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The Power Of Sustenance

By Goldy M. George

17 November, 2004

Painful Childhood of Narayanaswamy

A Dalit boy during his teenage witnessed caste oppression. His own beloved grandfather, father, mother and people of his community were ill treated, humiliated and beaten up by the so-called “upper caste” people. This boy grew not with affection and care but amidst atrocities, discrimination, oppression and humiliation. This childhood experience and exposure to the Indian social reality of caste oppression later made him to take very strong stand to vehemently challenge the oppression of the domination caste Hindus.

With feeling of burden, pains of oppression and tears in his eyes when one day he was lying down in the dark corner of his dilapidated hut, he heard someone singing a folk song at a distance. Slowly it grew louder and louder. He realised that it was a song inviting all those who are broken and humiliated in the name of caste. Soon he rouse from his mat, threw off his patched blanket and ran to the street corner from where the voice was coming. He found a team of youngsters at the centre of the street playing a skit depicting the affliction of Dalits.

An hour of performance was over without even knowing how the time went off. After the presentation, this team initiated a discussion with the community, who were closely observing the play. Many of them felt that their condition was nothing less than what was presented there. That evening was the best gift in his life. The open discussion encouraged him to have further discussion with the performing ream and to know about them. Indeed it was a wonderful experience for him to know that there are people who sing songs of suffering of Dalits and perform street theatre that animated the poignant history and distressed present giving it a revolting spirit.

Narayanaswamy, the boy, became a volunteer of this team called “Sunanda”. For the next seven years he remained with this team gained exposure, knowledge and skills, which motivated him in building up a process to stand for equality and justice. Through the years of experience he realised that among Dalits women are the most oppressed in the present situation, particularly with the advent of globalisation.

Kolar district of Karnataka, where from he hails, is infamous for Dalit atrocities, particularly Dalit women. It is the same district where 8 Dalits were charred to death in the wee hours of 8th March 2000. That was the black day in the history of Karnataka. Besides these, there are other such incidences of Dalit atrocities in the same district with various forms and appearances.

With this background it is a big challenge to organise the womenfolk. But Narayanaswamy and his team bravely took it. This led to the formation of “Aadima Shakthi – a Dalit Women’s Movement. Narayanaswamy in his early forties says, “the atrocities committed against Dalit women in Kolar district is very high. Forces that strive to divide the community into sub castes dominate the district. Recognising the fact they are goaded to stay divided, Dalit women in the district have come together as a Dalit women’s Movement viz. 'Aadima Shakthi'".

It evolved through the struggles of Dalit women of Kolar, Malur and Bangarapet Taluk of Kolar district. At present “Aadima Shakthi” is efficiently addressing the questions of caste oppression, landlessness, bonded labours, agriculture workers and so on. Aadima Shakthi means ancient women’s power (In Kannada Aadi means ancient, Ma means Women and Shakthi means power). Initially it was difficult to crash the internal untouchability, but Aadima Shakthi had succeeded in achieving these feats.

Transition of Fr. Sebastian

Sebastian Poomattam, born in Kerala who reached Chhattisgarh with the objective to serve the church as a priest, has a long story to tell. Ordained as a priest with the Catholic Church, he served various parishes within the diocese before joining as the Director of the Diocesan Social Welfare Society. This was the period when he got an opportunity to travel extensive to every nuke and corner of Chhattisgarh. He noticed caste as one of the major problems within the state that leads to poverty and other social dilemmas.

Later he was co-opted to Catholic Health Association of India (CHAI) as Director of Community Health. During this time he travelled across the country and interacted with organisations and individuals working on similar lines of addressing the question of caste and class. He found a co-relationship between these two socio-political phenomena and therefore decided to work on these lines in future.

