January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

World Social Forum

Road to freedom

Dalits’ participated in the World Social Forum in unique fashion: four contingents of Dalit activists, starting from Jammu, Delhi, Kolkata and Kanyakumari, traversed the length and breadth of India, taking stock of the trials and tribulations of the ‘outcastes’ and reaching to them messages of hope before descending on Mumbai to share with the global community the ‘Another World is Possible’ dream


The forty-day Dalit Swadhikar Rally concluded on January 16, 2004 at ‘Chaitya Bhoomi’, the
of Dr. BR Ambedkar in Mumbai. The Dalit Swadhikar Rally began on December 6, 2003, the anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar, with the resolve to continue the struggle that Babasaheb waged on the caste system and Manuvadi forces that have enslaved Dalits on the sub-continent for thousands of years. December 6 is also a Black Day for peace and communal harmony in our country, brought down along with the Babri Masjid in 1993. In addition to the forces of casteism, fundamentalism and communalism, a qualitatively new dimension of the struggle is brought about by globalisation, which the Dalit Swadhikar Rally tried to address in its long and arduous journey weaving through various villages, towns, cities and states in the country.

Flagging off the rally from Delhi on December 5, 2003, former President, Sri KR Narayanan described the rally as ‘a beginning of a new revolution’. On December 6, 2003, four teams of rallyists started from four locations, i.e. Jammu (Bhim Marg), Delhi (Buddha Marg), Kolkata (Kalinga Marg) and Kanyakumari (Tiruvalluvar Marg), to cover 20 states/union territories over 33,000 km across the country.

Dalit Swadhikar rallyists had a variety of experiences during the forty-day rally. At times, their experiences raised hopes for the emergence of a strong Dalit community, a Dalit movement and possibilities of new alliances. Simultaneously, the rallyists encountered thriving caste discrimination, continuing atrocities against Dalits, increasing state apathy, and impunity for perpetrators of atrocities from dominant castes. The experiences and encounters that the 200 rallyists had during those 40 days has generated a new thinking process among them, all of whom expressed their renewed/reinforced commitment to work for Dalit human rights. The experiences also impressed upon the NCDHR the need to re-examine its goals, strategies, initiatives and organisational structures as also the need to expand its horizons. Gross Dalit human rights violations in the backdrop of caste based discrimination, which have increased in nature and number because of changing government policies in the context of globalisation and privatisation; cases of bonded labour, child labour, mass termination of workers, large scale migration, land grabbing by dominant castes, barbaric violence which includes murder, lynching, rape, arson, kidnap and torture, were brought to the notice of the rallyists.

The Dalit Swadhikar Rally was initiated by the NCDHR in the context of the World Social Forum (WSF 2004) to create awareness among Dalit communities about the effects of globalisation and to organise them to fight casteism, imperialism, patriarchy, militarism and communalism, which were the main themes of WSF 2004. As the issues of globalisation and its impact on Dalits were still being debated by various Dalit academics, the NCDHR felt that it was crucial to take up this campaign across the country to raise these concerns and address them along with Dalit communities, movements, associations and organisations before raising them at WSF 2004.

Over 5000 organisations, movements and leaders participated in the rally from the planning stage in October 2003 to its conclusion on January 16, 2004 at WSF 2004, Mumbai. It has gained solidarity and support from different sections of the people and different movements irrespective of ideological approach and operational differences. While the four teams of the DSR each began with one bus and a jeep from the starting points, local organisations, movement leaders, trade union leaders and mass organisations joined the rally teams at every stop. An average of over 500 local people accompanied the rally teams in trucks, tractors and buses from one point to another on every day of the rally. While the four rally teams travelled more than 33,000 km by road, they marched nearly 2,000 km in different villages, towns and cities. Local organisers raised contributions amounting to nearly one crore rupees to meet rallyists’ expenses, which included fuel for vehicles, food and accommodation for rallyists and local participants, and meeting arrangements. More than one lakh pamphlets in 10 different local languages on the impact of globalisation and Dalit human rights were distributed during the 40-day rally. About 500 meetings, which were attended by nearly 10 lakh people, were held to address locals and about 500 cultural skits (nukkad nataks street plays, etc.) were performed.

Untouchability still rampant

On December 19, 2003, rallyists of Bhim Marg reached Hagole village near Karnal where Dalits were battered by dominant caste Jats for attempting to build a temple. Dalits who fled from the village have not returned, as the police have not taken any action to protect them or to arrest the dominant caste offenders. In Punjab, the rallyists passed Talhan village where Dalits protested when dominant caste Jats discriminated against Dalits in Gurudwara Committee membership. While dominant caste Jats were accepted as members of the Gurudwara Committee even though they did not follow the code of conduct prescribed by the Sikh religion, Dalits were not accepted as members of the Committee and were denied any role in the management of the Gurudwara.

