Tag Archives: Dalit

Dalit Students as Victims of Institutional Casteism in India

India’s unparalleled revolutionary leader B.R.Ambedkar’s infamous dictum is ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise,’ none of which the Indian Brahmanical state wants the 200 million Dalits (former untouchables) to do and this intentional objective of the state was exemplified in the death of an young Dalit scholar Rohit Vemula of University of Hyderabad who aspired to become like Carl Sagan.
The only fault of him was, he was a Dalit that too someone who was conscious of his identity and followed the footsteps of Ambedkar involved in the construction of a Dalit selfhood and claimed himself as a Dalit-Marxist, a political category propagated and made famous among the student community by comrade Chittibabu Padavala.

As president of Ambedkar Students Association Rohit worked hard to forge a Dalit-Muslim solidarity and fought against food fascism by organising beef festivals a visibly upsetting political exercise for the right wing Hindutva forces in the state who had earlier in another educational institution of higher learning had tried hard to foil the establishment of a study circle on Ambedkar but in vain. A whole young generation of conscious Ambedkarites is the most threatening factor for these right wing forces.

 

Rohit

Rohith Vemula sloganeering during a protest as the president of Ambedkar Students Association. Pic courtesy : Facebook.

What followed was arm-twisting by the Hindutva politicians and the casteist university administration, which succumbed to it and expelled five Dalit students. The expelled students continued their protest by staging a sleep-in-protest within the campus, however as a result of deep inflicted psychological pain, one of the students committed suicide leaving a note depicting the cruelty of caste, he wrote, “ The value of a man is reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility to a vote, a number to a thing, never was man treated as a mind.” This evaluation of what is being valued it is not mind but identity which in practical terms does count in the most hierarchical society in the world leaves us with what Gopal Guru[1] famously formulated as the Theoretical Brahmins and Empirical Shudras where the latter is a matter of mere numbers while the former is associated with cognition.

The brahmanical state follows certain uniformity when it comes to dealing with the Dalits, they practice humiliation to an disgusting extent. The state, which was not able to provide a dignified life to Dalits at least should guarantee a honourable final journey. More like the recent incident that happened in Tamil Nadu where a 100 year old Dalit man whose funeral procession was prevented by caste Hindus despite a High Court Order which finally saw the police instead of implementing the HC Order were found carrying the body doing the cremation. In Rohit Vemula’s case too, the state after seeing the students assemble in huge numbers sensed that they would showcase the anger towards state secretly without a grain of respect for the departed soul hurriedly did the cremation.

Weapons

WEAPON OF THE WEAK : Students in Delhi resisting water cannons carrying the portrait of B.R.Ambedkar  while protesting against Ministry of Human Resource and Development demanding action against authorities over Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Pic Courtesy Facebook.

The educational institutions in India are largely nothing but an extension of rural life marked by caste rigidity for most of the Dalit students, the only difference is caste is tangible in the latter case while in the former it is a combination of visible forms of caste practices and also more subtler forms. The caste discrimination starts from the level of primary schools where once can cite numerous cases of Dalit kids being asked to clean toilets to use separate utensils to eat and drink. And it is also a common phenomenon to witness social boycott of Dalits as mid day meal programme cooks. Citing ritual pollution the caste Hindu parents would make their children go hungry than eat food cooked by a Dalit. In a recent incident, a Dalit kid was asked by his teacher to remove faecal material in front of fellow students using bare hands. Ashamed by this act the kid went into a psychological affect and has developed an obsession to wash his hands. Suspecting changes in behaviour the parents probed the kid to find out what happened and after strong protests the caste Hindu teacher was arrested. This is one among numerous cases we see in what are called as “spaces of learning.” Coloured wrist bands as a form of identification of their respective castes is a common feature in most of the schools in the rural and semi urban pockets of southern Tamil Nadu and a few areas in Northern Tamil Nadu.

You can pick any random Dalit and inquire him about caste discrimination in classrooms there would be a tale to tell, the perpetual psychological fear of being discriminated against and humiliated based on their identity is a lived experience that every Dalit has to undergo inside educational institutions in India. Many are in fact living their lives masquerading their identity for want of caste discrimination. As deftly put forward in a recent piece by Meena Kandasamy,“ Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, discontinuation.” By restricting social interaction the Dalit students are thus faced with deprivation of capabilities, a common feature practiced and perfected by caste Hindus in educational institutions to maintain and safeguard their caste privileges.