Afterwards he resigned from CHAI and was appointed as parish priest in a small village of Bilaspur (now in Champa-Janjgir) district. There he began direct community work with Dalit women. According to him, “our aim was to work with the oppressed among the oppressed. Dalit women are triple oppressed and exploited – first by her caste, secondly by virtue of poor economic status of Dalits and third is because she is woman. Hence we decided to work with these women”

This process sowed the seeds for the initiation of a Dalit women’s organisation, which was committed to raise issue of caste oppression, economic exploitation and women’s atrocities. Chhattisgarh Mahlia Jagriti Sanghatan had successfully developed a band of Dalit women from this region as leaders. Today it is fully run by these Dalit women. In the later part of this work two more people a medical mission sister and another a priest from the same church joined him.

In this process he had to confront with the church to the worst experience. It was similar to the experience of the priests in liberation movement in Latin American context, the sort of confrontation they had to experience from the church hierarchy. However they didn’t cease to work with the people.

Due to the tireless effort of Sebastian and his colleagues, the band of Dalit women had taken up the responsibility of the organisation and is now the vanguards of a wider struggle for equality and dignity in Chhattisgarh. This movement had established itself as a major force in this region in recent time; the evidence to this is the recent Assembly elections last year in which no person could win without the support of the local women’s organisation.

Soon after the elections, another concocted issue of attacking one SDM under which sections like 307 IPC have also been included. The local administration is after this team particularly after the state Assembly elections when BJP came into power in the state. BJP has been consistently targeting all democratic and peaceful organisations. Fr. Josey the colleague of Sebastian is also implicated in this under the aegis of instigating people. Police is still searching him. Yet they haven’t let their spirit down. The womenfolk also extended their complete support and solidarity.

Sebastian, popularly known as “Bade Guruji” in this area, in his late fifties still rides 25-30 kms a day on his bicycle. The amount of spiritual and moral energy that this man carry with him is enormous, which he transfers to each and everyone since the day of his transition. This is the uniqueness of a genuine character essential for the building up of authentic people’s initiative and struggle.

Experiments of Shankar

Born of the border of Orissa and Chhattisgarh Shankar Mahanand belongs to Ganda community. Right from his childhood he had faced different natures of discrimination, poverty and hunger. I remember he once telling me that he along with his parents stood in queue to attain the food being supplied by government and other agencies due to utter starvation. But this didn’t slay his spirit.

In his youthhood he came across a good number of friends and well-wishers, who guided him to think about the root cause of discrimination, poverty and hunger. His search for an answer reached him to various levels – most importantly as a cultural activist in Orissa and Chhattisgarh and then as an organiser and motivator to many.

This paved way for new searches about his own community. A community with endless stories of repression and prosecution and sufferings and toiling has also got a much brighter part, which is mostly hidden. That is the cultural treasure and history. He along with a group of friends discovered the fact that history of all downtrodden community originates from a common origin.

A crucial part of this finding was related with a crucial myth establishing the fact there is a certain amount of co-relation and co-existence among all the lower castes and outlaws ones. The myth is that the eldest son of “Ádi Debatá” Lákhan Bhándi Nág dynasty king “Dungi Chuhán” had eleven sons. They were Gajpati, Debhog, Sabal Sahe, Kalbhoj, Manbhoj, Jhánke, Mánke, Degan, Kolbhed, Pitáshree, Ediá. Kalbhoj Raja had four sons; they are Gang, Gágarba, Jadu and Kadam. Now-a-days they are known as Gand, Gandá, Gauda and Kandha etc. Before arrival of “Arya” these four brothers were ruling over the Mahanadi valley region (presently part of Chattishgarh and Orissa).

During the period of their reign, it is obvious that the culture, tradition, dress, God, Goddess, festival etc. were similar in their area where the four brothers were ruling. On the other hand there was strong social organisation. It was difficult for the Aryans to rule over this area, demolishing the Chuhán administration and fight social cohesion. Therefore they applied the divide and rule policy over the Chuhán brothers. They insisted, motivated and applied fear psychology in the pure mind of innocent Dalit and told that Lord Brahmá is the creator of this universe. He has created “Chaturvarna” i.e. Brahman have born from mouth and Kshytriya from arm, Vaisya from thigh and Sudra from feet of Brahmá. Applying this kind of God phobia and hypnotisation over the ancient innocent Dalit brothers, they could succeed to destroy their unity and divide them politically.

