How dare a Dalit run a ration shop? The government reserved the licensing of a ration distribution shop at my hometown to be allotted to the member of a Dalit community member in 1988. My father who merely finished 4th standard at the school with the help of my uncle filled the application form to obtain a license for running the ration shop. My father runs the ration shop in my village even today.
In 1988 my family was in the verge of poverty. The only income for my family was from farm labour at the time. After my father got the license to run the ration shop, he could not go for working at the farm. He had to open the ration shop everyday till late evening. My father has lost his income as a farm labourer. My father usually brought other family members like my mother, grandmother and my sisters to work at the farm. However, with the absence of male members of the family, going outside of the village for working at the farm also got reduced.
At the same time, the ration shop was not able to be run by a single person as it had to have some investment for which my father had to get a loan from a bank. But the loan was too high for my father to repay. My father also wanted some support for running the shop. My father asked my uncle to join the shop as a partner. The profit from the ration shop was not high enough, which was reinvested for the shop for ten years. These ten years were the toughest time in my family since practically nothing was left over from the profit to bring home after running the ration shop and at the same time the family was not able to secure regular work at the farm.
We had nothing. To make things worse I was studying at the time and my parents had to cover my education expenses also.
As the shop started, fifty percent of the ration card holders in the village went to Amreli town to file applications to change their ration shop. It was unimaginable for them to buy ration from a shop run by a Dalit. Thus within a few weeks the shop lost fifty percent customers. In the following months, several other people did same.
There was a village head from the upper caste community and was a Bahratiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. He intentionally kept changing the ration card registers. The ration card holders started getting confused where to go for collecting their rations and started protesting against my father. “Hey, you cheated me, my name is not here!” They believed that my father cheated them since they could not find their name under my father’s ration shop in which the ration card holders initially had their name registered.
My father and my uncle were not aware how to run the ration shop and the formalities involved in it. They found it difficult to understand what the village head actually was doing by changing the register. However, another uncle, the third partner in the business, knew what was going on. My uncle could not say that the village head was wrong since he was afraid of him. He was working in the village office. He was not supposed to be involved in the ration shop as he was working for the government. My father and uncles struggled and started talking to people and they soon started sorting out the problems.
During the first half of running the ration shop, we faced all different problems one after the other. The attempt was that the Dalits should not run the ration shop. This business was so far dominated by the upper caste. The upper caste persons cannot say that the Dalits cannot get the license for the ration shop as it is the government policy. So they made it difficult for us to run the shop.
I used to go back home during college vacations. My father was running the ration shop and mother and sisters worked at the farm. When I went home I worked at the farm to support my family. However, even after hard labour at the farm, we did not have enough food to eat at home. We were so poor. We only had water and some dry rotis (Indian wheat bread). However, no one complained saying that I do not have this or that since we did not have any other option than drinking water and eating a piece of roti at night.
Dormitory for Dalit villagers visiting the city
When I was studying at the collage, there used to be many people who came to know I was at the college hostel in the town. They used to come to me for writing a complaint or a petition prepared. Even in the cases where the upper caste people threatened me for the complaints that we wrote, the hostel was safe. I did not need to pay rent as it was provided by the government. In addition, we could not get any other place to stay in the town as we are Dalits.
When people came to me, I had to write a petition or a complaint. At the time I happened to read some articles written by Mr. Martin Macwan who is a founder of the Navsarjan. I had already decided to work for the Dalits. In the meanwhile I had also developed an interest in social work. I did not sit for the college exam. I was engaged in helping people than studying. I almost stopped studying in 1993. The passion to work for my own community had overcome me by that time. When I read the Martin Macwan’s article, I asked him, “Can I work with you?” I joined the Navsarjan as a village human rights defender in 1998.
Theory into a practice
The first case I dealt with was a case from Devaliya village. It was about a water pipe line for the Dalits that was cut off by the upper caste people. We protested. Soon the upper caste decided to force a social boycott of the village. This continued for about three to four years. Then I started meeting people, writing complaints and organising protests meetings. There were various people who came to us and inquired what was going on. The protest soon developed into a huge social issue.
One day the officers from the Central Intelligence Department came to enquire about the protest. Of the officers one officer was from the Dalit community like me. After questioning us this officer suggested that we should complain to the National Human Rights Commission in New Delhi. He wrote down the address of the Commission in a piece of paper and gave it to me. He urged me to write to the Commission as early as possible.
