Setting Dalits free
Saturday, 28 January 2012 15:08
Time to break shackles that bind them
I was in Ludhiana, Punjab last week to meet a Dalit industrialist
Malkit Chand. Once a factory worker in a hosiery unit, Chand, who is
now a businessman, has a turnover that runs into millions. I wanted to
visit the village where he was born. Joined by another Dalit
industrialist Shammi Kapur and a camera crew, we reached Chand's
village 30 km north of Ludhiana.
Although none of Chand's family lives in the village, he has built a
large house for his relatives to live in. When the villagers came to
know that Chand was in the village, many people gathered to meet him.
They all praised Chand for the work he has done in the village. I
wanted to see the kind of house where Chand was born. I was taken to
the west side of the village where over half a dozen Dalit families
live in mud houses. We spent a lot of time talking with the people
living in them.
I requested a Dalit youth if I could see the inside of a few houses. I
was amazed to see so much poverty in a State that is usually
associated with wealth. Poorest of the poor in eastern Uttar Pradesh
live in houses better than what I saw in Chand's village. "They are
tied to their root and refuse to migrate to cities," an ex-school
teacher of the village told me.
What surprised me was the fact that people living in these houses
didn't know anybody in the industrial town. Approximately, 120 km west
of Ludhiana, in the Doab region, every third Dalit household has a
family member who has migrated to England, Canada and the US.
Punjab has a history of Dalit movements. But, the entire focus of
these movements has always been based on religion. With a demand for
including Guru Ravidass as one the gurus in Sikhism, Punjab Dalits
today are busy building a Ravidassi gurudwara. However, the Dalits
movements that have to tackle a host of issues including religion will
not be able to go far in their effort. Religion alone can't be a
ground for moving ahead. "Why don't you build schools as well," I
asked the head of one such movement. Unfortunately, I didn't get a
Why can't Dalit movements not ask the people in their community to
migrate to towns? Strangely, Punjab and Kerala are two States where
landholding amongst Dalits is the least. In Uttar Pradesh, for
instance, 42.63 per cent are cultivators. Figures for Punjab stands at
4.8 and 3.1 per cent for Kerala. With such a dismal landholding
pattern why should Dalits from these States want to stay in their
village even for a day? What are the various Dalit movements doing in
Punjab if they can't liberate people of their community from the bad
quality of life they live in?
While I was grappling with these questions and looking for some
answers, Kapur told me a story of one his workers who hails from
About a year ego, the worker returned from Bihar and showed the video
he had filmed on his mobile camera. The clip showed the nine-room room
house he has built in his village.
On our return to Ludhiana I asked Chand why there were so few turbaned
Sikhs in the area? "It is a mini Bihar within Ludhiana," he replied.
Just before I visited Punjab, I was in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I saw
the plight of Dalit children in the State. In a village 15 km south of
Azamgarh, I found that over one-third Dalit children went to
I wanted to know the reason for this. "Are the children going to
Government schools the poorest amongst Dalits," I asked the village
panchayat. "Not necessarily," he said. He told me how some the poorest
parents sent their children to private schools and people with a good
income sent their children to Government schools.
I wanted to know why parents still sent their children to Government
schools where many Class V students couldn't even write their own
names correctly. The sarpanch gave me three reasons for this.
First, the majority of parents sending their children to Government
schools were not concerned what their wards studied there. In private
schools the fee per month ranged between Rs 50 to Rs 100 and the
children had to be neatly dressed. These parents automatically paid
more attention to their children. The careless parents wanted to avoid
any extra trouble.
Second, plain and simple greed. Some parents just didn't want to spend
money and Government schools offer scholarships, free uniforms and
free books. Third, the most common — poverty.
And what are Dalit movements doing in Uttar Pradesh? Well, the focus
of the movements is on politics. They see it as the only tool for
progress. What they don't understand is that without education, there
is no power in the world which will set any citizen free.
Dalit movements need to reinvent and revive the rich legacy the Dalit
elders have left behind. As a child I have been a witness to two big
movements in my village.
First, when a group of Dalit sub-caste would come to the village to
warn the people in their community to stop the practice of skinning
animals even though only a couple of families were involved. The group
felt that it brought bad name to the entire community. Second, another
sub-group of Dalits who are known to rear pigs. The community
reformers would go from village to village and dissuade people of
their community from pig rearing because they didn't want the entire
community to be labeled as pig rearers.
It is very sad that the Dalit movements across the country have not
been able to undertake such a task. It would go a long way in freeing
the Dalits from the shackles that bind them to their village even when
there is nothing that holds them to that place.
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