The percentage of Dalit students who enter higher educational institutions are meagre in number and even they are not spared. In the name of accumulated privilege over centuries in the form of both cultural and social capital the upper caste Hindus function within an invented realm called meritocracy. Entering the corridors of elite educational institutions like Indian Institute of Technologies (IIT) and Indian Institute of Managements and Central Universities for scores of Dalit students is like walking into hell, the fear of being shamed and humiliated based on birth status hangs like a Damocles sword above theirheads. After years of relentless struggles in their everyday lives they reach these institutions only to get caught in the entanglement of the most-unfair game of caste based micro power politics. It was no wonder why given nature of its exclusivity the IIT’s were dubbed as Iyer and Iyengar Technology, a stronghold of brahminical supremacy.

Root of the Problem

The root of this problem definitely lies with the caste Hindus who are nurtured and brought up in a feudal mindset and even the progressive among them carry a patronizing self as pointed out clearly by Ambedkar,

It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry; We must do something for the Untouchables. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying, ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu. It is invariably assumed that the object to be reclaimed is the Untouchables. If there is to be a mission, it must be to the Untouchables and if the Untouchables can be cured, untouchability will vanish. Nothing requires to be done to the Touchable. He is sound in mind, manners and morals. He is whole; there is nothing wrong with him. Is this assumption correct? Whether correct or not, the Hindus like to cling to it. The assumption has the supreme merit of satisfying themselves that they are not responsible for the problem of the Untouchables.

The idea of caste Hindus to empathise and sympathise with the Dalit cause needs to be shunned, instead they should all question their own selves and accept the bitter truth that they as part of this brahmanical structure indeed failed not only to see annihilation of caste as a praxis but used it as a mere rhetoric. The guilt as practitioners of the most carefully planned hierarchichal system should haunt them as they in a way by remaining silent also played a part resulting in the death of Rohit Vemulas, Senthil Kumars and Nagaraju Koppalas. Ambedkar both as a symbol and an ideologue remains as the ‘weapon of the weak’ in India and carrying his ideals let us march forward to brazen out the social distinctions, inequalities and injustices of a caste-ridden society.

References

[1]. Guru Gopal (2002) How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India? Economic and Political Weekly 37: 5003-5009.

This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies. He was previously working as a Correspondent for The Hindu Newspaper in India.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Murder by other means : Death of a Dalit Journalist

On April 12th, Nagaraju Koppula lost his battle with cancer, and casteism. A Dalit journalist working in India, Nagaraju faced caste discrimination his entire life—a discrimination that ultimately worked to hinder his treatment and recovery.

A Murder by other means

“He died of cancer, murdered by Manu*”, wrote, with seething anger,clouded by grief, Chittibabu Padavala, a close friend of Nagaraju Koppula,probably the only English journalist from the Madiga community, a Dalit sub-caste,who caved in after a protracted,courageous and consuming struggle with lung cancer on April 12.

4 days prior to that, “I wish he could live”, read an article by Allam Narayana, the chief editor of a well-known Telugu newspaper “Namaste Telangana”, on the life and condition of Nagaraju.
Wishes, sometimes, remain just that: wishes. Wistful whispers of weary voices.

Nagaraju was born in Sarapaka Village from Bhadrachalam mandal of Krishna District to a family struggling to survive in the margins of a casteist society, wading through the straits of severe socio-economic subjugation. A father, who went missing when he was 4 years old, and a mother striving as a daily wage labourer, along with his five siblings, to keep this wrecking boat afloat. He too had to walk on this beaten track of child labour, as many in this country do every second, each a silent storm in this broken, and ever breaking, cup, at a very young age for the sake of sustenance. A construction labourer, then an ice candy-seller, and eventually a respected artist, who painted sign boards etc.,in his village.

With the sheer strength of his relentless hard work and will power in an environment socially, financially and structurally hostile, he managed to complete his M.A in the School of Journalism from the University of Hyderabad, followed by a Diploma in the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bangalore, supported by scholarships, and trained in investigative journalism and creative writing at the Tehelka School of Journalism in Delhi.

