An Interview ‘Human without caste’

20Jun08

 

INDIA: To be a human without caste – part 1

The following is the first part of the interview with Mr. Kantilal Ukabhai, a Dalit human rights activist from India. The interview wasdone by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) at Hong Kong.Kantilal is currently associated with the Navsarjan, a reputed humanrights organisation in Gujarat state, India. Kantilal could be reached at parmar.kantilal@gmail.com

This is not my story alone. Many other Dalits in India have the same experience as me. When I talked about my life with other Dalits inGujarat, I realised that we all had similar experience in our life. This is the first time I am sharing the experiences of my life with non-Dalits and foreigners. Probably I am more fortunate than many of my Dalit friends back home. At least, I have an opportunity to share
my story, which many others do not have.

***

I am Kantilal Ukabhai Parmar. My surname is Parmar. My father is Ukabhai and my mother is Jivuben. I was born in Chital Village, Amreli Block in Gujarat district of India. I have two brothers and two sisters. I am the eldest. I have two uncles. One is working in the District Village Council and the other uncle works as a peon at the Chital High School in my village. I also have a grandmother who
is 95-year-old. We all live altogether.

My ‘polluted’ coin

I am born in the Chamar community which belongs to the Dalit community, the Scheduled Caste in India. People called us “untouchables”. I faced ‘untouchability’ many times in primary school. I took my primary education from class one to seven at the Jashvantgadh Primary School in my village. In the classroom, we had to sit at the backbench every day. We were not allowed to sit near the Patel students, the dominant caste classmates. There was a water tank in the school and the Dalit students had to use separate tumblers to collect water.

We could not use the common tumblers in the classroom. It was not easy for us to take part in the cricket game at school and we were not allowed to pray. When the dominant caste classmates needed to exchange coins with us, they collected coins from us after purifying them with water, as they thought the coins that we had were polluted. Every day we were shamed. I could not understand what was wrong with me or why we wereconsidered inferior.

First leaf-plate for drinking water

When I was at school, my parents worked at a farm as agricultural labourers. Whenever I had a vacation or holiday, I came to the farm to assist my parents’ work along with my siblings. I remember, one day when we went to the farm, we brought our own plates and glasses. There were many people from our community to work at the farm but we  only had one common tumbler. I remember that we were walking in a queue. I was so thirsty, but could not use the tumbler which was used by others who were from the dominant caste. I asked the landlord for water. I had to get the water using my palms as the water was poured from above since the landlord did not want my palms to touch the container thereby polluting the entire water. The water was flowing off from my hands. I was too young to drink properly like this. Seeing this, the landlord asked me to collect some leaf from the tree nearby and use it as a plate or tumbler to collect the water. This was the first plate which I made for drinking water in my life. I did not want to do this any further. But I did not know that I will have to continue doing this until death.

I have my name, Kanti

People did not call me my name ‘Kanti’ but called me ‘Dahedh’. It is the common name for my sub-caste and a derogatory way to refer to the Dalits. Dahedh means son-in-law. The reference is to ‘son-in-law of the government’. This is because by then the Dalits in India were allowed certain free facilities by the government. Such euphemist and derogatory remarks are not limited to my community. Among the Dalits, the Valmiki is the lowest in the region where I was born. They are called ‘Banghi’ which is a derogatory name for the Valmikis.

The Chamar is a community identified as cobblers. We are expected to repair shoe and sandals. The upper caste people who came to my father to repair their shoe and sandals will throw their shoes to my father from a distance. After repairing, my father put the shoes at some point to let the upper caste to collect their shoes from a distance.  The payment is not guaranteed, since such work is our duty in the caste hierarchy. If at all someone is willing to pay, the payment used to be leftover food or some grains.

When there were local celebrations like a wedding or a festival in the village, my grandmother was usually informed. We are never expected to participate in such functions nor do we expect to be invited. However, we are allowed to go to these functions, not to  participate, but to collect leftover food. My grandmother generally goes for these functions. She along with others from our community
will have to wait in a corner, outside the venue and away from the view of the guests until the feast is over. In between we are not allowed to show face anywhere around where the upper caste has even the possibility of seeing even our shadow, since even that is believed to be polluting.

Once the feast is over the leftover food is gathered and dropped on the ground outside the festival or marriage feast hall. To keep the food in one place or from being spread around we used to dig a small ditch in the ground. Once the person who has dropped the food in the ditch has left, we are allowed to collect the food from the ditch. Most often this used to be the food that we get after days of
starving.

Kanti, do not cross the line

We were taught by the elders in the family that we need to behave properly in a society, abiding by all the caste practices. We are continuously cautioned that we should always keep in mind that we are the lower caste. We are cautioned that the upper caste is very superior and we are inferior. We need to behave in such a manner that we do not cross the line. In addition to that, from daily practice, we
come to know that it is dangerous to cross the line. For example, in the school we are not allowed to be admitted into the school games teams. We are continuously reminded that we are inferior and also continuously threatened to be immediately punished if we crossed the line. The punishment often used to be punishment in public. Not only the punishment is in public, but it is also often symbolic. For a mistake that I commit, my father or the entire community to which I belong could be punished.

There was a timber merchant in our village. My family and many persons from our community used to work for this merchant in his yard. There are separate glasses for us, kept beside a window in the yard, where there is a water container. If we need to drink water, we need to first make a sound like a light cough before approaching the window. This is to warn the upper caste that we are going towards the window so that they also do not turn up there by accident. We are not allowed to pour water for ourselves. A person will pour the water from the container without touching our glass or us. If we did not follow this rule we will be punished. Maybe it might be me who might make a mistake of touching something that we are not supposed to touch. But the punishment might be for the entire labourers in the yard from our community who work there. The punishment might be that none of us will be paid for one week or something similar or even worse.

