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1,001 battles: Converting dalit numbers into dalit strength

By Padmalatha Ravi

In 1,001 villages of Tumkur district of Karnataka, dalits are organising themselves to wrest back their lands, learn about dalit history, celebrate dalit identity and demand participation in local governance. They will not talk about their sufferings any longer, they say. They will not endure discrimination either

Twenty-six-year-old Sumathi T N is a postgraduate in Arts. Till a couple of years ago she was employed as a teacher at a local school in Tumkur, a district town, some 70 km from India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. During the three years of her employment, Sumathi never revealed her dalit identity for fear of being shunned by the society she lived in.

Sumathi says: "I used to see how they treated the dalits; not letting them enter hotels or houses and even beating them up if they dared to do so. I thought it was safer to say I was not a dalit."

She kept up the pretence until she happened to meet her relatives in a dalit village during census duty. This led to suspicions being raised about her caste, and Sumathi had to face awkward questions from her colleagues. "At that point I got very scared of being caught lying and decided to quit my job," she says.

It was some time later that Sumathi found out about the Rural Education for Development Society (REDS) and joined it as a hobli (division) leader. "It was here that I began to come to terms with my dalit identity. I learned about dalit history and culture and realised the importance of accepting my identity and fighting for my rights. I am not ashamed or afraid of being dalit any more," says a confident Sumathi today.

It's been two years since she joined REDS. Sumathi has climbed the ladder and heads a division of the organisation that is in charge of three talukas in Tumkur. She feels that women's leadership is a very important aspect of development, especially for achieving dalit empowerment.

Sumathi's husband Mahesh T R has his own tale of struggle to tell. After graduation, Mahesh set up a flower shop but found that he got orders only from dalits; upper caste people would not buy from him.

"Their problem was that they had to enter my house to place the order, which they didn't want to do," says Mahesh. Lack of patronage forced him to close shop.

Sumathi's involvement with the dalit movement has taught Mahesh a few lessons too. "I didn't think much of women's capabilities. In fact, I expressed my doubts when REDS approached my wife to lead a team. But now I am happy to see the progress she has made. I can see why it is important to have women leaders for the community to make any progress," he says.

Mahesh now works as a taluka leader under the purview of the division that Sumathi heads.

REDS was set up in 1984 by Jyothi Raj and M C Raj, themselves dalits. The aim was to work towards a sustainable and holistic development of communities, based on class analysis. Once they started working with communities in the villages of Tumkur district, they realised that caste played a huge part in development. REDS then moved towards organising dalits into groups and has been leading the movement for social and economic equality since.

Jyothi Raj says the organisation is currently working on two important aspects: "strengthening women's leadership in the community" and "converting dalit numbers into strength" so as to gain bargaining power in the social and political system.

Today, REDS works in over 16 districts of Karnataka under the name Booshakthi Vedike for land reclamation and electoral reforms. In Tumkur district alone, it has a presence in 1,001 villages spread across nine talukas. In the last two decades, the movement has touched many lives in the region and the individual stories are accounts of courage and self-discovery.

Twenty-four-year-old Umapati K N and Manjula B H are among the youngest dalit leaders at REDS. Both grew up in a fairly secure environment and did not face any of the discrimination that has become part of dalit life.

Umapati, from Turvekere taluka in Tumkur, joined the organisation after graduation little realising the enormity of dalit issues. After two years at REDS, he says: "I didn't think too much about being a dalit. I always had friends from the same community and never wondered why the boys from other communities weren't interested in us. Today I know the reason and I am going to fight such discrimination."

Balehalli's Manjula has a similar story to share. As the daughter of a government official living in the urban area of Tumkur, she never realised the extent of prejudice against dalits. But in the last couple of years, she has become a strong voice for the community in the villages she works in.

Manjula has had a police counter-case filed against her while leading a struggle to claim grazing lands for dalit use near Giddayanapalya village. "I am actually happy these things are happening because this means we are being taken seriously," she says. Women like her find it a powerful experience just to have represented their community's problems to the government.

"It is this kind of empowerment that we are striving to achieve," says M C Raj. Dalit panchayats (DPs) were formed in the year 2006, as an instrument of internal governance. This new initiative has been a huge success in nine out of 10 talukas in Tumkur district. DPs give the marginalised community an opportunity to participate in both internal and external governance in the village.

