Proud to be a Dalit: A quiet revolution is underway in the Dalit world[Telegraph News Calcutta]

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 Jalandhar.

“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 Ravidasias.

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 community.

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 entrepreneurs.

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 chain.

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 here.”

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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