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Valmiki's Illustrious Son Challenges The Hegemony Of Knowledge
And Merit In India

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

13 April, 2007

Reservations are back in debate. Every body is talking of brain drain with All India Institute of Medical Sciences and its upper caste doctors taking the lead to denigrate and question the merit of others, it is time to respond with hard fact. While the 'liberals' try to explain how the Dalits have fared and that they too are 'human' and 'meritorious' students, they are quickly countered by the castiest petty fellows who feel that everything related to Dalits is not only clumsy but ridiculous too. So merit is basically a problem with the Hindu mind in India which refuses to acknowledge that Dalits too can possess that. Perhaps not many of them knows the hard facts that in most of the cases Dalit's marit as defined by the caste Hindus, is better than them. It is time to bring some hard facts to the front where merit defined by the caste Hindus is also conquered by the Dalits despite all the obstacles they have proved themselves better than any one else. This is the situation when opportunities do not come easily and caste bias remains intact. Imagine, if the caste hurdles are done away with and prejudices remain a thing of past, Dalits would do wonder. Lives of people like Dr Bachchu Lal Valmiki brings immense knowledge and understanding of what ails our system and how can we tackle the situation in our country. Despite all our ill wills, America and Europe still provide us better opportunities with out a caste bias which Dalits have to face regularly in the name of merit.

Dr Bachchul Lal Valmiki is a faculty in the Faculty in the Department of Neurology, Johns Hopkins University, Schools of Medicine Neuro-Oncology Lab, Kennedy Krieger Institute Baltimore, USA Not many have known his struggle who is now inspiring thousands of expatriate Ambedkarites to combine their energy and contribute jointly for the welfare of Scheduled Castes in India. Yes, Dr Lal was one of the founder members of the newly formed Dr Ambedkar NRI Association, in the United States, which has now decided to work to strengthen Ambedkarite movement in India and abroad and provide Dalits a new socio-economic vision to face the challenges of 21 st century.

Born on July 1, 1954, in a scheduled caste, sub-caste Valmiki, family, living in one of the slum areas of Lucknow, Dr Lal's parents were totally illiterate and were doing menial jobs. In a family of four brothers and three sisters it was very hard to survive without strong financial support. It was his mother who was certain that education of the kids would bring real change in the lives of children and she did her level best to provide them the same but it was beyond her capacity. In 1960 his family moved in a small village in a government hospital, Lakhimpur Kheri, a nondescript town in the Tarai region of Uttar-Pradesh when his father got job of sweeper-cum-chowkidar.

His elementary education started there along with other brothers. For the middle education he and his brother were moved to his grandmother's home in Sitapur district. His grand mother was working in a school named Ujagar Lal Inter College, as sweeper. It was hard to survive during my elementary education but he passed class 8 th in 1967 as average student in second division. Again he passed class 10th in 1969 in second division as a science student. Those days Second division was itself a rare phenomenon in the UP Board examinations and for a boy coming from the Valmiki community, it was simply outstanding.

The caste discrimination was rampant those days and he has to face it with great courage though with deep disgust and disappointment. "When I was in class 5 th, in a remote village, one teacher tried to use me to do some menial job in the school but instead of obeying teacher, I ran to home and my father came immediately to beat the teacher in the school. Although my father was sweeper but he had some kind of strength to handle these kinds of situations. When I was studying in class six in city Sitapur, then an art teacher who was a caste Hindu, was not touching my copy to check. He asked me to hold the copy in my hands and open the pages to let him check or mark the copy.'

The ideas of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar inspired him to take education seriously as it is the biggest weapon to strengthen your community and to achieve this he felt that economic independence was essential. It was equally important for him to delink himself from his traditional occupation, which had degraded the community. Therefore, he opened a bicycle repair shop in 1970 with the help of his brothers, in a hand made wooden box on the side of road, under open sky. With an investment of Rupees Fifteen they soon started getting Rs.10 – 15 per day and this money was a good financial support for the family. Within three months they were able to upgrade it with a wooden shop and started earning Rs.20 -40 per day. He diligently pursued his education and passed class XIIth in 1973.

