An international peace meet in Tumkur, Karnataka, explored the stages of transition for India's dalits: from a subjugated peace, in which dalits live with the dominant castes in subjugation and fear, to resurgence, conflict and finally, peace with dignity
In a world where prizes are given for peace, where there is a war on everything including terror, drugs and disease and for democracy, human rights and peace, where peacemaking means sending fully-armed troops into the poorest nations, the music of real peace is muted. Occasionally it bursts out into song, ringing from the deepest recesses of its custodians -- common people led by the most marginalised and oppressed peoples of the world.
One such occasion was witnessed in Tumkur, a little town northwest of Bangalore, on October 10-12, 2007. Deep questions were discussed and answered by those who know them best: those who have brought about peace with dignity from an unjust 'subjugated peace'.
The international event was jointly organised by Rural Education and Development Society (REDS), Boosakthi Kendra, and the Dalit Parliament.
With 102 delegates from three continents, five countries and 19 districts of India, joined by thousands more from hundreds of villages in Karnataka, the three-day 'Peace Event' got off to a vibrant start with the young people of Tumkur district spreading the message of peace on four cycle rallies. Starting out from five different directions -- Gulur in the south, Heggere in the west, Kyatsandra in the east, Oorukere in the north, and Boosakthi Kendra, the dalit ashram at Nelahal -- the 250-strong rally converged on Tumkur Town Hall Circle where they were received by cheering crowds both from the town and neighbouring dalit panchayat villages.
From there, a peace march of around 3,000 people was flagged off by Sayeeda Hameed, member of the Planning Commission. The march was from Town Hall Circle to Gubbi Veeranna Kalakshetra.
The inaugural public meeting saw the release of the book You Can Inspire, the stories of 16 ordinary people who made a difference and helped build peace. Peacemakers who were present were honoured.
Peace in the time of conflict
The 100-odd delegates later visited eight 'peace zones', villages where REDS has worked (each group had a facilitator and an accompanier). These zones were villages that had progressed through the stages of subjugated peace, resurgence and conflict and, finally, peace with dignity.
Subjugated peace is the term used to describe areas where dalits and members of the dominant caste live together without any apparent conflict. But underlying the peace is a quiet acceptance of all forms of discrimination that dalits face, including exclusion from drinking water sources and access to many village facilities such as schools and primary healthcare centres, untouchability, forced labour, use of foul language... the list is endless.
Resurgence and conflict areas refer to villages where awareness about dalit human rights has taken an organisational form; there is systematic resistance against discriminatory practices. The dalits' assertion of their right to live with dignity and enjoy fair access to resources is seen in conflicts that emerge from time to time. Negotiations between the two communities are ongoing.
Peace and dignity is said to exist in villages where there has been a real change in the power relations between dalits and people from the dominant caste. Exchanges, be they social or economic, are based on dignity and equality and are not determined by caste. This is a more just form of peace, where the first two stages have been overcome and there is sharing between dalit and non-dalit communities, based on mutual respect.
Most villages display a combination of these three stages. Some forms of discrimination have been totally stopped, for example the traditional forced labour especially related to the death of a dominant caste person. And the struggle to reclaim land continues in many villages.
One conflict zone was deliberately chosen for the delegates to get a feel of the type of conflict that exists; and one zone of subjugated peace, for them to witness the practice of untouchability up close. The last zone was from a new taluka that REDS has taken up for its work. There was subjugated peace in two of these peace zones.
The discussions helped people understand the context of peace; places where there is a constant struggle to earn a livelihood in an environment filled with extreme forms of caste discrimination.
The new peace could be seen and experienced in different ways. There were symbols of dalit cultural assertion, the beating of drums, the blue tilak, and new forms of celebration where dalit children, men and women came together with confidence and walked through the village with their guests from all over the world. They were generous in sharing their time, their experiences and their food with those who had come to learn and understand their struggles and triumphs in fighting discrimination, building their own leadership, understanding how women have come to lead communities, how they have regained their lands, stopped practising caste-based bonded labour, etc. All is not perfect, but there have been many changes. Attempts to reclaim land are ongoing in a number of villages; assertion of rights and celebrating struggle is the new order of the day.
Miles to go...
Delegates at the peace meet were shocked at the open discrimination being practised even today, so close to the high-tech city of Bangalore. Although impressive work has been carried out (the establishment of the Dalit Parliament just six months ago), a lot still needs to be done. Many were moved, even angry, at the continuing injustice, government inaction, and active and passive connivance. Some demanded immediate action. The communities thanked them for their concern and solidarity and vowed to continue their struggle with determination and vigour.
Most people were clear that peace-building needs to confront and overcome violence at all levels -- from the individual to the family to the community, the nation and the world. The participants put together a peace charter that reflected the concerns and hopes of the delegates, based on regions, personal experiences and group interactions and deliberations. They vowed to carry on the process of spreading peace in their own regions.
Jyothi, founder director of REDS, summed up the mood of the meet: "Ordinary people have done extraordinary things. Peace has to be established by ordinary people."
Dalits consider blue the colour that symbolises their power and assertion. Blue reflects the vastness of the ocean and the sky -- its generosity, sustenance, tolerance and acceptance. Pushed beyond a point, they restore the balance in a fascinating display of power and majesty that is unmatched in nature. The calm of the oceans and sky is also home to a majestic power when aroused. This power of blue can be channelled to ensure the change from a subjugated peace to a just peace.