Venturing into a field with an abysmal representation of Dalits, discriminated in myriad subtle and not-so-subtle manners, he began his attempts to eke out a living from the profession of journalism. After interning at and freelancing for publications like The Hindu that deemed beneath their ‘merit’ to hire him, he landed a much-needed job at The New Indian Express which for hardly unknown reasons paid him lesser than what they did his fellow reporters. A job,no, something more than it, a dream much dearer, to which he dedicated his heart and soul, latched onto it with a zeal that left one inspired and,even,a bit concerned, expending unmatched energies in pursuit of stories.Nagaraju swept with a stunning stroke of his sincere pen a broad range of reports from the dismal state of health care for mentally ill prisoners swallowing many lives through its numbing apathy to the wildlife species hanging from the edge of extinction in the then Andhra Pradesh. From Nehru Zoological Park hosting four cheetahs from Czech Republic to a mother waiting for three years to meet her children, Nagaraju churned scores of moving and amusing stories, serving ample proof of his journalistic mettle.Consequently, it didn’t take him long to make a mark of his own in the organization inviting well-deserved acclaim.

But as it happens, time has an unmistakable penchant for tragedies.His health declined. Weight loss and repeated bouts of coughing pulled him to consult doctors in GovtTB&Chest Hospital where he was faultily diagnosed for TB based on the meagre and clearly insufficient evidence of an X-Ray. As one of his friends notes, “They did not suspect Lung Cancer because Nagaraju was a non-smoker, largely ignoring the fact that about a third of lung cancer cases occur in non-smokers.” However, the treatment, which offered no solace whatsoever, continued for 5 months. When doctors kept ignoring the repeated protestations of Nagaraju that his medical condition is worsening, he visited a private clinic where he was diagnosed with lung cancer based through a lymph node biopsy.During this period of five months, the ruthless apathy and hideous discriminatory attitudes of The New Indian Express administration were starkly palpable, to Nagaraju and his friends. According to them, refusing to provide any sort of financial assistance/health cards, as was the case with his peers, to their employee, forcing him to go on a loss of pay leave for the five months by granting a casual leave only for 12 days, reinforced their belief in the casteist and debilitating labor-hostile environment of the publication, He was able to undergo treatment with the assistance of funds from his friends and colleagues, with a discernible absence of help from media houses or journalist unions, while Nagaraju’s name had been removed from the rolls of the newspaper without any intimation.Ill fate never stopped haunting him. More often than not, kind hearts bear the most bitter wounds.He was at the receiving end of an online fraud, a case of grave cyber robbery, which siphoned off approximately 1.23 lakh rupees from his SBI account, the amount collected for his treatment. A money that would now be smelling of blood and tears in the pockets of the robbers.

Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi organised a meeting to demand justice for Dalit journalist Nagaraju.

Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi organised a meeting to demand justice for Dalit journalist Nagaraju.

A very heart-warming campaign, initiated by his friends and well-wishers, “Justice For Nagaraju” had been afoot to bring to light the grievances of the then bedridden, with unstable consciousness, Nagaraju, to fight for the rightful justice he deserves, to indict The New Indian Express authorities for its casteist crimes, right from the unequal pay to the egregious negligence of his decaying health, demand for radical reforms in the functioning of the Media houses and Journalist Unions and, of course, to raise assistance, financial and moral, to improve the rapidly sinking condition of Nagaraju, a journalist this cursed land didn’t deserve.

The campaign had gained traction in social media circles’ and been successful in grabbing the attention of the government, which promised some financial aid, Civil rights activists’ such as famous balladeer Gaddar, intellectuals, artists, journalists, politicians etc. from the state, some of whom visited him personally, lend him their much-needed-support. Protests against the casteist administration of the Indian express were under way in places such as the University Of Hyderabad with encouraging involvement of the students, activists etc.

Before death decided to pull down the curtains on this disheartening tragedy, to force a full-stop into this sentence of maladies…before Manu snatched the final breath from the battered lungs of Nagaraju….a slow and deliberate murder…a murder by other means…a murder, scripted,in treacherous detail, in the holy books of hideous history…

A delegation comprising of The University of Hyderabad Contract Employees’ Union, the Democratic Teachers’ Network and the Telangana Students Association met the editor of The New Indian Express, G Vasu. The latter denied rejecting Nagaraju’s leave applications after Nagaraju fell sick and said he had granted him leave twice in 2013. He denied any unwillingness to provide him with medical assistance and reimbursement and said the administration was willing to provide medical help, but Nagaraju never applied for help or used his health card.Their statement also highlights, and reinforces, what many of those close to Nagaraju already knew,

“As a team we found that there were several violations of ethical conduct in how Nagaraju has been treated. Striking is the absence of a forum where he could take up the issues of caste discrimination which he said he had faced in the organization. Another key structural issue is that of contractualization of workforce, which was used by the New Indian Express administration to legitimize the taking off of Nagaraju from the pay rolls and the lack of proper medical benefits. Excuses such as Nagaraju not asking for or accepting medical help, can not be validated in today’s context, and also can not be used to justify the administration’s illegal act of not providing for medical benefits to their employee. “

 

In a press release, the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) paid tribute to him and demanded that Dalit journalists, who are anyway so few in number, be protected against casteist behaviour of superiors in media organisations. “In the rare scenario that a Dalit journalist is able to enter the upper caste stranglehold of news organisations, let the managements be careful to not exploit or subject these journalists to any sort of discrimination at the work place”, the DUJ release said.

