People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 16

April  17, 2011

Do You Know, What It Means to be a Dalit?


G Mamatha

K Varadharajan, PB member of  the CPI(M) , paying respects to Dr Ambedkar’s statue, commemorating his 121st birth anniversary on April 14, at Tiruchi in Tamilnadu.

WHERE shall I start my story from? From my birth or from my parents, their parents and their parents. Because to understand one's present, it is said that knowledge of the past is necessary. But to understand my life, I do not think one needs to go so back, to know the stories of my parents and grandparents. Anyway, to cut it short too, I will narrate only my story, from my birth.


My mother used to tell me that I was very lucky to be alive. Before me, my mother gave birth to two more children, but it seems, they chose death. I was the first one to choose life and what a life it is turning out to be! I should tell the reasons for the death of my 'brother and sister', because it explains who I am today. That is more than twenty years ago, when there were no hospitals in our village, of course even now, the hospital we have, has nothing in it – no doctors, no medicines, but only a cracking building with some rusty stools and a bed. My father neither had the money nor the means to take my mother to a hospital for delivery. It was done in my house, if by house you mean a 'roof' on your head and four 'walls', with the help of some of our mother's friends. To the best of their efforts, they were able to save my mother but not my 'brother and sister'. I was not surprised, when I read reports that some high caste health workers refuse to assist dalit women during their delivery.


So here I am, a 'lucky' child for my parents. Lucky in the sense that I am still alive and not that I had brought about any material well-being to my parents, except of course adding to their already burdened lives. I did not realise the importance of name, till my parents took me to the school in our village. They thought that I would not be facing the same problems they had to, if I studied. There, I was taken to the headmaster's room, who looked at my parents with a scorn and it seems asked them, if I had been named. After being told my name, he added a surname – that of my sub-caste. Neither myself nor my parents were aware of this, until my board exams, because the headmaster gave it all by himself.


My first day to school, I do not know how I had felt but I very well remember the happiness in my parents faces. I was washed thoroughly, given a head-bath, oil applied to my hair and had worn my best pair of clothes. With a slate in my hand I was taken to the school. Into the classroom, I entered alone and afraid. I sat in the first bench, not that I was keen to learn sitting close to the teacher and the blackboard, but the doors of the room were there. I wanted to run fast to my house, so I decided to sit there. But the teacher immediately shouted at me and showed my place – at the back of the room. At that time, I did not understand anything except that 'we' should sit only in the back benches. But slowly I realised the reason.


In fifth class, I think, no I am sure it is in fifth class only, how can I forget that scar so easily! My parents after many years, got a new pair of dress for me. I was very happy on wearing it and ran to my school. Just as I entered my class room and was sitting on my 'allotted' bench, few boys from my class and others from the big classes called me out. Puzzled, I followed them to the ground where I was taken. There, they started abusing me and said, “you dalit...(I do not want to use the expletives they had used which I very much remember, as they make my blood boil) how dare you wear a new dress to the school?” They rubbed dirt all over my dress, tore it, laughing and abusing me all the time. I could not do anything except lie on the ground crying bitterly. For the first time I learnt, though I heard it many times before, what it means to be a dalit.


Few months back, I was reading in a newspaper, the story of a dalit girl in Orissa, who is going to a school in a nearby village riding a bicycle. She was given police protection, it seems. Remembering my childhood, I was unable to decide whether I should be happy for her – she is still able to study; or sad – what is the change that had taken place in this entire generation? From my 'life-changing' experience of my fifth class, I slowly began to understand many things. I understood, why my father's towel usually carried on his shoulders, suddenly comes under his arm-pits and his head bows when he sees some of our villagers. I understood why my mother never allowed me to go near the 'village-well' and why she used to get water from far-off pond. I understood, why my father and his friends sit on the floor with folded hands, eyes on ground, in a hotel even though there are benches. I understood why 'we' were given plastic cups to drink our tea in the tea-stall, while 'others' are given glass tumblers. We are dalits, they are high-caste. That is the period when I started realising that 'the Pledge' we used to take in the morning school prayer, “All Indians are brothers and sisters...” is not true. There are 'we' and 'they' in our society.


