|AFTER more than five decades since independence, though the Indian constitution proclaims the equality of all citizens, what is the reality on the ground? The Vedas are being invoked to uphold the highly inegalitarian and hierarchical varnashrama system as the God's own creation, implying that to challenge it is to insult the God! In contemporary India, reactionaries and fundamentalists invoke the sanctions of the caste system to deny the Dalits and other oppressed communities all access to economic and social progress.
THE STATUS DALITS
Dalits are to be found in substantial numbers among the class of agricultural labourers --- marginalised socially, economically and politically. They, by and large, lack access to property and gainful employment. They stand deprived of land, their self-respect has been destroyed and they have been, may one say, socially plundered. Though the constitution grants them certain rights, these are now openly, now subtly denied to them. They remain a socially oppressed community. However, unlike in the past, Dalits are no longer willing to meekly submit to oppression. Angry at the denial of basic rights, Dalits are becoming increasingly aware of their conditions of existence and beginning to militantly fight for their democratic rights. Reactionary forces among caste Hindus are alarmed at the democratic upsurge among Dalits and seek to intensify caste oppression. The Left and democratic forces, on the other hand, are taking up the cause of social and economic justice and striving to advance the struggle against caste oppression.
The Tamilnadu unit of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) had held a zonal convention against untouchability under the slogan "Dalit rights are also human rights." Held at Pudukkottai in July 2002, women delegates from 6 districts had attended that convention, the first of its kind. It was a highly successful event, enabled AIDWA activists to share the rich experience at the grassroots and inspired them to take the movement forward.
Based on that experience, the state AIDWA held yet another zonal convention on December 18, at Udumalpet in Coimbatore district, attended by 190 women from 9 western districts --- Karur, Namakkal, Erode, Salem, Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Tiruppur and Coimbatore. Of the delegates, 132 were Dalit, with the rest coming from non-Dalit sections.
Considerable preparations preceded the convention. A detailed questionnaire covering various modes, forms and mechanisms of oppression of Dalits was prepared and sent to various districts. A preparatory meeting took place in Tiruppur on November 22. It decided to conduct a survey in at least ten villages in each district. From the data obtained, R Chandra prepared a draft report on the survey.
At Udumalpet, the convention on December 18 began with homage to the five Dalits killed by caste Hindu fanatics in Haryana. Semmalar, AIDWA district secretary in Tiruppur, welcomed the gathering. In her inaugural address, state AIDWA assistant secretary and Dindigul MLA, Balabharathi, pointed out how the "two-glass" system (one for Dalits, the other for caste Hindus) still prevailed in restaurants and eateries throughout the state. Cattle may bathe in village tanks and ponds, but not Dalits. Temples functioning under the government's Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department practise untouchability. In some rural areas, discrimination is practised even in buses. Balabharathi referred to village Peroli in Perambalur district where a huge mass of non-Dalit women and men met the AIDWA state and national leaders at village entrance, asking them to lead a protest bicycle rally by Dalits along the village streets. In Peroli, Dalits are not allowed to ride bicycles in the streets where caste Hindus live. Yet the district administration claimed that untouchability did not exist in Peroli and 'advised' the AIDWA leaders "not to cause any trouble." Deploring the sorry state of affairs, Balabharathi urged that, even while upholding people's unity, AIDWA activists must forge the struggle for elimination of untouchability.
MODES OF DISCRIMINATION
R Chandra's report summarised the information obtained from the AIDWA survey on practices of untouchability in the nine districts from where the delegates had come. She pointed out that even according to state government records, untouchability was being practised in 7,000 villages in the state. Chandra's report revealed the following modes of practice of untouchability:
The AIDWA survey's findings gave a lie to the claims of the government and its bureaucracy that Dalits face no discrimination.
- Ban on Dalits: They cannot
(a) use footwear while going through the caste Hindu streets,
(b) draw water from public ponds and wells,
(c) use public cemeteries or cremation grounds,
(d) throw a towel slung over their shoulders,
(e) enter temples, and
(f) ride bicycles in caste Hindu streets.
- Two-glass system in teashops and eateries: one for Dalits and the other for non-Dalits.
- Calling Dalits by name, even by 'upper' caste children.
- Use of caste appellations to call or abuse Dalits.
- Forcing Dalits for odd jobs, to beat drums at festivals and dig burial pits at funerals.
- Disrespectful attitude towards Dalits elected to local bodies.
- Sexual violence against Dalit women.
- Harassing Dalits by falsely implicating them in cases and dragging them to police stations and courts. A case in point is the gruesome death of Karuppi, a Dalit woman from Paramakkudi, who was detained and tortured in police lock-up for six days.