Sharadamma: Story of a peace-builder
The inspiration behind the Tumkur event was Sharadamma, a dalit woman from the small village of Kanakuppe. Sharadamma's story is the first in the book and sets the stage for the entire event. It offers a glimpse into the efforts made by simple people in bringing about a new order of peace. From a subjugated peace based on discrimination and fear, Sharadamma symbolises a new leadership that will allow the most marginalised dalit women to take progressive control over their own lives, families, community and village.
Sharadamma shared many personal experiences of her journey from being a simple, quiet young girl who had not even moved out of her home to becoming a community leader respected by men and women from different caste groups.
At the age of 17, Sharadamma came into contact with REDS staff and was introduced to issues of social change, dalit empowerment and leadership. She recalls those days:
"Though for us dalits, discrimination and exploitation have been part and parcel of our lives, looking at it from a view to changing this situation and discussing historical struggles of dalit empowerment and the life of Bhim Rao Ambedkar was the turning point in my life."
Talking about the situation in her village and what inspired her to take up leadership, Sharadamma said: "Earlier we were totally dependent on the generosity of other caste people, our own oppressors, for water, especially potable water. If they felt like it, they would pour us a pot and-a-half; if not they would say that they wouldn't. But under no condition were we allowed to share the same source of drinking water. For all our other water needs we had to use the same pond where pigs bathed. My first taste of leadership was to stop this practice and system. We got the government to intervene. Ever since, our dalit colony too has a tank for drinking water.
"This did not come easily. Our village was divided into two parts -- one part occupied by the dominant caste and the other by dalits. There were two tanks for drinking water; both were exclusively used by the dominant caste. We dalits were forced to take water from a pond used for bathing cattle.
"It took a while before I could even think of the discrimination as something that could be changed. One day, I and a couple of other women decided to take water from the drinking water tanks. The idea was not to create major conflict, just to check what would happen. The first time we took water there was no problem. But by the time we went to take another round of water, the entire dominant community was surrounding the tanks. Our water pots were smashed and we were accused of taking water without permission; that 'this organisation' that was supporting us was the main cause. I said that this was public property, and since we were only collecting what was rightfully ours and not forcing our way into their houses and taking water, we should not be stopped. When the shouting and abuse did not stop, I became a little more aggressive and said: 'Do what you want, if you want to beat me do that, but I will continue to take water'.
"Then the village headman came to make peace. We came to an agreement with the village headman that two taps out of four taps from one of the tanks would be reserved for the use of dalits. But this too was not okay with the dominant caste people. They soon got their children to defecate on that side of the tank and dirtied the taps. This did not deter the dalit women; they cleared up the mess and continued to use the water. The dominant community was not used to this attitude and were ready to go to any extent to take away this spirit of demand for rights by the dalits. They finally cut the pipe that supplied water to this tank; they would rather forego the facility than share it with the dalits."
Now that the dalits were quite organised they did not want to let go. They complained to the local government officials but got no response. In fact, on being pressurised, the officials admitted that they were helpless in the matter. Then the dalit women decided enough was enough and organised 100 dalits from the village and went to the district commissioner's office and just sat there the whole day. This got them their first positive signal: the commissioner agreed to take up the matter.
With the help of REDS they got an article published on the incident. This put pressure on the district commissioner to personally visit the village. The dominant caste people, who had become quite abusive, mistook the district commissioner for a REDS staffer and shouted at him. The commissioner then held an inquiry into the incident; some of us were also questioned. At this point too, the dominant caste people tried to misguide the commissioner by saying that there was no problem and that both communities actually lived as brothers and sisters.
To this, Sharadamma added just one point: "We do live like brothers and sisters, but with a difference. The elder brother here drinks good water and juice while the younger brother poison."
It was decided to post two policemen in the village to keep an eye on the situation. They sent a report that the drinking water facility was only for the dominant community; that the dalits were excluded from using the tank and that there was no other source of potable water available to them.
The very next day the district commissioner visited the village, checked the water, and by early-afternoon pipes, bricks and cement to build a new tank for the dalits were arranged. Within two days, the tank was built and the dalits finally had their very own source of clean drinking water close to their part of the village.
Fifteen years have passed. From being reticent and house-bound, Sharadamma is today known for her leadership skills, knowledge and ability to deal with government and political leaders. Women from all caste groups look to her for direction and she offers it, provided people are ready to own the action with responsibility. She says: "We dalit women are strong and generous. We will support you in your struggles if you too come out to represent your cause. You should not use our strength in new ways and give us a bad name for that."
Sharadamma recalls the time she was asked by the gram panchayat for help. "They told me they would give me money or vehicles. But I told them: 'My people will take care of that, but your people, Gowdas and Patels, should be on the streets in big numbers and then we dalit women will support you'."
Sharadamma's message to all, particularly women, is: "Take the responsibility for your present and future. Once you decide that, it will be yours to change and develop. We women, particularly dalit women, need to find our ways to dignity and happiness, both individually and collectively. Our strength will come from both. Only then can we as a community truly progress."
She notes matter-of-factly that the panchayat that requests her help does not let her sit there. Their victory was for equal -- but separate -- services and amenities, from wells to other spaces. They have been able to refuse to do the degrading, but compulsory, 'caste functions' such as consuming the flesh and blood of ritually slaughtered livestock.
Over the past 15 years, Sharadamma's village Kanakuppe has moved through the phases -- from subjugated peace to resurgence and conflict and is slowly edging towards real peace, or peace with dignity.
(Anita and Edwin are Bangalore-based activists)
InfoChange News & Features, November 2007