Neither money nor influence, all that a Dalit labourer has is the body

Those who believe there is no casteism and that caste differences and caste atrocities are an international conspiracy or figment of the media’s imagination, turn a blind eye to happenings around us

Neither money nor influence, all that a  Dalit labourer has is the body
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V Venkateswara Rao

Barely 20 kilometres from Moradabad, barbers refuse to cut the hair of people belonging to the Balmiki community, most of whom work as sweepers and manual scavengers. In Gujarat, a Dalit boy, 21-year-old Pradeep Rathod, was killed for riding a horse. A Dalit mother would be stripped and paraded naked in the village as punishment for his teen son fighting with an upper caste boy.

Even in 2020 Dalits would be served in separate glasses in village tea stalls. They are prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of upper caste men. Dalit men who go to the market to buy essentials are instructed to stand at a distance, while shopkeepers throw their purchases to them.

Columnist Shobhaa De wrote on the outrage of a Brahmin who was told he looked like a Dalit. This is what she wrote, “ I came across a news report on a short film…The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, with a provocative premise: Three people with a deadline to complete a project, go in search of a character to be cast as a Dalit! Raising the key question: what does a Dalit look like? One of those shortlisted for the role is outraged! He is Brahmin! And it was “below his dignity” to play a Dalit. W r i t e r - d i r e c t o r Rajesh Rajamani says his main intention was to put the “ruling classes” under public glare, for “they are the ones who are perpetuating the caste system”.

Many powerful movies have been made and many powerful books have been written on this disturbing subject over the years. One such powerful book is journalist and writer Nirupama Dutt’s “The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Qissa of Courage”.Dutt tells Bant Singh’s story in this powerful book, which is both the biography of an extraordinary human being and a comment on the deep fault lines in Indian society.

On the evening of 5th January 2006, Bant Singh, a Dalit agrarian labourer and activist in Punjab’s Jhabar village, was ambushed and brutally beaten up by upper-caste Jat men armed with iron rods and axes. He lost both his arms and a leg in the attack. It was punishment for having fought for justice for his minor daughter who had been gang-raped. But his spirit was not broken, and he continues to fight for equality and dignity for millions like him, inspiring them with his Udasi’s songs and his courage.

“What, after all, does a Dalit labourer have? He has neither money nor influence. All he has is his own body, which he must use to earn a livelihood. And, as for the body of the Dalit woman, it is very easy for it to be seen as an object of casual, easy abuse.”

According to the 2011 Census, the number of Dalits in the country has been calculated as 16.6% of the total population. Uttar Pradesh has the highest Dalit population which constitutes 20.5% of the total Dalit population of 20.14 crores.

“We are punished for being born Dalits. Our only sin is our birth as Dalits,” one of the distraught relatives of the Hathras victim was quoted as saying. The relatives recalled that the deceased victim, like other Dalit women in the village, stayed mostly at home. But whenever she went out, they said, she would return upset and fuming at the caste slurs and derogatory abuses hurled at her by the men.

Indeed, the village grocer would accept money from the Dalits but wash the currency and the ground they stood on, confided another member of the family.

“My birth is my fatal accident” a young Dalit scholar at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula had cried out in his suicide note in 2016. But the young, brilliant Dalit boy’s cry could not move the hearts of the high and the mighty.

All those, including those from the upper castes, who have experienced deprivation, discrimination or a disadvantaged social status in some form or the other - would be moved by the heartfelt cries of the Dalits.

This isn’t just Hathras’ hour of shame. It’s India’s collective shame. Her tragic life and death and the pathos of her hasty cremation will haunt us for a long time.

Being born into a Dalit familyis a curse - a curse allegedly from one’s previous birth being redeemed in this life. The sad and violent secrets of caste-based oppression is all pervasive in the picturesque countryside.

“How can such ugliness co-exist with the beauty of rural India,” we might wonder but unlike the UP chief minister, we need not look for a foreign hand to see the ugliness of caste.

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