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A Dalit Experience At WSF

By Zeynep Toufe

31 January, 2005
Under the Same Sun

Just when I was beginning to wonder if all that jet fuel was worth coming to these large meetings, I stumbled onto one of those events that can only be experienced in person -- one that is so powerful that it's hard to put into words, but I will try.

I attended a panel organized by the Dalit, the so-called untouchable castes, of India. It's very hot here and one is physically thirsty, which is hard to ignore since it's so physical a need. I think, similarly, many of us in rich countries lead lives that leave one's soul feeling thirsty -- but unlike physical thirst, you can learn to ignore it until someone gives you a cool, clear glass of "water" drawn from a different kind of well. Then you remember.

As I briefly mentioned in the earlier post, such big meetings are a very mixed bag. No real interaction is possible in the big panels. They are crucial, especially for having a sense of what many global movements, at least the portion that comes to these events, are thinking about. Plus, I now have a lot of info about a lot of important info on upcoming events and campaigns. In that sense, I have a lot of useful contacts that I will put to good use over the next year. Still, it all leaves one wondering if one would miss anything if all the names, contact info and talks were simply transcribed and posted online.

So, yesterday afternoon, tired, hot, severely underslept, I stopped by a panel entitled "Land Rights" -- it had a little subtitle which mentioned the "Dalits," commonly known as the "untouchable castes" of India. I normally roam through many panels in any given session: I listen a bit, pick up literature and move on -- there are so many simultaneous events and I want to make the best use of my time here. I have some superficial knowledge of the situation of the Dalits, and I know many South Asians -- mostly from the educated diaspora, of course. Plus, like all people that ever go to a large city, I interact with many South Asian cab drivers, food stall workers, convenience store clerks, etc. So, I have an image in my mind.

I stepped into the tent and the first thing that struck me was the people. I just sat down and thought, wow, I have never met any of these people. I have never encountered them. Not as cab drivers, not as university professors. There were about a few dozen of them mingling around and they were all black. Actual black. Black as in an ebony color rather than the usual range of browns that I associate with South Asians. It was very striking.

Paul Divakar, of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights moderated the panel and gave the first talk. It's really the difference between "knowing" something in the abstract and sitting there, looking at a human being and feeling in your heart that this is the ugly truth of this world. Of course I knew the dalits were discriminated against. Still, I felt crushed by the weight of just listening to him explain how they were thought of as the "polluted people," how they were always denied land so that they would be forced to be semi-slaves to the landlords and the dominant castes, how they were forced into occupations considered unclean by the others such as collecting the dead, cleaning up human waste, skinning cows and garbage work in general, how they were to this day beaten up, killed, tortured and raped if they dared to claim a bit of the rights that were accorded to them on paper, how everything was arranged to continue this situation in perpetuity... It was hard listening to it; these people lived it. And you knew it was true. It's just one of those things; you just know this person is telling you a truth.

And the difference between this panel and the the panels by experts, NGOs, even activists from richer countries came up very quickly. At appropriate times, Paul broke into slogans, enthusiastically joined by the Dalit in the crowd. It was one of the most sincere, the least contrived instances I have even encountered of people shouting slogans. I think I have become jaded a bit with all the big demonstrations I have attended in the U.S. I keep feeling almost bored in some of them. I mean, we yell stuff but we don't really mean it. We're not really going to try to stop the Bush administration from waging war. Not really. We will finish the rally and all go home. And all the marchers know this. So does the administration. I I feel fake yelling "No Blood for Oil," or "No War." There will be blood for oil and there will be war because we will allow it. All we are going to do is yell and then go home and do very little else.

So, the Dalits breaking into slogans really shook me because it was like being handed a cup of actual homemade soup after eating a lot of fake, highly-processed versions that come in cans or plastic from supermarkets. All of a sudden, you think, ah, this is what it was meant to be. This is what a slogan is. This is what it sounds like. This is how it is shouted. This is how it is joined. That was processed cheese.

After Paul, a dalit woman from Nari Gunjan, Sudha Varghese, took the floor. Paul introduced her by saying don't be fooled by her size, she fights a good fight -- physically too. She quietly told of struggles of the Musahar community, which apparently means those who catch and eat rats. (This was something I encountered in Chiapas villages: some of the Mayan ethnic groups look down upon the Tojolobal, another ethnic Mayan group because they believe them to be rat-eaters.) Instead of denying that they eat rats, something the Tojolobal will vehemently deny, she explained what the name of her group meant and simply said, yes, I have shared that tasty meal with members of my community. And went on to explain how, after many years of struggle, they had managed to have a little bit of access to a small section of irrigated land, how that had angered the nearby landlords, and how the landlords had managed to obtain eviction orders for the Dalit. In response, the women of the community put their bodies between the bulldozers and their huts whenever the bulldozers showed up and refused to move. So far, through great unity and a lot of fighting, she says, they have managed to stay put for the last two years. She told of other instances where a woman in the community was badly beaten up for daring to ask for a bit more in wages. The woman had had the courage to bring charges against her high-caste abuser. Alas, all her family was threatened so badly that she withdrew the charges -- to no avail. Her two daughters were raped and she was told that her husband was going to be killed too. The family fled, escaping barely with their lives. She talked about how common such atrocities are, how there are great laws on the books that are never implemented, and how they barely cling to survival by banding together.