Gand, Gandá, Gouda (Yadav) and Kandha etc. in real sense they are not caste as in the present day they are counted, rather the “Vansh” (clan) or origin father or “Dumá”. To prove the similarity or relationship of the above “Vansh” or Duma, if we go back to the pitar or “Pidar” of each Vansh, it can be visualised that they were brothers and their origin was same, for the reason their culture, tradition are exactly similar to each other.

Since the realisation of this myth, he had been industriously working to build up people in order to create a cultural unity. As a part of this he in association with some more developed a group of cultural activists under the banner of “GoGaJaKa Sanskritik Manch”. With Shankar, a powerful actor, a prolific lyricist, a melodious musician, as the team leader this groups intents for a cultural swing in favour of the Dalit cause from a historical purview. It is a process of cultural revival of Dalits and establishing the cultural unity and integrity. The understanding of Dalit is more a collective and larger unit than small dispersed ones.

Tireless fighter in Motilala

Parsapali village in Janjgir district of Chhattisgarh is where Motilal Jhalaria is born. Born in a family of Suryavanshi he had been faced with social as well as economic discrimination since his childhood. After intermediate he had thought of stopping his education, but with the help of some well-wishers, he finished his graduation. But then the whole problem began.

With the death of his father the whole responsibility of his family rested on his shoulders, as he was the eldest son. As in every Indian family the eldest son is expected to take up the onus of nurturing the family after the death of father, particularly when you are grown up. That was the case of Motilal. With very little land being barren and unproductive and even what was available was only a small plot, Motilal turned out to be a migrant worker along with other labourers from his countryside. He worked in Delhi, and other places as construction worker, casual labourer, and directly confronted the direst form of bonded labourer. He found that many of the workers were from the surrounding villages. He remained with this status of semi-bondage for 2-3 years after which he returned back to his village only to find himself in more debt trap of contractor’s middlemen and his family reeling in complete distress.

But he realised that vested interests always encumbers the path of the poor and oppressed. Back in village the various situation helped him to recognise that many of the Suryavanshis are in bondage. He again went back to Delhi to those areas where many of the Chhattisgarhi Dalits were living under sub-human condition. He worked for their upliftment and liberation by introducing new schemes and programs, but this brought in a new understanding that they are fully in an unrealised bondage. This is the renewed appearance of the historical bondage imbibed by feudalist Brahmins. It is also that Zamindari system still exists in almost every region of India even today, which is dominated by the caste Hindus.

Once again Motilal returned back to Parsapali, this time with a determination of fighting against the new forms of caste oppression. He along with a few other concerned rural friends together constituted the Dalit Seva Samiti for this purpose. They went in search of all those who had been from their area working away from their home with the same status of labourers or workers. The result was stunning. Nearly it was four fold from their initial assessment. They were not only in Delhi but also in Mumbai, UP, Hariyana, Punjab, J&K and other parts of the country.

He started visiting those places only to discover that his fellowmen were in bondage. He intensively worked for the release of these bonded labourers. Since then he succeeds in mobilising the district administration in the identification and release of the bonded labourers. Once they are back he starts putting up the demands for the rehabilitation with the district administration.

Along with all these aspects he had been instrumental in organising and mobilising a large section of Dalit youths in this area in building alternative cultural units. Gammat one of the prime means of performance is being utilised as a method to highlight social issues and problems. A terrific fighter, who keeps inspiring people with his social and cultural stands, always remains with the people in their time of distress and disputes.

