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Dalits in India 2000

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

In six of the villages I went to, the resolutions of the Panchayat resolved that the committee will buy chairs for the office to avoid having Dalits on an equal footing with others.

If you go to Haryana, this is not an issue because in Haryana the upper castes will sit on the chair and the Dalit Sarpanch will sit on the floor. Dalit women representatives are excluded by very creative means in different places in various parts of the country. We were talking about regional variations. I mean the amount of creativity in this is simply stunning. That is what I call the Bundelkhand method, the Haryana method.

The Bundelkhand method is very simple: the night before there are votes on a major issue half the Panchayat goes on a pilgrimage. The Dalits are forced at gunpoint to go to a temple a hundred miles away. So although the Dalits are in a majority in the Panchayat, they lose the vote because half the Panchayat cannot vote. That is the Bundelkhand method.

A pan-Indian method is to bog down the electorate. Dalit women who become Sarpanch as a result of affirmative action programs are often manipulated and intimidated out of office, and often into jail. The more feudal the area, the more likely this is to happen.

The third method, probably the cleverest and most sophisticated, involves common property resources. One of the biggest issues raging in the countryside is the privatization of common property resources that is crushing agricultural laborers. Traditionally every village had a common patch. The reason why the ruling elites tolerated the common patch was because they needed the labor of the poor. So you give them some ground where they had some neem trees, mango trees, and perhaps where there was a stream, from where they could fetch water, graze cattle, etc. Now technology is pushing the poor out of these regions. In Haryana, for instance, if 1,000 people were once needed for a particular job, by the ‘70s the tractor came and reduced that 1,000 to 200, so it no longer made sense to have such extensive common property resources. Struggles were going on over common property resources in Haryana and the Dalits swept the elections and especially the women won handsomely in the elections. In the Panchayats of Bandh and Kachroli, in both these villages the women dominated the Panchayat, now their life depends on that common patch.

If you privatize that common patch you are killing them. Despite the number, the upper castes still manage to win the vote since in every village in India the infrastructure is concentrated in the upper caste colonies. The village bank, if there is one, will be in the upper caste colony; the water tank if there is one, will be in the upper caste colony, etc. The panchayat meeting will be called late at night and no Dalit woman enters the basti after 6pm. So simply by holding the meeting 9:30pm will insure that over half of the members will not be able to attend because the women are terrified of entering that colony. The upper castes will simply conclude that these uneducated people do not come for meetings, so they win, and this is how the common lands are privatized.

Let us talk about education in India because there are mistaken ideas about how much access the lower castes have. The vast majority of students who drop out in elementary school are lower-caste girls. If you take a class like Jabuya, the education of the upper classes is entirely funded by the Adivasis because in any district the Dalits are in a majority. The Social Welfare Department pays for the education and Jabuya in Madhya Pradesh has a tribal majority.

If you go to primary school in Jabuya, the demographic division will be honestly reflected in class one: 85 per cent will be tribals and 15 per cent will be non-tribals. By the time you get to high school, the percentage is exactly reversed. This is the problem the government of Madhya Pradesh has wrestled with for years but they are at least serious about it. Dalit girls drop out because of child labor and acute poverty but also because of the torture inflicted on them by fellow students. These girls tend to be bhangis, the ones who clean latrines and you don’t need to be an expert on caste to know who the bhangi girls are because they are not allowed to sit with the rest of the class. They sit in the corner, near the door, where the shoes of the other students are kept. They are not allowed to sit on the pattis that other Indian rural students sit on, they have their own sacks. When the girl enters the class, all the other children mock them and start singing, “Bhanghi ayee hai (the latrine-cleaner has come). The girl bursts into tears and runs away and refuses to go back to school.