Delhi Union of Journalists organised a memorial meeting for Nagaraju.

Delhi Union of Journalists organised a memorial meeting for Nagaraju.

Some deaths, come flying from above, pushed by the storm of misfortunes, to pierce us below the eyes, where sighs and tears rest. While others nest, all our lives, in a muted corner of our hearts,waiting for the saddest moment to strike from within us. We weep. We write. Some to remember. Some to forget. We huddle in silent spaces, alone, together, with our memories: Of us before, with, and,now, after him.

Nagaraju, a rural poor dalit, a Madiga, who broke all the boundaries that didn’t want to be touched sullying the purity of many-a-agrahara, who strenuously climbed the ladders, laden with pieces of broken glass, of the system, held onto it with his remaining breath, while the long arms of an unjust milieu kept tugging, from below, at his legs, weary from fighting all through his life. Nagaraju, a heart wrenching reminder of the efficiency of walls, cemented with bricks of inherited wealth and status, to exclude, and to kill slowly those they couldn’t.

Nagaraju, a flowering smile on a wilting face.
Nagaraju, a bed ridden hope of faintly filled stomachs.
Nagaraju, a moon passing beneath the clouds as the night slowly closes its moist eyes…
Nagaraju, the immortal flame of unlit candles…
Farewell, Nagaraju.
To gentler lands with kinder beings.

 

This obituary was written by Abul Kalam Azad, he is a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, Chennai. (With inputs from Chittibabu Padavala,Swathi and Friends of Justice for Dalit Journalist Nagaraju Koppala Campaign)

 

Notes:
*Manu is a Hindu Mythological figure who had scripted an extremely prominent text Manusmriti, which codifies the heinous and hideous rules, the Dharma, that should govern the workings of the caste system. Manu, hence, is a widely referenced casteist symbol/icon.

Hindutva and the Politics of Cleaning

Before the Hindu Führer (read Narendra Modi) falls back to his usual, even inevitable, ‘politics of cleansing’, he strayed to a ‘politics of cleaning’. Just as Hindutva is a project of purging Hinduism of its constitutive divisions, its long-standing tendency to be above the rough and tumble and the reach of temporal power, its reflective cowardice, the dynamics of which were detailed in the work of probably the greatest of Indian historians D. D. Kosambi, who is not much known even within the country.

Another way is to see Hindutva as a sincere attempt to model Hinduism after Sangh’s own distorted picture of global Islam. The latest move of Führer’s might as well be an attempt to address the Hindu civilization’s most glaring paradox: the inversely proportional relation between its ritualistic obsession with purity and its spectacularly ghastly uncleanliness for all the world to see and smell. Hindutva is a sort of public-spirited Hinduism. As sociologists have long known and even can be accused of making a fetish of it, purity is central to Hinduism, just as it is for fascism. Hindutva, a murderous mixture of both, obviously will have to resolve the issue of purity, in new ways for new times of accelerated tourism and globalization, future war and ongoing genocide.

This apparently pseudo gesture with the broom would invariably go beyond the Führer’s initial and limited intentions, which, I guess, include, bringing back to his fold, the estranged kin of Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), with a propaganda (arm) twist—with this, the surprising anomaly of Arvind Kejriwal (Leader of Common Man’s Party whose election symbol is broom) being the only heroic fighter against Modi is smoothed out (I am borrowing here from a wit named Uday Chandra (a scholar based in Gottingen), minus his laconic brilliance; appealing to the international community’s image of Gandhi and releasing Gandhi from the hijackers of Nehru Family and restoring him to where he properly belongs (Sangh), and addressing something real which strikes every Non-Indian or Non-Resident Indian upon hearing the word ‘India’, but rarely uttered, either out of politeness or apathy, in that order: the inhuman, barbaric state of Indian public places.