Determination of Sundaresan

Sundaresan is from Tirunalveli district of Tamilnadu. Since his childhood onwards he had been confronted with the caste system in his village. A Dalit from Pallar community, he and his family had faced severe atrocities and brutalities of the caste Hindus throughout his life.

However with all these experience he become very strong and he was determined to work for the liberation of people belonging to his community. As a beginning to this process he completed his studies at the school level and then enter college for graduation and then for post graduation. As he puts up his experience and understanding of caste system in these lines, “to me caste is the most brutish system of human relationship on earth. Unless caste is removed from its very edifice, our people and country won’t be liberated in the real sense. I have personally faced the rough and harsh part of it. Even my parents faced it and many more of our descendants will face it if we are reluctant to work towards its eradication from the very surface”.

While working for the cause of Dalits, he came across vital facets of it. One is the internal casteism widespread among the Dalit communities. Certain Dalit communities were considered to be higher than other ones and hence enjoyed higher degree of social and political space within the structure, whereas others remained as subdued. Another trick and tactics of the Brahmins. This brought into light the need for unified struggles by ending the existing rift within these communities. But it couldn’t happen in real. His own Pallar community objected to that and considered the Arundhatiyars as unsanctified and lower than them since this community were scavengers.

Sundaresan joined the scavengers and began to organising and mobilising them. Seeking support from external friends often happened but many of them turned back saying that he should stop working for the scavengers. But they were the oppressed among the oppressed. They had no right to land, work, food, clothing, and what not. Whatever they had with them were all with the mercy of their caste lords, even Dalit communities like Pallars, Pulayars also acted as their maters in many cases.

With immense efforts Sundaresan succeeded in organising them into an organisation viz. “Arundhatiyar Vidudalaya Munnetta Iyyakkam” in one block of Tirunalveli district, which had now spread to nearly 3 districts. It was not easy to organise them. Arundhatiyars themselves had a feeling that what is available is the best option left for them. Many of them were not willing to break this caste jinx, even though violence and attack on this community was very frequent. It took him nearly 11 years to organise them only because of his strong determination. There was time when the caste lords attacked him. Many false cases were lodged against him in different courts. The police and district administration looked him upon like a criminal. But this couldn’t differ him from his stand and determination. He continued to do what he was aiming towards.

In this process they have succeeded in raising the issue of land rights of the scavenger community. They had succeeded in putting an end to manual scavenging in many parts of their district. They have resisted the counter attack through cultural means of the caste Hindus and other communal forces. Faced with scores of violent attack on their community for defying the caste laws, they are now determined to take up it at all levels. As Sundaresan puts it, “we are not afraid of attacks anymore. Those days are over as we had been resisting it with counterattacks. We realise that violence of any type is injustice, but if we don’t prepare ourselves to those levels – at least mentally – there is a severe threat that our resistance would fall apart. Hence we are compelled to adopt a strategy of blood for blood and life for life. This had really brought the level of attacks and atrocities against us to higher level, even beyond our expectations”.

Today the district administration is taking up a positive stand. They are inviting the Arundhatiyars for dialogue in cases of disputes and clashes. There is a change in the overall outlook since they have become a decisive force.

Scope for Hope

"To us hope is very much essential part of life, since there are already all other dark forces active around us to deviate us, allure us and to crush our integrity. Hence hope to many of us is not an unnatural phenomenon but a natural one that generates from each action and attitude of people at the grassroots. Hope is a process of enlightenment that keeps all of us going. Hope is something that gives our morale a boost. Hope is something that inspires every moment. It is the power that sustains us; hence it is vital for us to remain conscious and cautious about all other forces.

However from the above experience of many friends and comrades, there is still scope for us to state that people at grassroot level are in the process of resistance amidst chaos and confusions. It is certain that in a process of globalisation and fascism, it is going to happen and we all need to anticipate it in the fight for justpeace. Hence in short hope that grassroot people can lead the struggle for justpeace consists of new understanding about the socio-political system, understanding the forces and actors, formulation of strategies and revival of community life."

