That casteism lives on in the Indian countryside is evident from an encounter that a team from the All India Democratic Women's Association had in a Tamil Nadu village. MYTHILI SIVARAMAN reports.
Fighting untouchability... the women from AIDWA agitating before the Perambalur Collectorate, Tamil Nadu.
THE proposal of the Tamil Nadu Government more than a year ago to supply free bicycles to Dalit girls in Std. XI and XII was appreciated by several organisations including the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) as it symbolised freedom of mobility and self-confidence for the most downtrodden. However, when this year's budget allocation for the scheme was announced recently, AIDWA's response was muted, as it found out that having a bicycle is not all one needs to pedal away.
If you were a Dalit schoolgirl in Perali, a village in Perambalur district, you would be in serious trouble if you cycled through the upper caste street and got caught by the varnashrama enforcement squad. You would be safe only if you kept off the oor (caste Hindu neighbourhood) streets or had a sense of self-preservation that would have made you get off and walk. Or, if you were unlucky enough in this jet age to be riding a bullock cart, you would do well to get down along with the cart driver and walk. AIDWA's work with Dalits in Tamil Nadu over a decade has confirmed extensive prevalence of such despicable forms of untouchability. One standard XI schoolboy in Perali, who had won a prize in school, had excitedly cycled into the oor street. He was rudely pushed down and shown his place.
An AIDWA survey of 58 villages in the area threw up a litany of untouchability practices, including the bicycle ban. Deciding to take direct action on this, AIDWA declared the Perambalur Collectorate "under siege" on September 12 and sought action against different forms of untouchability practiced in the district; they were held in custody till the evening. The survey results were presented to the Collector's office. Only when the AIDWA monthly magazine Sindanai that contained a summary of the findings was given to him did the district collector order an investigation. The findings were not made public and AIDWA's demand that the official fact-finding team's report be made public got no response.
Getting no response to its report, AIDWA announced that, on December 14, Dalit boys and girls would cycle through the caste Hindu streets with its national President, Subhashini Ali, and State leaders participating. Twenty-two boys and girls signed up to participate. The administration immediately swung into action and called a "peace committee" meeting on December 7, attended mostly by Dalits.
Two days later, monitored by the Revenue Divisional Officer, nine Dalit boys cycled into forbidden territory, a feat that has not been repeated since. One boy later told a local AIDWA leader that, for the first time in his life, he had experienced freedom. AIDWA saw no reason to call off the cycle rally and the oor residents retaliated by closing all teashops and groceries and cutting off cable connections as all such services were run by non-Dalits. On December 11, the administration convened another "peace committee" attended by both communities and a "peace document" that most Dalits present did not get to read was adopted whereby the oor agreed to lift the closure.
The administration announced a ban on AIDWA's cycle rally. When the AIDWA team arrived on December 14, the police informed them that the cycle rally was redundant and would endanger peace. On AIDWA's insistence, the police agreed to a limited number of persons cycling in the street. As the team alighted at the entrance to the hamlet and walked through the Dalit streets towards the oor, it found almost the entire population with women in the front blocking the way. The police went through the motions of "reasoning" with the belligerent residents, who were booing with raised hands to prevent the team from entering.
It was obvious that the police had already assured them that the team would not be let into the village. The police and the oor residents harped on the theme that the team members were "outsiders"! AIDWA tried to engage the women in a dialogue but that only made them spit out their caste-venom, belying the stories the administration had put out that the two communities were at "peace" with each other.
The truth was out soon when the women, in a fit of caste frenzy, said, "Those people have not come to our streets so far. And we will not let them inside in future. If they are allowed, what will happen to our self-respect?" How sad that one's self-respect had to depend on another's humiliation!
The team members explained their position to the hostile crowd and left. One common lament of the men and women in the encounter at Perali was: "We are not upholding the caste system and splitting people in the name of caste. It is the Government that is doing it. Why do they ask for your caste for school admission, for jobs... ? Stop these concessions." It was obvious that those who were in the `lower' levels of the Hindu caste hierarchy, layered by centuries of caste oppression they themselves had suffered, could redeem their self-worth only by unleashing similar repression on those declared to be outside the caste system.
Casteism is thus safely entrenched as a respectable not despicable identity. Caste-less and hence status-less, the dalits are yet trapped into the Hindu hierarchy, to boost the "superiority" of non-Brahmin Caste Hindus.
The Collector who assured the team that he was very "proactive" also claimed in the same breath that to him "the most important thing was to maintain peace in the village". Everything else came after that.
The word "peace" used liberally by the State in caste as well as class conflict situations is essentially peace based on repression and its acquiescence. Was ever, in the history of human civilisation, peace with justice achieved by protecting `peace' that really means compromise with injustice. At "peace" was protected only by ignoring gross injustice, and in fact, by conniving with it.
The larger issue raised by the Perali incident is that untouchability cannot be eliminated while keeping the caste system intact, though Gandhi seemed to have believed it could. This is the lesson that the tortured lives of Dalits have sought to teach us through the centuries. When will we be ready to learn from this? And at what cost?
The writer is a well-known activist and Working President of the All India Democratic Women's Association, Tamil Nadu.
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