I felt the audience was shell-shocked after Sudha's talk. You get this sense in your heart that every word is true and you don't know what to say or do. Cry? Apologize? Run? After her talk, the translation system needed fiddling so there was a break at which point ... three drummers and a singer appeared from the audience, took the microphone and broke into a song! It was like those stereotypical Indian movies! And all the Dalits joined in and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of a mini-festival. I remember thinking that this was the most uncynical space I have been in a very long time -- and it comes from people who face such massive injustice that one could hardly blame them if they lost all hope, and hated the world that mistreats them so horrifically. Often, one hears people talk of apathy and cynicism as resulting from lack of success. How can that be if these people who have mountains to move, and faced such crushing oppression for thousands of years, do not display a shred of apathy? You feel it sitting there, listening: they are fighting hard, they are struggling against it all with every ounce of their being. They're unfazed. They aren't "moving to Canada," as it were.

Many speakers talked about how "globalization" made things much worse for them. I want to write some more about that at some point, the numbers were really striking. It's clear that the neo-liberal machine is decimating communities like these that were marginally surviving to begin with. Some speakers spoke of how this neo-liberal "advanced capitalism" was strengthening feudal institutions like the caste system. They had solidarity speakers who came from other discriminated people like the plantation workers in Sri Lanka and the Quilombola people in Brazil, descendents of escaped slave communities. They talked about the Buraku community in Japan who faces similar discrimination.

As the speakers were revolving, I noticed a white man, neatly-dressed and clean-shaven, sitting among those waiting to speak. He had this "I stay in an expensive hotel paid by my big NGO" look on him. He was introduced as working at the U.N., in Geneva, for the Lutheran World Federation. I braced for the semi-boring NGOspeak that I had heard so much of the last few days. Hah. He got up, took the microphone and promptly shouted "Jai Bhim!" -- and the dalits joined him with enthusiasm. It was the most unexpected thing coming from a person who looked like he did: I thought, wow, he has gone native! And who could blame him! I was reminded of that scene in Dances With Wolves when "Lt. John Dunbar," captured by the army after having spent a long time among the Sioux, suddenly refuses to speak English and keeps repeating "My Name is Dances With Wolves; I'm a Sioux" as the soldiers beat him up. (I later learned Jai Bhim means "Long live Bhim!" and "honours Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a political leader from the independence era who introduced an affirmative-action programme for Dalits in the Indian constitution.") He sat down after a short speech interrupted by many slogans, initiated by him or the Dalit...

Paul Divakar closed the panel by talking about a few things that had impressed him in Brazil. One, he said, was driving along the highway and seeing how much of the land had fences, meaning people had ownership of that land. His people, he said, longed for that. That bit of land which would give them the dignity, would free them from being at the mercy of the dominated castes. I had never thought of looking at fences with a longing. I normally think of fences as a negative thing. But I understood what he was saying. It is their dispossession that reduces their lives to semi-slavery. In fact, many of the Dalit speakers reiterated this point: without land, we will not be treated as human beings of any worth. He talked about meeting with the landless peasants in Brazil and finding how common their feelings were. Second, he said, he noticed that the garbage carts weren't mechanized. He said he saw a garbage worker pulling along a huge cart. Why, he asked, does a society which has cars, trucks and so much mechanization will let a man pull garbage like that? It was very appropriate that he, coming from a people forced into garbage cleaning, would notice that while we probably all see the same thing without the appropriate heavy heart. He also talked about an eight-story building the homeless had occupied at the center of Porto Allegre during the WSF to register their protest with the current government. His group went there and put a Dalit flag on the third floor. That's the Dalit, he said: the landless, the homeless, the dispossessed.

Towards the end, Paul also made a point of talking about the proposal forms that the WSF has been distributing. I had looked at the forms and rolled my eyes. The WSF is at once an open space, but also an institution a tightly controlled by a few, powerful groups which have long resisted calls from many people that the WSF turn partially into a body that can adopt resolutions and declarations. We come, we talk, we go. We don't even have a declaration that says we oppose the war on Iraq! There is a lot of dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. So, these "proposals" on single sheets of paper are to be placed onto the "murals of proposals" in various tents and it's unclear what will happen to the tens of thousands of papers that will be filled in this manner. It really feels like a symbolic measure with no teeth to shut up the critics. By now Paul had dropped Dalit issues and was urging people to fill out these proposals. "If we don't participate, our voices will have no chance" he said, basically.

Once again, it was so uncynical that I didn't know what to feel. Well, first and foremost ,of course, he's right. I should write down a proposal or two. Maybe they won't even be read. Maybe they will receive a hundred thousand pieces of paper that say we want to be able to make collective declarations. Who knows? But the right attitude is to participate fully and forcefully, whatever the structure.

So, as they opened up the panel to questions and comments, I got up and thanked them and told them how I was on the verge of being overwhelmed --and almost bored-- with all the panels, and the long speeches, and the meetings. That I was deeply grateful for being subjected to their infectious determination. I urged them to continue to travel in person to such meetings. I tried to explain what a privilege it felt like to be in their presence. Afterwards couple of them pulled me aside and interviewed me on tape on this topic, I suspect to explain to their members back at home why all this travel is not a waste of their few resources. They did explain that, of course, cost was a real issue for them but they have so far found that it is worth it and that they try to bring as many people as they can afford. I got my very own "Dalit Rights" black armband, which I'm wearing along with the "Global Call to Action Against Poverty" white band as I type this, and we exchanged email addresses, handshakes and hugs.

Then, of course, they sent us off with a song.

[Zeynep Toufe runs the blog Under the Same Sun and is at the World Social Forum 2005 in Porto Alegre. This was taken from her blog.]











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