Amid mass deprivation one sixth grader talks of equality
By Chandrani Ray
Published December 01, 2009
Kokunuru Sireesha is a pint size sixth grader with a king size dream.
No, it's not the usual dreams of high flying careers in business or
law or medicine; neither does she want to join the media bandwagon.
Sireesha simply wants to obliterate the road that run through her
village segregating the Dalits from the rest of the population.
Born into a Christian Dalit family in a small remote village called
Kothappallamitta in Andhra Pradesh, India, Sireesha has seen
segregation all her young life. While Dalit families live in one part
of the village and upper castes population occupy the other. And
though it's the same market or public transport that everyone uses,
the physical topography of the huts on either side of the village is a
painful reminder of the last vestiges of the Indian caste system that
leaders like B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi fought for.
A student at St. Peter's School, Sireesha say, "I know I belong to a
"scheduled caste" and I think that segregation is bad
"We should not discriminate against other people and when I grow up I
will tell people that being mean is wrong."
(The "Scheduled Caste" and the "Scheduled Tribes" are terms used by
the National Commission for Scheduled Caste in India to specify
communities with social, economic and academic backwardness.)
Sireesha's school St. Peter's is the only hope she rides on. A village
with mostly manual laborers and tenant farmers, parents often do not
have the means to send their children to school. With no formal
education prejudices run high and are passed on from one generation to
another. The school opened its doors in 2001, though not without
"A lot of upper caste families withdrew their kids, since this was a
predominantly Dalit project," says
Michael Haslett, an American University alum and a founding member of
St. Peter's School.
Haslett first arrived in India in 2000 to work for Dalit rights and
after extensive surveys and research he and a group of friends
embarked on a mission to provide these kids with what they could never
afford - a school.
"We realized that education was the only way out of this."
The school now has a seventy percent Dalit population and Sireesha is
one of them.
Sireesha's classmate Solingapuram Jalaja, a Hindu Dalit says she knows
she belongs to a "backward caste."
"When I am old enough I would tell people that both Christians and
Hindus are the same."
Motukuru Reika, a teacher at the school and a Dalit herself has
countless experiences of discrimination to choose from. Her family's
small plot of land was lost when a neighboring high-caste land owner
build a fence blocking Reika's family's access to the farm.
"My father's request for a diversion in the fence was met with a
severe physical assault."
Sireesha, Jalaja and Reika have all witnessed violence related to
segregation. While Sireesha knows from her moral science classes that
violence is wrong, Reika sees the social undertones in these
"Often the higher caste folks would carry out a systemic beating of
Dalits in one area by Dalits in another area by simply providing
alcohol to one group.
"If a higher caste person is convicted in a trial, he would pay a
Dalit some money to take his place in jail, instead."
"When my father was beaten, we tried to file a police report and we
failed because police would not file a complaint against the upper
class people," Reika points out.
Haslett, who managed to gather enough funding to provide for tuition,
stationeries and other necessities, says that he is already noticing
changes in these children.
"Students like Sireesha and Jalaja are starting to learn about
equality and that I think is most important."
"Everyone sits together in the classes and parents no longer bring up
the issue of proximity and that feels like an achievement."
The next goal is to get the school, currently operating till the
seventh grade, through to the tenth grade and then on to XIth and
XIIth (called +2 level of education in India).
Dalits have been a visible people in India and South Asia as far back
as 2000 B.C. While Gautam Buddha rejected the caste system, Ambedkar,
a Dalit himself fought for their rights. Mahatma Gandhi named them
"Harijans" means children of god. Though there are signs of affluence
in some areas, a vast majority of this community in India still dwells
in abject poverty. With years of discrimination and lack of education,
their plight is but little improved with the Indian government's
"quota" reservation system, put in places of education and employment.
In this vast gloom of deprivation Sireesha is a rareity. She and a lot
of other students just finished a fundraising campaign for the recent
floods in Andhra Pradesh.
"I will tell people to stop fighting, if I see that happening again in
my village," she ambitiously declares.
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