As usual, this was time for parents to intervene and his father started looking for a suitable match for him. Ultimately, he married in 1974 to a community girl Sumitra Devi, whose father Mr. Lalta Prasad was a social worker and first educated Valmiki person of Lucknow. Lalta Prasad ensured that his daughter got education for her better future. Sumitra Devi had completed her 10 th standard before marriage. No doubt it was a revolutionary step by a father whose social concerns and commitments got him termination from his job. Marriage therefore opened a new horizon for Bachchu Lal. He moved to Lucknow along with his wife, to pursue his bachelors in science. Not to be considered as a burden on the in laws, Bachchu Lal started teaching kids from level zero to class X. The money they earned helped them sustain in Lucknow and his wife too started taking teacher's training courses. Before he completed his B. Sc., he got a Job in Industrial Toxicology Research Center Lucknow as Laboratory Technician, in 1976. Now, he dropped the idea to finish B.Sc. and joined job. Finally, he passed B.Sc. in 1977. With strong support of his father in law, his wife too passed teacher training and class XIIth.. With her huband's support and her own indomitable spirit Sumitra Devi completed her graduation from Lucknow University.

Bachchu Lal had always dreamt of becoming a medical doctor but poor finances could not help him. Though always a serious student, he got scholarship till his graduation days but medical education was too difficult to complete without financial support. Yet, Bachchu Lal's determination to conquer all the horizons made him focused on his study. He completed his Master's in Science while working in ITRC, in 1983 and Ph.D. in July 1989. Discrimination did not leave him as a teacher put his PhD degree on hold for 13 months. Says Dr Lal , "One very important incident happened with me, when I submitted my thesis (April 1988) for the award of Ph.D. My thesis was send to Allahabad University to an Associate professor. He was high caste. As my name looks like scheduled caste name, So When I did not get the report of the thesis in six month then I went Allahabad and met with this professor. Instead of giving my report he invited me to attend a meeting in his University and also assured that he will send the report soon. I went to attend the meeting and again requested him to send the report. Even then he did not send the report. After 13 months delaying my report by this professor, I became really angry and the used my way to get the report, and then he gave the report by hand and I got awarded Ph.D. in July, 1989".

In September 1989, he was appointed as scientist B, in ITRC in an open selection, (none of the permanent employee of ITRC got post of scientist B in open selection in ITRC history till today, he was the only who did this). The caste remarks hurled at him because of the job further strengthened his resolve to prove his credentials and scholarship. It also gave him ideas to respond to upper caste contempt. " Yes it was true that it was a reserve post but I was qualified for this position compare with any general candidate. The reason was this that for the post of Scientist B, basic qualification was M.Sc. First class or Ph.D. When I was M.Sc., second division, then, I did not get even interview letter for the post of Scientist B. After doing Ph.D. and having several years experience, I was a perfect candidate for the post of Scientist B. These comments provoked me to get POST DOCTORAL POSIATION IN USA and I did. I came USA in December 1992 at Johns Hopkins University that is number one in the world. In conclusion, I would like to say that during my service in ITRC, I learned to handle these so called high caste people and still I do have very good reputation in ITRC.'

In December 1992 he moved as a Post Doctoral Fellow, in Department of Neurology, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine, Neuro-Oncology Lab, Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore, MD 21205, USA, but came back India, in 1994. Joining a prestigious institute in USA was not on his agenda but the continuous upper caste remarks related to his merit and caste were perturbing and he decided to respond by his own way. If in India, he was condemned as a reserve category student, in USA he went by dent of his hard work and scholarship.

The red tapism and caste bias force Dr Bachchu Lal to return to USA in 1998. He himself explains, 'I came USA in December 1992 and went back India in October 1994. When I went back in 1994, from USA then I was happily working in ITRC but I was also affiliated with departmental employee associations. During this period, I had dispute with Director of ITRC and then I decided to again go back to USA and settle in USA. During my first visit of USA, I noticed that India is still far behind from USA especially in science. In USA you will get the benefits if you are a good worker compare to India where most of the positions will be filled on the basis of recommendations and bribery or cheating. People from all over the world, working in Johns Hopkins University, they never discriminate any one on the basis of caste or religion but if we meet with Indians then they will ask about the caste and will discriminate. Yes I have faced discrimination several times when I told Indians that I am from a sweeper community. I am proud of my self and my caste.'

