|Volume 6 | Issue 10 | October 2012 ||
Fighting a Lone Battle
Fighting for the rights of Dalits seems almost to be a lost cause, says NAIMUL KARIM.
Asok Das was a mere student when he first came to know about how the skewed society's norms were against him and his 'kind'. It was a normal day-out for Das and his friends as they decided to go to a road-side restaurant after school. After having had their desired number of shingaras, they asked for some water. While Das's three friends, who were all Muslims, were served in glasses, Das, who was only in Class 8 back then, was served in a rusted container, reserved for the so-called 'outcastes' back then.
While this incident took place many years ago, Das, who is presently the General Secretary of the Bangladesh Dalit Parishad, believes that that little occurrence in a hotel near his hometown in Jessore, played a big role in forming his approach in life. "I am luckier than several others who belong to the same caste as myself. I got the opportunity to study further and become someone in life. Now I want to help them out," he says.
The term 'Dalit', originally derived from Sanskrit, is synonymous to being 'grounded' or 'crushed'. The word gained popularity in India and today represents the people belonging to the lower castes. In Bangladesh, instead of being known as Dalits, they are more popular by the names of their respective castes, such as the Rishis, the Kaoras and the NamaShudras.
Also known as the members of the Schedule Caste (SC), they have long been discriminated by society in almost every sector. From struggling to stand in elections to being stigmatised for the jobs that society has enforced them to depend upon, the Dalits have been ill-treated for centuries.
With an aim to bring a gradual end to such menacing practices, the Bangladesh Dalit Parishad (BDP) was formed almost a decade ago. Ever since then, members of the group, funded by NGOs, have been working towards the development of the people belonging to the SCs. While the last few years have seen a reasonable amount of progress, the majority of the one crore Dalits in Bangladesh, especially in the rural areas, continue to be marginalised.
"We regularly organise workshops in different cities and various regions. Recently we began a campaign to provide stipends to Dalit students in the seven districts, in order to encourage them to continue their higher education. Our campaign ended in Chittagong," says Das.
There have been several other programmes organised by the BDP, majority of which aim to improve the living standards of the Dalits in rural areas. A garments factory in the capital, for instance, employs Dalit women from villages who are trained by the BDP and its donors. A shoe-factory in Jessore's Manirampur employs the Rishis and helps them earn that extra buck. There have also been several programmes to protest against their discrimination. "These are nothing less than violent activities. We have formed communities in different areas that protect them from being harassed," explains Das.
One of the other issues that Das and co. have constantly campaigned against is the usage of the term 'Muchi'. A derogative and offensive word, the term is used to indicate the Rishis, a grouping of Dalits, traditionally linked to leather work in many parts of the country. Mainly Hindu by religion, they used to be considered untouchables. The reason behind their status was because the Rishis had to traditionally deal with dead cows and their skins.
"The term was first recorded in 1927 and it's something that we feel very badly about. This isn't our identity!" exclaims Das. While the word was officially changed in 1962 to Rishi, it is still used by government officials themselves!
"The supervisors from the land ministry who come to collect people's details still have the term 'Muchi' written on their papers. Even school-books contain the term today. We have been organising protests in different parts of the country for a long time, especially on this issue. It really feels bad when even the government officials aren't aware," exclaims Das.
While the last 10 years have seen a mixed growth for the Dalit Parishad, their main demands remain the same. "There's still a lot of work to be done. We are fighting for reservations in public universities, jobs and providing a specific law that bans the discrimination of Dalits," says the General Secretary. While discrimination on any ground is banned in the Constitution, members of the Dalit Parishad feel that the Dalit community requires a special provision. "Members of our community have been harassed and discriminated for so long, that it's almost impossible for many of them to compete with the general public. The government should give us a chance to be able to integrate with society again."
Das claims that while people don't practise untouchability on a physical level today, it continues on a 'mental' level. "When our boys and girls go to school, they are asked to go to the back, or they aren't allowed to sit on the front bench. Or when I am walking in the bazaar, people still call me 'Muchi' at times," he says.
In order to bring change, Das believes that representation in the parliament is a must. "We don't have any one in the parliament to present our problems and views. We were harassed during the last upazila elections when we wanted to contest the elections," says Das.
While Das is optimistic about the future of the Dalits, however, with obstacles on almost every different course, one wonders if these changes will ever arrive. Das's statement regarding the official count of the number of Dalits in this country perhaps best describes the sorry state of affairs. He says, "The responsible people at the various upazilas helping the government to collect details of Dalits in a survey designed to ultimately work for their development, aren't doing their job properly. Instead of listing Dalits, they are including people who are not Dalits so that we can never receive help from the government."
Naimul Karim is a staff reporter of The Daily Star.
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