When the Dalits took the matter to court, the Jats imposed a social boycott on Dalits and tore down the portrait of Guru Ravi Das from the Gurudwara. Forming an action committee, Dalits from the neighbouring villages also took the matter to the police station and district administration, but this too did not result in any action being taken. When Dalits demonstrated against the injustice, the police lathi-charged them. Further, instead of taking action against the Jats, the police filed cases against 84 Dalits under sections 307 IPC (attempt to murder), 148 (rioting with deadly weapons) and other serious sections on January 21, 2003. The Dalits then approached the National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Commission. In spite of the directions issued by the SC/ST Commission, the state officials failed to take action against the culprits. The Dalits’ struggle for justice took a violent turn when one of the Dalits was killed in police firing. The Jats did not yield to the pressure of even top ranking officials of the revenue and police departments. Today, after an intense struggle and a subsequent truce, the Dalits have finally managed to assert their right to be part of the managing committee. However, rallyists were prevented from entering the village due to the tensions still prevailing there.

Exploitation of Dalit labour

There is growing exploitation of Dalit labour by the dominant castes in the form of bonded labour, child labour, low wages, degrading working conditions etc. On Buddha Marg (Delhi to Mumbai via UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, MP and Maharashtra), rallyists came across a family in Jamtada village, Jharkhand, which was forced to commit their 13-year-old son as ‘bonded labour’ by the dominant caste landlord to repay the costs of medical treatment that were paid by him. The boy’s mother, who worked for the landlord, was not able to attend work for three days because she was ill. The landlord had the mother treated by a doctor and forced the Dalit boy to work as bonded labour for one year as a form of repayment. The boy’s mother met rallyists and asked them to suggest ways to get out of the situation.

On Bhim Marg, the rallyists came across a dry latrine in the historical Jaisalmer Fort and found that the local municipal authorities had engaged five Dalits to clean the dry latrine manually. This is in violation of the law prohibiting manual scavenging and construction of dry latrines.

On Buddha Marg, rallyists came across a case in Latihar village of Ranchi district, Jharkhand. A rickshaw-puller told the rallyists that his father had mortgaged his land to a local zamindar for Rs. 200 and then requested him to redeem the land, which the zamindar now refuses to part with. This is only a tip of the iceberg, wherein land rights of the Dalits are grossly violated.
On Thiruvalluvar Marg (starting from Kanyakumari, passing through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Karnataka and Maharashtra to Mumbai), the rallyists came across 2,000 bonded labourers in Ammapalayam town of Salem district. In Rourkela, local Dalit leaders informed the rallyists that nearly 2,500 Dalits worked as domestic servants.

Backlash and extreme violence erupts when Dalits assert their rights

Bhim Marg rallyists visited Ghatkal village in Western Rajasthan and interacted with Lakshman Singh and his wife, Mohini Devi. When a dominant caste person did not pay the Rs. 250 that was due to Lakshman Singh as wages, he started working for another person whereupon the dominant caste people attacked Lakshman Singh. They beat him repeatedly with iron rods on his legs, which got infected and had to be amputated later. Persons belonging to the dominant caste raped Lakshman Singh’s wife, Mohini Devi. Lakshman Singh and Mohini Devi of Rajasthan have met a number of government officials, including the DSP and DIG, over the past three years, seeking justice. Lakshman Singh and Mohini Devi are living examples of the impunity with which dominant castes resort to violent atrocities against Dalits and the State’s willing partnership in such acts of barbarism.
In Rohtak, Haryana, local Dalits told Bhim Marg rallyists about the kidnapping of the Dalit sarpanch of Bherverwar village in October 2003, who has still not been traced. Local Dalits testified that the Dalit sarpanch, who planned to construct a school on public land, was opposed by the dominant castes. People from the dominant castes called him to a discussion on the issue and that was the last time the sarpanch had been seen. The local police have not made any serious attempts to trace him. The rallyists prepared a resolution regarding this issue for discussion in the Mahapanchayat scheduled for December 21, 2003.

State’s apathy as Dalits are denied equal rights as citizens

On the Bhim route (Jammu to Mumbai through Punjab, Chandigarh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra) the rallyists were stopped 2 km from the Nathwara Temple in Rajasthan on January 2, 2004. The police, headed by the DSP, said that they could not provide security to the rallyists if they tried to enter the temple. There has been no change in the attitude of the dominant caste from 1998, when local Dalits were prevented from entering the temple.

