against dalit women is widespread. I won't tell you what you already know about the devdasi and jogin systems.

While the legal system works against them the most, their access to it is the least. Under representation in the legal fraternity is very marked. Of some 1200 advocates in the high court in this city, some eight or nine are dalits. Among judges, the figure is nil. The maze of the legal system is extremely hard for dalits and adivasis to negotiate. The expenses, too high. Look at the major atrocities in this state in the early 1990s and you'll find that in many cases, charges are yet to be framed, years after the incidents.

(Continued in PUCL Belletin, August 1999)

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