In the discussion on the report, there was a sharing of rich experience from the field. In practically all the districts surveyed, a good proportion of the 'group houses' built for Dalits under a government scheme were in a poor state. Dalits are generally unable to access public taps for water. While they can ride bicycles or use footwear in caste Hindu streets in urban or semi-urban areas, this is not so in many villages.
Delegates to the convention reported several specific problems.
In Sankagiri in Salem district, caste Hindu gounders dominate milk societies. They refuse to directly accept milk brought by Dalit women who are asked to pour the milk into a separate drum. Dalits are harassed when they try to rear livestock. Velayee, from village Thodalur in Salem district, reported that Dalit huts were burnt down after a dispute over a local temple festival. Pappathi from Ganapathy in Coimbatore said the cremation ground allotted to Dalits is so small that Dalits are humiliated even in death, as they are made to wait for cremation.
The discussion also brought to light the extent to which Dalits have internalised and submitted to the ideology of caste oppression. Palaniammal of Peelamedu (Coimbatore) raised the question why Dalits must try to compete with or demand equality with non-Dalits when God has Himself made them inferior. Indirani from village Avarampalayam (Peelamedu) echoed her sense of helplessness; she was at a loss as to how untouchability could be fought in her area. Deivanai of Udumalpet recalled a childhood experience that left an indelible scar. When she was just 9 years old, caste Hindus forced her family to vacate their place of residence and move to another village. There was also different experiences. A Dalit woman in Deivanai's village had married a Brahmin; the family is now cultivating some land in the village.
Delegates from village Iduvai (Tiruppur) recalled the courageous role played by Rathinasamy of the CPI(M) in fighting for Dalit rights. One delegate said though she herself belonged to the DMK, she always turned to Rathinasamy for help; it was he who put an end to the two-glass system in the village. It was a tragic and irreparable loss, she said, that the upper castes had murdered him. His martyrdom, while a big blow to Dalits and other oppressed sections, would inspire them to fight on.
LANDLESSNESS AND OPPRESSION
The AIDWA survey as well as the interventions by delegates brought out the fact that an overwhelming majority of Dalit families are landless. Thus in village Ammasipalayam, out of 500 Dalit families, only 7 had any land. In several villages such as Erumaipatti and Panakkaranpatti (which translates, ironically enough, into "rich man's village"), Dalits had no land at all.
The practice of untouchability in various forms seems to be particularly severe in Namakkal district, despite its commercial modernity. In this district, Dalits can offer coconuts to gods not in a stainless steel utensil, but in a wooden basket. Even then, the priest won't touch the coconut or break it, as he would for the caste Hindus, though he would happily take the cash offered along with the coconut in the basket! Even Dalits going to Sabarimala for worshipping Iyyappa are not blessed by the local caste Hindu priest.
At the convention, a victim movingly narrated a particularly gruesome instance of violence. She is a 30-year old Dalit woman from village Elichatty in Dharmapuri district, and her husband is a wage labourer. One Nagappa raped her in the fields. When the cruel incident came to light, even her husband was hostile and refused to take her back into the house. It was only after intervention by a local AIDWA activist Kamalamma and by CPI(M) state committee member Lagumayya that the husband changed his mind and accepted her back. A case has been filed in the criminal court, and is being pursued by the AIDWA and CPI(M). Her testimony moved everyone at the convention as it brought home the fact that Dalit women are thrice oppressed --- by class, by caste and by gender --- and that it is the AIDWA and CPI(M) that consistently fight for them against all odds.
A total of 21 delegates spoke on the report. The overall response was one of determination to fight the widespread practice of untouchability and caste oppression under the AIDWA's banner, in alliance with other progressive forces.
State AIDWA vice president Vijayalakshmi and assistant secretary Ambika greeted the convention. AIDWA CEC member Amirtham moved the resolution on an end to various forms of untouchability and caste oppression.
Delivering the concluding address at the convention, state AIDWA general secretary U Vasuki explained the AIDWA's role in taking up women's issues in Tamilnadu for over 3 decades. She shared her experiences from the AIDWA's recent campaign on food security. Turning to the issues facing Dalits in general and Dalit women in particular, Vasuki referred to the brutal killing of Karuppi of Paramakkudi in police lock-up and said that, undaunted by threats and repression, the struggle for justice would continue. She said the unflinching unity and ever-widening awareness would make the struggle victorious.
Spirited singing of the Tamil version of "We shall overcome" concluded the convention.