On Tiruvalluvar Marg, rallyists were forced to curtail the public meeting to an hour in Cuddalore town because some miscreants had burnt down the Ambedkar Library the previous day and the police felt the situation was not safe. In most states, rallyists came across gross negligence on the part of the police in filing cases under the SC/ST (PoA) Act. In Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh, the district superintendent of police even issued directions to the police not to register cases under the SC/ST Act. Local Dalit activists narrated their struggle to the rallyists and requested them to take up the issue at the national level.

Impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits

On Bhim Marg, the rallyists interacted with the family members of victims of the Jajjar incident in Haryana where five Dalits were lynched for allegedly killing a cow in October 2002. The police killed the five Dalits when they refused to bribe the policemen. The families of those Dalits who were lynched are still to get compensation and justice from the State. The family members of the killed Dalits even told rallyists that no cases had been filed against the police and the VHP activists who were responsible for the killing. Even now the Dalit communities, particularly the kith and kin of the lynched Dalits, live in fear because of threats from religious fundamentalists and police officials who were responsible for the lynching. The State’s disdain and unconcern in resolving these issues seems to send a clear message to the Dalits that they are ‘not equal citizens of this country’. In Tsundur, the rallyists of Kalinga Marg (starting from Kolkata, passing through West Bengal, Orissa, AP and Maharashtra to Mumbai) visited the graves of the Dalit victims who were massacred by the dominant castes in 1987. The families of those who lost their lives in the massacre narrated their relentless efforts to get justice. It is ironical that even after one-and-a-half decades, the court trial has not started. This shows the apathy and negligence of the State in providing justice to Dalits.

Dalits denied equal rights

The laws of the land, large in number, have become toothless and ineffective in the hands of an unwilling bureaucracy in providing justice, equality and dignity to Dalits. It appears that the State not only lacks the political will to implement existing laws and constitutional provisions but also has no real intentions whatsoever to implement or enforce them in the country. They actually want the laws of Manusmriti to continue to prevail in this land!

Clear evidence of globalisation directly destroying Dalit livelihoods

On Kalinga Marg, rallyists visited Fluorosis affected villages in Marriguda mandal, Andhra Pradesh. The Fluorosis victims, Tirupathamma and Swamy, who are crippled and have become total invalids, narrated their condition. Swamy, who is now 22 years old, told members of the rally that he had met five Prime Ministers over the past 13 years and pleaded with them to prevent others from becoming like him. Tirupathamma requested the rallyists to focus on the issue of Fluorosis and their demand for fluorine-free water at WSF 2004. The local people explained how successive governments have neglected the issue over the last three decades and were responsible for the spread of Fluorosis to nearly 1,100 villages in Nalgonda district. The rallyists also interacted with the "Fluorosis Vimochana Porata Samithi" a network of activists fighting on the issue, who described the state government’s plans to supply water to the high-tech city of Hyderabad, spending nearly two hundred crore rupees, while ignoring the victims needs, and requested DSR rallyists to extend solidarity to them.

In the Kolleru Lake area of the West Godavari and Krishna Districts of AP, nearly 60,000 Dalit families have lost work opportunities in the agricultural sector when agricultural land was converted into aquaculture ponds. Similarly, in the Dhanbad coalmines of Jharkhand, NALCO, BALCO, Singareni Collieries, the impact of privatisation is affecting livelihoods of millions of Dalits. In Dongergav village of Solapur District, Maharashtra, the villagers explained how the employment of Dalit youth has reduced drastically. Eighty-six men and women were employed in the public sector and the government between 1981 till 1991. This employment has come down drastically to only nine persons from 1991 to date. This is despite the gross increase in the number of educated capable youth among the Dalit communities.

Dalit resistance

On Thiruvalluvar Marg, the rallyists visited Ukkadam in Tamil Nadu, where Hindutva forces had provoked Dalits to attack Muslims of Coimbatore. Local Dalits told members of the rally that they had parted ways with the Hindutva ideology as they realised that they were being used by the dominant castes to forge divisions and hatred in society on religious lines.

While rallyists encountered acts of gross state negligence and instances of barbaric violence against Dalits, they also relived instances of the organised fights of Dalits and other marginalised communities for justice and dignity over the ages. On Kalinga Marg, when the rallyists visited Dhauli district, the local people narrated the history of the Kalinga war. The people of Kalinga were ruled by ‘Janpats’ (republics), which were democratically elected and governed towns and states that engaged the mighty Emperor Ashoka in a fierce battle on the banks of the River Daya, sacrificing nearly two lakh lives in the battle. It is said that they were mostly Dalits and the daring courage with which they defended their Janpats and sacrificed their lives shocked Emperor Ashoka. Their blood, which flowed into the Daya river and turned the water red, ultimately changed the heart of Emperor Ashoka, who gave up his warpath, embraced Buddhism and led a peaceful life for the rest of his days. These historical anecdotes, which were shared by local Dalits, inspired rallyists.