There are eight to ten timber merchants in our village. Only the Hindu timber merchants practiced caste discrimination. The Muslim merchants did not. But it was hard to get a job with them, since there were only two or three of them and their place were always full.

My mother and grandmother when they went to get some milk from the upper caste like a Patel family, to pay for the milk, they are expected to keep the money on the ground and stay away. This is to ensure that even by an accident we would not touch the upper caste and pollute them. The Patel would first purify the money by spraying water, the so called ‘holy water’, on the money first and then take it. Such practices continue even today. This practice happens less in the towns but is the way of life in the villages. It is not because the caste identity or practice has changed in town but because in village, everyone knows who is who, while nobody knows who is who in town. We cannot easily buy a house or property in the town or city. When we do the documentation for buying property, we need to furnish our complete address as well as our full name. Address and name will reveal our caste identity. Once the caste identity is revealed, often he seller would pose some excuse or other not to sell the property to us.

The son-in-law of the government did something wrong

At the secondary school there were two or three dominant caste teachers who always referred to us as the “son-in-laws of the government”. The teachers abused us this way. Criticism and verbal  abuse against us is to make a mockery of the government schemes to bring the low caste to the mainstream. The teachers often used to say “… hey, son-in-law of the government, come here.”

Ms. Anshuyaben, a female teacher from the Brahmin caste gave me free English tuition after the school. She supported me a lot. She considered me as her son and I was allowed to go to the teacher’s home and the teacher also visited my house. I used to work hard and was always the first or second in the class. During the final year in school, we had a teacher named Mr. Sangani who taught the male students.

He used to tell me that “…Why do you study English? You do not need to study English. You should not study English.” He tried to discourage me always. I am sure that he believed in what he said or to him a lower caste like me is nothing but a fellow destined to do inhuman labour and nothing else, for which education is of no use. One day I asked him, “Why cannot I study?” The teacher replied “…what are you going to do after finishing the school? Even if you secure good marks in the exam, what could you do? You are Chamar. You cannot go to college, and you should not go to college. Who is going to take you to the college?”

Whereas, Anshuyaben who was allowed to teach only the female students at the school always encouraged me. Finally, when the exam results were published, I was the first in the school. I had 66% marks. It was 1986. When Sangani came to know my result he said “You did something wrong.”

When the result of my examination came, people started visiting me with foods or sweats to congratulate me. However, my family did not have anything to give back to the guests, not even a cup of tea as we were so poor. The entire village came to know my high scores in the examination. It was also published in a newspaper and I was so happy. However, I realised in a short time that … so what? I do not have money to study more. My parents cannot afford it. I was returned to work.

The student who scores the highest mark in the school would be awarded 251 Rupees as an award in the village. But neither the school nor the village gave me the award as I am a Dalit. My uncle was working in the local administration at that time. My  uncle had little more money. People also told my uncle that why he did not help me. Actually my uncle said to my father, that he would help me to travel from the village to the city and get me enrolled for a diploma in electronic engineering. But my father denied the offer, not because he did not want me to study, but because he did not want to end up in a debt, even to his own brother.

My uncle insisted to accept the help and finally my father agreed. My uncle said “Kanti is one among us. He is good at studying. We must encourage him. This might be his only way out of this curse of caste”..

Collage was no different

In Bhavnagar town where I studied, for a villager like me, I could not notice the practice of caste discrimination easily at first. When I enrolled at the college my education certificates exposed my caste identity along with my village name. At the college hostel where I stayed, I realised soon that the upper caste had, as always, the upper hand. They could stay anywhere they wish, in any room of the
hostel. However, we, the lower caste, were all boarded at a separate hostel, the exclusive Dalit hostel.

It is very tough in Gujarat during summer due to the heat and water is a much sought after  commodity. There was a water tank for the upper caste students, while there was none for the lower caste. We could not take a shower or wash our clothes. Often we did not even have enough water to drink. We had to wait for the leftover water from the upper caste community. The hostel for the upper caste student had facilities such as electricity and televisions. Nothing was there for us. Soon I realised that the college was no different from the village.

I had a cycle borrowed from my uncle for commuting between the hostel and the college as the college was a bit far from the hostel. There used to be movie shows between at night in the town. One day, an upper caste student, a student from the Darvard community, came to me and said, “Give me your cycle. I need to go to go for a movie tonight.” I said, “I won’t give you my cycle, because I don’t want to give it to you.” The same night my cycle was destroyed. I was very angry and equally sad. I could not complain against the upper caste student. I just had to keep quiet.

The upper caste students could pick up any Dalit student they chose to beat us up. This could be with or without reason. Sometimes they get drunk and come to beat up the Dalit students just for fun. We had no right to say “no”. We had to face it. We cannot complain. If we complained, we should face the abuse from the college administration as well. We just have to obey.

They also ask us to bring girls to the institution. When they require our room to spend their time with the girls, we are expected to empty our room for them. If we objected, we were assaulted. We are treated as servants even at the college. It became intolerable. I soon moved from Bhavnagar town to Amreli district for the diploma course.

At Amreli, I started organising the Dalit students and kept watching the Dalits students who came in. I encouraged them to stay together and formed a Dalit student union. I became a Dalit student union    leader. The name of the Dalit student union was Dalit Yuva Vidyarthai Sangathan (Dalit Young Students’ Federation). We dealt with the issues concerning Dalit students and also started writing complaints and even writing petitions to the Prime Minister.

I started developing my own small group for the Dalit students’rights, specifically on issues like scholarship for the Dalit students. In my case however, even though I was qualified to get a scholarship it was denied to me.

Part 2: How dare a Dalit run a shop! … to be continued

# # #

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.



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