The main aim is to build the capacity of dalits to participate in the instruments and mechanisms of local, regional and national governance. It also has the avowed purpose of strengthening the internal governance mechanisms of the dalit community. This, activists say, is necessary because in traditional village panchayats dalits are not allowed to voice their concerns and opinions. They are forced to accept punishments meted out to them.

The DP philosophy is that like all other communities, dalits should have the right to govern themselves as a community with their liberative norms and get integrated into national politics as an empowered people, not as an enslaved people.

Each DP has 10 members elected from the community, with an equal number of men and women representatives.

On April 14, 2008 (Ambedkar Jayanti) REDS announced that it had formed 1,017 dalit panchayats in Tumkur district. The trend is catching on in other states of the country too, say activists.

Every year, those associated with REDS gather for an annual meeting to review the struggles they undertook during the previous year and decide the future course of action. Typically, the meeting starts with a puja and prayer. But the goddess being worshipped is Booshakthi -- Mother Earth -- and the prayer in Kannada urges the 'black' people gathered to worship her. The black people referred to in the song are the dalits themselves. Creation of a strong dalit identity and pride is one of the many objectives of REDS. This is done through teaching 'Dalitology', a combination of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's philosophy and alternative dalit thinking, an orientation to the history of dalits and dalit culture and religion, including Booshakthi and ancestral worship.

REDS has set up a training centre for this. A four-month short course, called Human Potential Development-Dalits (HPD-D), is especially designed to develop leadership amongst dalit youth. More than 40 participants are taken in each batch and, so far, 440 young people have been trained. REDS also conducts a two-year diploma course in dalit studies with women participants forming the majority. Apart from this, it conducts one-day training programmes on rights in the villages where the organisation works.

Forty-year-old Krishnamurthy from Koratagere taluka never went to school and has been a daily wage labourer all his life. He started working when he was barely a teenager and has been a victim of caste discrimination ever since. "I was never invited inside the house of the people I worked for. They always served me food in the backyard. In public places they kept a separate glass for us. I have endured all this for years," he says.

Today, he is an elected minister of the local dalit panchayat. Krishnamurthy is extremely proud of having been given this position of importance, and says: "I now have the power. I am going to use it to change things and ensure my two sons never face what I did."

In the last two-and-a-half years that the dalit panchayats have been working there has been a significant drop in the number of cases of discrimination in the region. DP leaders have been diligently recording all the goings-on, and the records show a drop of nearly 70% in such cases.

The other significant achievement of this dalit movement has been in land reclamation. Rangaiah, who is in charge of the land struggle, says: "There are policies sanctioning land rights to dalits. But the upper castes have taken advantage of their illiteracy and managed to usurp all the land. We are now in the process of tracing all those documents and educating dalits on their rights."

So far, 6,107 acres of land belonging to dalits in 133 villages have been found to be in the wrong hands. Through meticulous documenting and rigorous campaigning the movement has managed to reclaim 4,829.36 acres of land.

Rangaiah says apathetic bureaucrats are the biggest roadblock to reclaiming land. He adds that ownership of land is closely linked to development so the struggle will not end until dalits get all their land back.

Beluraiah of Turvukere taluka experienced a rare recent victory. A total of 4.39 acres of land was sanctioned in his name back in 1938. But the land had been usurped by upper-caste people. The case was taken to court under the PTCL (Prevention of Transfer of Certain Land) Act in 1994. After nine long years, the court ordered that the land be returned to Beluraiah. However the rival party appealed in a higher court and the case dragged on.

In 2006, just after the formation of the dalit panchayat, the matter was transferred to it. With the help of the right set of documents, the DP delivered a verdict in favour of Beluraiah on January 21, 2008.

Success in Tumkur district is giving the dalit community a glimpse of what the future might hold. Land for all dalit families, the right to livelihood, right to education, the right to govern themselves, and the right to dignity are their priorities.

"We don't want to talk about our sufferings anymore. We want to look beyond all that and ensure we have our rightful place in this country," says Jyothi.

(Padmalatha Ravi is a Bangalore-based journalist. She edits the online magazine for women

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008