Sunday, September 5, 2010

Proud to be a Dalit
A quiet revolution is underway in the Dalit world — assertiveness is
replacing defensiveness. Many Dalits, buoyed by prosperity, are
flaunting their caste on their sleeves and celebrating it in rap and
pop albums. Seetha and V. Kumara Swamy look at how Dalits are changing
the way the world looks at them

STANDING TALL: Cars with a defiant chamar or chamar da munda scrawled
on windshields are common in Jalandhar; (below) P. Nagrare started an
engineering college along with other Dalits; (bottom) H. Bhaskar, who
set up Kota Tutorials, says he is proud to be a Jatav

Sons of chamars are six feet tall
Riding bikes at the speed of bullets
And making headlines everywhere

Upcoming Punjabi singer Lovely Bhatia’s Chadadh Chamaran Di (Rising
Chamars) is a big hit in parts of Punjab. That’s not surprising, for
the song is the anthem of the young Dalit.

You can be imprisoned, under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe
(Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, for using the word chamar — a
term for a scheduled caste community that traditionally worked with
leather — as an abuse.

In parts of Punjab, though, rap and pop albums celebrating the chamar
identity are the new rage. Cars and scooters sporting a defiant chamar
or Chamaran da Munda (son of a chamar) stickers are a common sight in

“When I was young, I feared saying that I was a chamar, thinking that
my colleagues would look down upon me. But now I say that I am proud
to be a chamar,” says Sriram Prakash who, after retirement from the
Punjab police, has been working with a Dalit religious group, the

It isn’t just in Punjab. Agra’s Harsh Bhaskar, 32, who set up the
multi-city Kota Tutorials and the Edify Institute of Management and
Technology, outside Agra, declares he is “proud” to be a Jatav. J.S.
Phulia, who runs a Delhi-based shipping and logisitics firm, says: “We
don’t want to be servile.”

Alongside atrocities by upper castes in villages and discrimination in
the work place, another chapter is being written in the Dalit story —
assertion is replacing defensiveness. In Punjab, the assertion is in
your face; in other parts of the country, it is quieter, but palpable.

“Dalits are sick of taunts about their poverty, their so-called
unclean habits and their dependence on reservations for education and
jobs,” says Dalit writer and activist Chandrabhan Prasad. “They want
to change these impressions.”

What is more, Dalit entrepreneurs are expanding, and even have their
own apex body — the Pune-based Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and
Industry (Dicci), which has over 400 members.

Dalits are also setting up schools and colleges — often as an avenue
for helping the community. Pradeep Nagrare, secretary of the
Nagpur-based Nagarjuna Institute of Engineering Technology and
Management , says the idea for the institute, where 60 per cent of
students are Dalits, came from the Babasaheb Ambedkar National
Association of Engineers, a group of scheduled caste engineers. “If we
have to take Babasaheb Ambedkar’s mission forward, it can only be
through education,” he says.

Dalit movements seeking to change lives have taken various forms, says
S.S. Jodhka, professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru
University, Delhi. Political mobilisation saw the rise of the Bahujan
Samaj Party, human right struggles focused on atrocities and
discrimination while socio-economic development dealt with education
and business. Religious movements have ranged from Dalits embracing
Buddhism to the recent Ravidasia assertion in Punjab, spearheaded by
followers of Ravidas, a 15th century saint who belonged to the chamar

The hub of the Ravidasia movement is Dera Sachkhand, near Jalandhar. A
huge Ravidas temple is being built in Jalandhar, young men sport
T-shirts and headbands with the Hari symbol of the Ravidasia
community. Dalits in Punjab — Sikhs and non-Sikhs — are being
encouraged to list Ravidasia as their religion in the 2011 census.

The movement grew as a reaction to years of discrimination. Dalits,
who tilled the fields of Jat Sikhs, were not allowed inside the
latter’s gurdwaras. So small gurdwaras mainly for Dalits cropped up.
“The Jats of Punjab have been asserting their identity for long; it’s
our turn now,” says Manohar Lal Mehey, an industrialist who proudly
displays the Ravidasia symbol on his Mitsubishi Lancer. The movement
got a fillip after the killing of a sect leader by upper caste Sikhs
in Vienna, Austria, last year led to widespread violence.