On January 3, 2004, Jogi Sathyamma narrated her experience before thousands of people at the public meeting in Hyderabad. Sathyamma is a Dalit woman who was chased by dominant caste people of her village. She was tied to a tree, her hands were bound by cloth, kerosene was poured on them and they were set afire. As a result, both her hands were burnt up to her wrists. Here again, the culprits are all dominant caste persons who roam free as the police are proving ineffective and inefficient in framing charges and collecting evidence against the culprits. After narrating her horrific experience, Sathyamma asked the Dalit activists in the audience to support her in her fight for justice. While Sathyamma fights for justice, local leaders are apathetic and unwilling to lead Dalits like Sathyamma in the right direction.

New horizons

Dalit communities and people are willing to support the cause and get involved in different interventions for the emergence and strengthening of new alliances with various democratic, political, cultural and religious movements and organisations in confronting Dalit issues in the context of globalisation.
On all the rally routes, i.e. Bhim, Buddha, Kalinga and Thiruvalluvar Margs, Dalit communities willingly came forward to support the rally. Their support varied from joining the rally to hosting it. In some places, dozens of banners welcomed the travelling members of the rally while in others, huge welcome arches welcomed the rallyists. In several places, local Dalit musical groups participated in the welcome. Even children and women waited for hours despite the freezing winter cold in places like Jammu to welcome the rally. These warm welcomes reflected the cultural diversity of different Dalit communities, and their zeal to receive the rallyists, as also their eagerness to share their problems and issues and their expectations with the rallyists and with the NCDHR.
The rallyists also shared the stage with other progressive movement leaders and activists like the Left parties, Gandhians, socialists, women’s movements and Adivasi movements. These experiences opened up new avenues for solidarity and networking between other movements and networks and the possibilities of working together on certain/similar issues.

The rallyists came across the clear impact of globalisation on land, water, livelihoods and other spheres that have affected Dalits. In Anugul, Orissa, it was the privatisation of an aluminium plant, in Kolleru Lake, Andhra Pradesh, it was the conversion of agricultural lands into aquaculture ponds, and in Jharkhand and Orissa it is the privatisation of mining that is threatening the livelihood rights of millions of Dalits. Dalits are now looking forward to getting organised to fight the forces of globalisation and privatisation and when the rallyists met them they were keen to know what the NCDHR could do.

While the taboos of caste have denied health access and education to Dalits and Adivasis for thousands of years, globalisation has corporatised health and education thus excluding the poor and marginalised – most of who are Dalits and Adivasis – from accessing health and education.

The expectations that Dalit communities have of the NCDHR are encouraging. They are expecting a movement that will enable them to assert their political, cultural and economic rights. They want to access their right to livelihood as stipulated by the Indian Constitution. They want to live in an environment where they will be able to access life security.

The Dalit Swadhikar Rally reached nearly half of the 25 million Dalits across the country and by now the message of the Dalit Swadhikar Rally will have spread to the remaining Dalits as well. The DSR has certainly raised the hopes of Dalits across the country. DSR rallyists documented hundreds of issues during the 40-day rally that sets the direction for all Dalit activists and organisations as well as the NCDHR, of the need to re-confirm its own agenda.

There is a need to explore cultural assertion in strengthening the Dalit movement as also democratic rights interventions in the country. A strong national leadership to organise and mobilise the growing assertion among Dalit communities is the need of the hour. ‘Communities are ready and vibrant – leaders are wanting’.

An informed and strategised national Dalit movement to effectively address the current issues of Dalits’ life security and livelihoods in the context of globalisation should be the agenda of all Dalit activists and movements in the country.

Globalisation is not only a challenge for Dalits but for all progressive movements. The Rally highlighted the grave dangers facing the broader population wherein more than one-fifth of the population of this country continues to be treated as non-citizens, without equal rights. The impunity for perpetrators of violence seems to be increasing. Untouchability continues in unprecedented proportions like a cancer ever mutating in new forms. Above all, rampant globalisation is manipulating these dynamics to usurp the livelihood rights of Dalits.

At this critical juncture, all movements need to make the Dalit cause a priority, to build a Dalit life security and livelihood rights platform to strengthen, promote and protect Dalit human rights. It is also a reminder to various Dalit movements that in addition to caste based discrimination the fight against globalisation needs to be strategised. n

(Paul Divakar is secretary, International Advocacy, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights – NCDHR).

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