What Learning do we take from the above Experience to Substantiate our Hope?
One is that in a complicated society like the Indian where there is a crucial phenomenon of social fabric, it cannot be understood as a class society in a classical Marxian analysis. This is what often the Marxists in India forget or are just unwilling to understand and acknowledge. Here the class structure exists only through sustain caste. Hence my personal understanding is that in the South-Asian sub-continent the question of class is complimentary to class.

Secondly, Dalits at large have been co-opted by the mainstream social and political systems to a larger extend. Even when there is the upcoming of a Dalit leader; he/she gets lost in the whirlwind. It has to a large extend affected the Dalits unification, since the cream layer goes straight into the enemy camp. One has to cleverly escape the trap of political co-option, as this is one of the most effective traps unfolded by the Chauvinist Hindus. It is not an easy task, however not impossible even. Unless we conceive new forms of co-operation, emergence of Dalit force is unimaginable.

Thirdly, inter community relationship should grow, unlike the present situation. Currently it has been co-opted and got rotten within the present political games. The minimum of having inter-community dialogue among Dalit communities at various levels is also not there. This at large is due to the co-option strategy that keeps the community further fragmented. Similarly a sense of domination has also outgrown within certain communities. This needs to be rectified. Indeed this is a process of identifying the enemy from within. This is also a part of understanding the community as an organic living unit. Forces of fragmentation are everywhere but what are the basic elements that could unify us should be identified and acknowledged.

Fourthly, unification of Dalits in no way connotes to homogenisation as propagated by certain Dalit groups. Then there won’t be any difference between Dalit unification and the basics of Hinduism. It has to grow from within the diversity; otherwise it would be just insensitive. Maybe we are unwanted and unrecognised, filth and scraps as denoted by the caste forces. But we are human beings; we have a history, a culture and life. We need to grow from there and with the scraps we have to rebuild it. Hence one has to think in terms of co-operation rather than getting fouled or entangled within the mainstream political peripheries. There are signs of it in many parts of the country – one has to carry forward it from there. Various Dalit organisations are addressing the issue. Mobilising a movement is much easier than building organisations and heading towards a big struggle.

Fifthly collective living has been the core of the Dalit culture and history. Even during the days of terrible repression and oppression, there was life within the community. This is what has withered away with the upcoming of the present formula of fascism and globalisation. Consumerism is dominating and infiltration of upper caste culture has laid an unabated of communion of the community. Both these are consummated to compliment each other. It is taking terrible forms. Nevertheless, Dalits have a rich history and heritage of living together, the culture of sharing, caring and co-operation.

Cultural notion of collective life was expressed through the art and art forms, which has been corrupt in the present context. Collective has been ruffled in the current process of consumerism and Hinduisation. This cannot go like this.

That is why it needs a revival. Culture is not just the forms of life, but also the elementary rhythm of life, the harmony among human being and the melody of living with nature. This is also expressed through our art forms too. Hence let’s re-search our songs, our dance, our lore, our stories, our harmony, and our rhythm. Unless this harmonious culture is reinstated, it won’t help mankind to survive for longer period. This is what a major challenge before us.

The Emergent Vision of Hope is

- Of a just, egalitarian, peaceful, fraternal and harmonious society. This is the creation of a casteless, classless society.

- A society of equals, neither unequal nor more-equals, beyond the strings of caste, class, gender, race, etc. that often leads to social oppression, political exploitation, economic deprivation, cultural domination, gender discrimination, class isolation, deliberate exclusion, etc. We believe in a society beyond this.
The revival of Dalit culture, art and art forms bereft of Brahministic domination and intrusion of consumeristic norms and values.

- The rebuilding of society through cultural expression and values.

- To give space, respect the diversity and promote the culture of love, compassion and collectivity.

- A society with socialist, secular, democratic and decentralised norms.











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