Dr Lal is still working as scientist in Johns Hopkins University, on brain tumor therapy and developing new treatment strategies for incurable brain Cancer.

Dr Lal is worried about the growing differences among various Dalit communities and feel that inter caste marriages could play an important role in uniting the society. As far as the political leaders are concern, with the sole exception of Late Kanshi Ram, most of them are at the mercy of their party leaders and have been corrupted and co-opted.

On the question of his identity Dr Lal proudly inform every one that he hails from the Valmiki community. Yet he explains his philosophy, " I will call my self as Scheduled caste (dalits) and human who believe in humanity because if I call my self Ambedkarite, then I will be separated from others because every one is not Ambedkarite. The reason is this that still lot of dalits do not know that what Baba Saheb did for the community specially in scavenger community. If I call my self as Buddhist then, I will be talking about one religion. We need to distribute a book on Dr. Ambedkar's life history and his work, in brief, in all languages free among dalits so that they can understand about that what dalits need still to do in India.

On the condition of his community, Dr Lal feels that ultimately it has to come from with in the community and education is the only tool. " Scavenging is very big problem and question at this time and answer is only illiteracy and lack of confidence. I also proved in my life that if I did not want to do menial job then no one could force me. My brothers and sisters are not highly educated but they are not doing menial jobs. Education is the only tool that can help us to stop scavenging."

It is essential for the Valmiki community to join the Ambedkarite movement and for this, Dr Bachchu Lal feel that the people have to spread the movement otherwise the community will remain in dark. He says, "My feeling is that this community was most oppressed and illiterate compare to other dalit communities. I am sitting in USA and reading about the Dr. Bhagwan Das now otherwise I was never told about Dr. Bhagwan das. Valmikies are still in Hindu folds because they go and clean the houses and get food easily from all high caste community, so they were not caring for any thing. Now things are improving in the big cities but in the villages, conditions are still worst. Valmiki people should move in ambedkarite movements and focus on their kids education and give up alcohol and meat.'

He wants the community people to develop alternative for themselves. Education is the biggest tool. Those who have not been able to get enough education must shift to technical jobs where no food touching is involved. Says he, 'If you are auto-mobile mechanic then no one will ask about your caste but if you open a restaurant then every one will inquire about the caste. So the Valmiki community people must focus on education and technical businesses.

Dr Bachchu Lal says ' Women are the back bone of the society, especially in valmiki community because while living between our valmiki communities, I noticed that most of the illiterate men were coming home in the late evening, after drinking alcohol whereas women were coming home early after work and were cooking food, doing shopping and taking care to the kids. I would like to say that women must come forward in the education, so that they can better care to young generation.

He is ready to provide his guidance and particularly to his community people. His idea is the formation of Women's saving groups so that they are not depended on loan from outside. 'Women must also form small societies within their community to save some money every day for the future unknown emergencies. Let's put it like this, if 10 women make a society and save only one rupee per day, so they will save rupees 300 per month and rupees 3600/= per year. Once if one society have this much money, they can use it at any emergency without any interest and they can return money at their convenience. So this way they do not need to go to the money lenders and if they will keep saving money like this then after some time they will be able to save laks of rupees and then they can spend this money to start business. I am willing to match the same amount up to 10 societies each year. It will cost me Rs. 36,000/= per year.'

Dr Bachchu Lals' life is an inspiration for all those who aspire to rise high despite all the disabilities of caste and community. He comes from the lowest of the low community among the untouchables in India and yet his determination has resulted in his current position as one of world's premier Nureo institutions. His message to new young of his community is-' Young boys and girls of Valmiki Community must take an oath that they will do best in his studies and will keep away, them self from bad elements in the school. After getting education we will also think about the progress of our community and family. We will also teach our new generation to provide respect to our older people.'

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