Image 1: Narendra Modi during a 'Clean India' campaign launch in Newd Delhi

Image 1: Narendra Modi during a ‘Clean India’ campaign launch in New Delhi

If traditional Hinduism and its colonial and post-colonial accomplice states forced particular region-specific castes with the burden of cleaning all the filth that cannot be left in private and public spaces, the Führer, for a moment, nationalised it before international cameras turned away from him. There is a certain fakery, dishonesty, even mockery in this spectacle, which will any way be exposed and ripped apart by critical observers and social media. Such work is absolutely important. But, who is not a hypocrite when it comes to the question of manual scavenging and sanitation labour? Not even Dalits (former untouchable castes) and Dalit champions, if one observes critically.

I am yet to come across a fellow Dalit or Marxist activist from Mala, Mahar, Madiga, Paraiyar, Chamar or Paswan who has fallen in love with a person from Safai Karamchari community. My own community is into manual scavenging in Chennai, where I studied and worked, even as we back in Andhra had been liberated from it more than a generation ago. In the mainstream or even radical Dalit discourses and politics, focus on this inhuman institution is as marginal as the very important issue of the Hindu state of India’s war on Tribals.

However, this state of affairs doesn’t stop individuals from relatively advanced Dalit castes, such as mine, from invoking the institution of ‘manual scavenging’ to convince the skeptics, apologists and denialists, routinely. Still, none of the rights thus achieved, by convincing or coercing those in power to spare some meager resources, have served to address the forced sanitation work in subhuman conditions.

Few Ambedkarite associations care to take up even symbolic struggles, either against this inhuman institution or for the welfare of those stuck in the profession concerned. Let alone the actual work, there isn’t even as much as serious discussion about it as an important responsibility of organizations. No wonder then, that the pressing task of welfare of the cleaning workers, before the eradication of such work, is left with NGOs who are alleged to be among the most corrupt where the biggest of such organisation ironically operates from Gujarat, and which is in cahoots with the Führer, during 2002 and since.

Though these funded reformers roped in the greatest activist for this cause, Bezawada Wilson (a well-known Dalit activist working to eradicate manual scavenging), they succeeded in keeping Dalits away from any anti-fascist politics and surely from the stated task of improving the lot of manual scavengers and eradication of the repugnant vocation.

Image 2: A Conservancy worker cleaning a choked drain by manually entering a manhole in India, via The Hindu

Image 2: A Conservancy worker cleaning a choked drain by manually entering a manhole in India

So, nobody is clean as far as this institution of compelling one community to clean up everybody’s filth goes. Modi is not the only hypocrite in this. There is only one ultimate solution for the twin problems of ubiquitous filth in our habitats, and one people being laden with the task of cleaning it, based on their birth. That is, ensuring that the cleaning job is not unclean either in its process or the society’s perception of those involved in it.

Before this is achieved, conditional as it is upon changes in infrastructure, attitudes and Dalit activism’s priorities, the work of cleaning is to be universalized. Smart-sounding solutions that each must take care of the filth they create do not always work in the prevailing conditions. Let there still be the practice of some people cleaning the filth created by society, but those some people need not be the same ones always. This responsibility can rotate.

Cleaning service should be made compulsory for everybody irrespective of their regular profession. Trust me, once non-Dalits are compelled to do it, working conditions, workers’ rights, technological interventions, and funding will dramatically improve. For this to happen, the communities confined to, or forced into this profession are to be targeted for alternative employment, through education and cultural change, not just among these communities, but also among those forcing them into such condition.

This is possible only through sincere work by Dalit organizations, which is again conditional upon such organizations ceasing to be the exclusive preserves of government employees from single better-off castes of respective regions. So, first universalize sanitation work, before its final eradication. One might think it is unrealistic suggestion, or, at least, a distant dream. If this doesn’t happen– sure it will not, even through the most serious exertion of dictatorial powers of the Führer (who is going to only tighten screws on the polity and bureaucracy)– if not accompanied by Dalit activism.

If not diverted to the real purpose and challenges of sanitation, the theme of purity will only grow to its sanguinary overtones, from further sexual repression of all women to younger generation in general, to further vilification of Muslim slum dwellers, to war on Love Jihad (an alleged campaign against Muslim youth that they force conversion of non-Muslim girls to Islam feigning Love), to cleansing streets of the unsightly populations, mono-religious gated communities, stigmatization of meat-shops and many more such countless ways of branding, to a radical cleansing of a people.

This feature was written by Chittibabu Padavala.

Chittibabu Padavala is a Dalit activist based in Hyderabad. He can be contacted via email at dalitsociologist@gmail.com

Image Source: Image 1 via NBC; Image 2 via The Hindu

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