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India: What's in a (Sur)name Ask Dalits

By Shoma Sen

"Surnames should be abolished," Megha Ramteke, a young lecturer of English at PWS College, Nagpur, says emphatically, even though as a girl belonging to the dalit (erstwhile untouchables) community she never felt any overt signs of casteism. However, Ramteke knows that not all dalit youngsters are as lucky as she is - many encounter subtle forms of discrimination in their everyday lives.

Rajani Gajbhiye, 24, Ramteke's colleague, agrees. She recalls how she had never felt the caste bias until, one day she went to interview women in 'bastis' (slums) for her dissertation on Self Help Groups. Gajbhiye had gone to a locality dominated by Other Backward Caste (OBC) category families and had assumed one of their surnames. Once the interviewees ascertained that she was "one of them" they began a verbal backlash against the Scheduled Caste women of their locality. That's when Gajbhiye realised that while the dalits in Nagpur, Maharashtra, may comparatively be stronger than their counterparts in the rest of the country, they were still criticised behind their backs.

Nagpur is one of the few places in the country where dalits, considered the lowest of the low castes as per the Hindu caste system, feel one among equals. But they say that it's because they are greater in number that the upper-caste people are afraid to discriminate openly. To escape being labelled, many have adopted Buddhism, just as the architect of the Indian Constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, had in 1956. While the first generation of educated Buddhists had to endure the humiliation of untouchability, it paved the way for the present generation's negation of it.

With a population of over 2,129,500, of which 25 per cent belong to the scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST), Nagpur is home to the second largest slum population - 726,664 - in Maharastra. Being strategically situated in central India and due to its proximity to mineral rich forests, the city can develop into a prominent metro. Yet, this unofficial 'capital' of Vidarbha, the most backward region of Maharashtra, has a great deal of catching up to do, economically, educationally and culturally.

It is against a background of a high incidence of farmers' suicides, widespread unemployment and an alarming number of families living below the poverty line, that Nagpur's new multi-nodal industrial hub and Special Economic Zones are being built at the outskirts of the city to attract investments. Where do the dalits figure in this scheme of things? There is no doubt that a section of the community has made it to the creamy layer - R.S. Gawai, the Governor of Kerala, tops the list, with many others proving their prowess in the fields of construction, real estate, banking and large-scale agriculture. Some have also made it to the bureaucracy, judiciary, medical profession, and academic institutions. But there is a vast section that remains uneducated and lives in shanties.

North Nagpur, particularly Indora, is where the majority of the dalit population in the city resides. The area is also the mainstay of Ambedkarite politics and intellectual activity. Being born and brought up here gives a sense of confidence to those belonging to the SC category, for in North Nagpur it is the Sindhis and Punjabis who have to adjust and get along with them.

Ramteke says that she completed her education from institutions run by a Sindhi trust but never experienced caste discrimination. Gajbhiye, also a product of North Nagpur, doesn't remember experiencing any prejudice either. However, she says she got a reality check when she stepped out of her district. While on a visit to Bhandara district for a presentation of research papers, she was advised by another lecturer from her community to conceal her identity card that was dangling from her neck, within the folds of her sari. Gajbhiye thought that this was ridiculous, but, surprisingly, when her name was not called to make the presentation till the very end, it strengthened her doubt. It came as a revelation and great disappointment to her that the world outside her home was different. She says, "Things are much worse in states like Orissa. My friend who lives there can never reveal her caste and dalits are not even allowed inside temples."

For enterprising dalit youngsters, things are definitely looking up. Take the case of Supriya Ingle, 19, a young medical student who hails from a staunch Ambedkarite family in Saoner, a 'tehsil' that is an hour's drive from Nagpur. This spunky youngster's mission in life - at least for now - is to serve her people. When asked whether she was ever at the receiving end of prejudice, Ingle recalls that she did sense a certain bias at school. But in college she asserted herself in such a way that she had no trouble making friends with those from different castes and communities. "They take my 'Jai Bhim' (a common greeting among the dalits) greeting as my hallmark and I too hail them with 'Jai Mata Ki', sometimes," she says.

Professionals have their own take on the underlying prejudices that come with being a dalit. Archana Ramteke, a young lawyer from a "reserved" background, says, "There used to be a time when caste was a 'roti-beti ka sawal' (restricted to food habits and marriages), but now it is confined to marriage and elections." Although in her profession reservations have little meaning, she says, that while she was contesting for a post in the District Bar Council elections, she saw people playing caste favourites.

She revealed that judges indulge in subtle forms of prejudice. For instance, in most cases tried under The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, some loophole or the other is used to deny justice to the victim - invariably a dalit woman. There are instances of dalit women sarpanchs (head of village council) being sexually harassed or humiliated by those with political clout from the open category. Complaints of caste biases and sexual harassment at the work place are also fairly common.

Besides caste-based prejudice, an issue that most people of the community feel strongly about is reservations. Most speak out strongly in its favour. Dr Pradnya Bagde, Head of Economics department at PWS College, says that although she would never make use of reservations for her own children - since they have been brought up in an upper middle class milieu - she would definitely take up the cause for the sake of others in her community. Bagde is on the teachers selection committee of the Napur University. She recalls that once she had had to fight with members of the management to ensure that a deserving candidate from the S.C. category was selected for the lecturer's job. "He was the most qualified, although very shabbily dressed. He said that he worked as a farm labourer but had completed his education. I feel proud when someone like that gets a job. The management had decided on someone else for the post, but with the help of another lecturer on the
selection committee - a non-dalit - we got him the job," she says.

But, while dalits are pro-reservation, they realise that the issue is a major bone of contention with the general public. Many attribute this to the lack of job opportunities and cut throat competition.

Identity politics and the politics of difference pose many dilemmas. As young dalits climb the social ladder, it is unclear how they would like to be identified. The questions before them are many: Should they display the icons of an Ambedkarite culture? Should they commemorate the birth anniversary of Ambedkar as a festival? Should they opt for white sari at weddings? Should they go to a Buddha Vihar or a temple? Should they greet people with a 'Jai Bhim' or a 'Namaste'? These are just some of the seemingly simple but essentially loaded choices before the young dalit today.

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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