For my high school, my parents sent me to a government hostel. I too agreed , though sadly. I know it is becoming difficult for my parents to earn enough for all of us to eat. I also used to join them in work during my holidays but that was not regular and thus insufficient. My parents, I know I am lucky to have them, were determined to make me study. In hostels, the government, we were told, would give us free food, books, a pair of dress, and etc, etc. So I went to the hostel, some 15 kms away from our village. In hostel, all the inmates are 'us'. All of 'us' from similar backgrounds. But when I went to the school, we could not escape 'them'. Here too, back benches did not leave us. Moreover, there is an additional tag – all the hostellers are unclean, unhealthy children, to be kept at a distance. In the school, we were punished for not bringing the required textbooks and notebooks. So we could not read our lessons and are again punished for not learning our lessons. We could not state that the government did not give us those books, because we were not supposed to 'talk-back' and if we did, there was additional punishment. We were branded as 'dumb-heads'.


I am not going to narrate all my experiences in the hostel, that in itself, would be a book. On my first day in the hostel, I read the menu painted on the walls and was happy that I could eat so many varieties. It did not take long for me to realise that what is stated is not always what is intended. Many of us are 'happy' in the hostels with what we eat, because we know, back in our homes, our parents are not even having this to eat. In hostels, we do not have toilets or bathrooms. We have to attend to all our nature-calls in the open. One who underwent this experience will understand our shame. Imagine walking through the streets, with all those hundred prying eyes following you, knowing what you are up to. Many of us used to die of shame, but life thought us very early, 'in order to live, you have to die many times'. We are growing children, with our body undergoing many changes, but we were wearing the same uniform provided to us in the 7th class even in our 10th class. To top this embarrassment, there are lots of lewd comments passed on us. Can you understand the anger in our hearts?


These hardships, we never used to tell them in our homes. We do not want to add to the already existing worries of our parents. We know how difficult life is for them. Many times we consider ourselves lucky – we are still studying, while many of 'our' brothers and sisters are out of studies; in spite of all the embarrassments and harassments, we are still safe, while some of 'our' brothers and sisters are sexually exploited and above all, we are still alive!


After completing our school education and joining college, I thought things would improve. My parents used to tell with pride, “our child is in college”. Remember, in our village, college educated are very few. But I realised that college education did not change my status, in the village or for that matter even in my college. Here too the back benches did not leave us. We were called, “reserved category, yaar” and looked at as someone who is 'privileged', 'unmeritorious' and as 'stealing' others rights. Many do not understand that our lives are stolen from us and we are made to die thousands of times even for this life of ours.


In my village, still I cannot wear any footwear while walking in the village main thoroughfare; I cannot sit on the benches in the hotel; I cannot drink tea in glass tumblers and I still cannot drink water from the village common well. I have to fold my hands and bow my head even in front of an illiterate, if he happens to be from an higher caste. There is discrimination even in accessing burial grounds.


Education, though, did one good thing for me. It made me understand the reason why recently the car used by a dalit IAS officer was cleansed with water mixed with cow dung and the office he used was similarly purified immediately after he retired. It enabled me to read a lot and understand many things in the society. It opened my eyes to new ideas and taught me to look at things in rational way. It made me ponder over the fact, why dalits and tribals who constitute 22 per cent of the population, constitute more than half of all the poor and deprived households in our country. It made me ponder over the link between the social oppression and economic deprivation. It made me understand my life better.


Today, I not only know what it means to be a dalit, but also know what it takes to change the society for the better. I realise, instead of surrendering and dying everyday, it is better to fight, together with all those socially and economically oppressed sections. Then, at least with a hand on my heart, I can say I lived a life fighting for a world free of all kinds of exploitation.