The trigger wasn’t so specific in the case of Dalit entrepreneurship,
which is mainly a post-1990s phenomenon. The shrinking government
sector, after liberalisation was launched, reduced regular job
opportunities. Simultaneously, as companies began outsourcing
activities to become more competitive, avenues opened up for
non-business communities.

Phulia, for instance, started as a typist at a logistics firm in Delhi
but now runs a Rs 4-crore company. The son of a foreman in the Haryana
state electricity board started Signet Freight Express Pvt. Ltd in
2004 with Rs 900 from his savings and Rs 12 lakh borrowed from friends
and relatives.

He remembers how a colleague in an office where he once worked asked
him his caste. “When I said I was a chamar, he thought I was joking.
Why should I joke, I asked? Why can’t I be a chamar?”

The earlier generation, he says, felt “inferior” because it didn’t
know its history. “Now people are aware that a scholar such as Sant
Ravidas was from our community, that our tradition is also rich. So
there is pride in our caste,” says Phulia, whose three children study
at a public school in Gurgaon.

Many young Dalits see business as a way of proving to themselves and
the world that they are capable of earning a living with dignity as
well as generating employment for others.

In a March 2010 study, Dalits in Business: Self-employed Scheduled
Castes in North-West India, Jodhka found 80 per cent of the people he
surveyed were in the 20-40 age group and most were first generation

Reservation in education and jobs has given a leg up to the community.
But there is a reluctance to continue depending on quotas.
“Reservations created a neo-middle class,” says Jodhka. “The children
of those sections, who have grown up proud in middle class localities,
are uncomfortable with parents wanting benefits based on quotas.”

Devanand Londhe, the son of a retired soldier who worked as a farm
labourer and a watchman, studied civil engineering in Kolhapur
University as a quota student. After graduating, he refused to
register himself with the employment exchange. He worked as a
consultant at various international organisations and then set up an
export-oriented unit once he had enough money. “Yes, reservations are
still important for many, but a lot of young people want to make it on
their own,” he says.

Help has also come from the prosperous Dalit non resident Indians
(NRIs). The Ravidasias were among the first communities to migrate to
the West, points out Ronki Ram, reader, political science department,
Panjab University. The deras, the sect’s sprawling complexes, have
largely been funded by NRI Dalits. The diaspora has also helped spread
the message of Dalit capitalism. “Dalit entrepreneurs say they want
connections, not concessions,” says Prasad.

Dicci, says founder-chairman Milind Kamble, was set up in 2005 because
mainstream business chambers couldn’t understand the problems Dalits
faced. Dalits, he stresses, need communication and marketing skills as
well as networking opportunities. So, in early June, Kamble and Prasad
arranged for 10 Dalit entrepreneurs to make presentations to Tata
Motors on how they could be part of the automobile major’s supply

There is a frank acknowledgment that Dalits will have to look out for
their own — 42 per cent of the respondents in Jodhka’s study admitted
that they faced discrimination in business (63 per cent said they
faced it in their personal lives). “We feel discriminated as Dalits
even today,” says Nagrare.

But Bhaskar has a different take. “Failures always look for excuses.
If I have not succeeded in something, I will look within myself for
weaknesses. I will not blame my caste.”

Sushil Kumar, a school dropout who is now the managing director of
Ghaziabad-based Simlex Engineers Pvt. Ltd, agrees. “We as a community
are victims of discrimination even today, but I don’t believe in
looking back. I know that I can make a difference and I am trying it

Could the multiple strands of Dalit movements come together and help
the community realise its potential? And give rise to more Bhaskars
who refuse to be burdened by their caste? “I don’t want to prove
anything to anyone,” he says. “I just want to look at myself with
respect when I see myself in the mirror.”


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