We wrote to the Commission and the Commission decided the case in our favour. The order ran into some 21 pages. Often the Commission writes short orders. We took the Commission’s order to the High Court as a public interest case. The High Court virtually agreed to everything that the Commission ordered.
Soon I learned how these things could be used and how the justice mechanism could be utilised for the protection of the ordinary person’s rights. In addition to that, Martin used to give regular sessions to us, the activists, regarding different issues on law, land reforms, social issues etc. He gave us regular coaching empowering us with the essential tools, basically knowledge. All of us are Dalits. As I started working with Martin, I immediately got an opportunity to put the theory into a practice and it was a success.
Between fear and courage
My family is afraid of my human rights work. Parents even now say that I should be careful and I should be afraid of this and that, particularly the upper caste. However, I cannot keep silent. The more I got exposed to knowledge, I realised that the caste discrimination was wrong and there were different laws and mechanisms to prevent discrimination. I keep trying to find some remedy to the problems that people approach me with. Initially I was afraid and suspicious. As the time passed by, I slowly got the courage and started getting results. It is impossible to organise or motivate things all of a sudden. I am dealing with a social milieu which accepts discrimination in all its worst manifest forms as the norm of the society and I am working completely against this norm.
Discrimination is such an animal that you could live with it with relative ease as long as you do not know its presence. Once its presence is exposed you cannot sleep anymore. It is an internal fire that burns you from within. I am trying to use the fire in me to shed the light for others, expecting that some of them also would do the same. Today or tomorrow this fire will burn down the caste. We are living in 2008. What was achieved through 3000 years of suppression can be exposed with a mouse click now. Such is the power of communication. Communication is knowledge. It is the key to freedom from servitude.
Fights against the society begins at home
In our community, people get married between 15 to 18 years of age. I was fighting against the community practices also and did not want to get married. I continued this until 32, which was against the tremendous pressure from my family in particular my parents who always were worried about me.
My parents complained to everyone who came to my home and said that I am always fighting against everything and does not want to get married. At the same time, my younger brother said “If you do not marry, I will not marry.” There were a lot of pressures from the family. I finally decided to get married. I got married in 2002 and have a three-year-old daughter and nine-months-old son. I did not go for picking and choosing which is the custom. Whoever is willing to marry me, I was willing to marry. I married my wife who has just studied up to three years in school. I am happy with my wife and children.
My in-laws always insisted through my parents. “It is enough and tell your son to stop his human rights work.” “He always fights with the collector, the village head, the Patel (upper caste), Darvards (upper caste) etc. He fights with everyone. You know, our daughter and grandchildren are supposed to be taken care of your son but he is fighting with everyone. If something happened to him, what would happen to my daughter?”
They do not know that while most of the members of my community will not be even able to speak face to face to a village officer with courage, I can walk into the office of the Office of the Chief Secretary of the state and ask questions and discuss the issues of my community with the officer. That is the power of education and knowledge.
I however feel personally unsafe to bring my family to the Ahmadabad city to stay together. My wife has not been in a city before. It is very risky for my family if the persons against who I fight come to know that I live with my family together in a city. For taking revenge against me, they would attack my family. Such is our police and other justice systems. In the village they are safe. In addition, my children are very young now. Had the children been a bit older, it would have been much easier to manage these things. I won’t stay in a city, and in fact my roots are also in the village.
I became a state coordinator for the organisation where I work, Navsarjan, in a very short time. I was a village level activist. I was directly promoted from a village human rights defender to a state coordinator. At Navsarjan we are a huge family. Ms. Manjula heads it.
For now I think it is risky for my wife and the children to live in a city. They live in the village which is 250 km away from a city.
Just being a human being
I understand the activity of the organisation is to focus on empowering people to stand on their own, than to be dependent upon somebody else. If we are human, we need to be trained to earn our own income.
There is no much study done in India about caste system and its actual impact in the society. Much of the written work is superficial. Navsarjan is trying to fill this gap. It is an organisation and a community where people are considered to be equal, and people are encouraged to consider each other as equal.
Through this work we all learn to learn by ourselves and stand on our own feet. To forget about the caste and then create a generation which can stand on our feet.
As the time passes by and the generation passes by, yours and our contribution will eradicate caste based discrimination. It has to first end in India where it began. It will, today or tomorrow.
The first part of this interview was published 19, June 2008. To read the first part, please see: To be a human without caste - part 1
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.