Story of a Dalit activist, who dared “cross the line” fighting discrimination and became a human rights defender

23112012(093)Son of a farm labourer, Kantilal Parmar is today a senior Dalit rights activist with the Navsarjan Trust. He says, his is story not his alone. Many other Dalits in India have the same experience as he, facing untouchability and discrimination. “When I talked about my life with other Dalits in Gujarat, I realized that we all had similar experience in our life. Probably I am more fortunate than many of my Dalit friends. At least, I have an opportunity to share my story, which many others don’t”, he says.  Here narrates how how fought to become an activist:

I am Kantilal Ukabhai Parmar. My surname is Parmar. My father is Ukabhai and my mother is Jivuben. I was born in Chital village in Amreli district in Gujarat. I have two brothers and two sisters. I am the eldest. I have two uncles. One of them was working at the district panchayat as clerk and has just retired, while the other uncle works as peon at the Chital High School in my village. My grandmother, whom I loved a lot, passed aay at the age of 96 in 2009. We all lived in a joint family, altogether.

My ‘polluted’ coin

I am born in chamar community, a Dalit sub-caste. People called us “untouchables”. I faced ‘untouchability’ many times in primary school. I took my primary education from class one to seven at the Jashvantgadh Primary School in my village. In the classroom, we had to sit in the backbenches, without exception. We were not allowed to sit near the Patel students, the dominant caste classmates.

There was a water tank in the school, and the Dalit students had to use separate tumblers to drink water. It was not easy for us to take part in cricket game in school. We were not even allowed to pray. When the dominant caste classmates needed to exchange coins with us, they would collect coins from us after purifying them by sprinkling water on them, as they thought the coins that we had were polluted. Every day we were shamed. I could not understand what was wrong with me or why we were considered inferior.

First leaf-plate for drinking water

When I was at school, my parents worked at a farm as agricultural labourers. Whenever I had vacation or holiday, I came to the farm to assist my parents’ work along with my siblings. I remember, one day when we went to the farm, we brought our own plates and glasses. There were many people from our community to work at the farm but we only had one common tumbler. We walked in a queue. I was so thirsty, but could not use the tumbler which was used by others from the dominant caste.

I asked the landlord for water. I had to get the water using my palms as the water was poured from above, since the landlord did not want my palms to touch the container, thereby polluting the entire water. The water began to flow off from my hands. I was too young to drink properly like this. Seeing this, the landlord asked me to collect some leaf from the tree nearby and use it as a plate or a tumbler to collect water. I followed him, as I was very hungry, and drank water. I did not want to do this, but had no other option.

I have my name, Kanti

People from upper castes in the village, I remember, never called me by my name Kanti; they would address me as dhedh. It was common for persons belonging to the Dalit community to be referred to as dhedh, which is a derogatory way to refer to us, a reference to our so-called impurity for doing jobs like cleaning up others’ dirt. We are often even today addressed in the same derogatory manner, especially in villages.

Chamar is a community identified as cobblers. We are expected to repair shoes and sandals. The upper caste people who came to my father to repair their shoes and sandals would throw their shoes to my father from a distance. After repairing, my father would put the shoes at some point to let the upper caste persons to collect their shoes. Payment was not guaranteed, since such work was our duty in the caste hierarchy. If at all someone was willing to pay, the payment used to be leftover food or some grains.

When there were local celebrations like a wedding or a festival in the village, my grandmother was usually informed. We were never expected to participate in such functions, nor did we expect to be invited. However, we were allowed to go to these functions, not to participate, but to collect the leftover food. My grandmother generally went for these functions. She along with others from our community would have to wait in a corner, outside the venue and away from the view of the guests, until the feast was over. In between, we were not allowed to show face anywhere around where the upper caste had even the possibility of seeing even our shadow, since even that was believed to be polluting.

Once the feast was over, the leftover food was gathered and dropped on the ground outside the festival spot or the marriage feast hall. To keep the food in one place or from being spread around we used to dig a small ditch in the ground. Once the person who had dropped the food in the ditch would leave, we were allowed to collect the food from the ditch. Most often, this used to be the food we would get after days of starvation.

Kanti, do not cross the line

We were taught by the elders in the family that we needed to behave properly in society, abiding by all the caste practices. We were continuously cautioned that we should always keep in mind that we were the lower caste. We were also cautioned that the upper caste was very superior and we were inferior. We needed to behave in such a manner that we did not cross the line. In addition to that, from daily practice, we came to know that it was dangerous to cross the line.

For example, in the school we were not allowed to be admitted into the school sports team. We were continuously reminded that we were inferior, and also continuously threatened to be immediately punished if we crossed the line. The punishment often used to be punishment in public. Not only was the punishment made in such a way that people saw it, it was often symbolic. For any “mistake” that I committed, my father or the entire community would be punished.

There was a timber merchant in our village. Many of my family members and persons from our community used to work for this merchant in his yard. There were separate glasses for us to drink water, kept beside a window in the yard, where there was a water container. If we needed to drink water, we must first make a sound like a light cough before approaching the window. This was to warn the upper caste people that we were going towards the window and hence they should not reach the spot by accident.

We were not allowed to pour water for ourselves. A person would pour water from the container without touching our glass or us. If we did not follow this rule we would be punished. Maybe it might be me who might make a mistake of touching something that we were not supposed to touch. And, the punishment would be for all the labourers in the yard from our community who worked there. The punishment would be in the form of not paying wages for the entire week, or somewhat similar, or even worse.

There were eight to ten timber merchants in our village. Only the Hindu timber merchants practiced caste discrimination. The Muslim merchants did not. But it was hard to get a job with the Muslim merchants, since there were only two or three of them, and they would generally have no vacancy.

My mother and grandmother had to buy milk from an upper caste person, usually a Patel. To make the payment for the milk, they were expected to keep the money on the ground and stay away. This was to ensure that even by accident we did not touch the upper caste persons and polluted them. The Patel, who would sell us milk, would first purify the money by spraying water on it, and then take it.

Such practices continue even today. They happen less in towns but are a way of life in villages. Not that caste identity or practices have changed in towns, but because in villages everyone knows who is who, while nobody knows who is who in towns.

Even today, we cannot easily buy a house or a property in a town or a city. When we do the documentation for buying property, we need to furnish our complete address as well as our full name. The address and the name would reveal our caste identity. Once the caste identity is revealed, often the seller would pose some excuse in order to refuse to sell us the property.

Helping hand of Brahmin teacher

At the secondary school, teachers would often abusively call us as “son-in-law” of the government. This was done to make a mockery of the government schemes which help persons from lower castes to reach the mainstream. Teachers often used to say, “Hey son-law-law of the government, come here.”

However, all teachers from upper caste were not like that. Anshuyaben, a female teacher from the Brahmin caste, gave me free English tuition after the school. She supported me a lot. She considered me as her son, and I was allowed to go to the teacher’s home. The teacher also visited my house. I used to work hard and was always the first or second in the class.

However, there was another teacher, named Sangani, who taught male students. He would ask me “Why do you study English? You do not need to study English. You should not study English.” He tried to discourage me this way. I am sure that he believed in what he said; perhaps to him a lower caste person like me was nothing but a fellow destined to do inhuman labour. To him, education was of no use to us.

One day I asked him, “Why can’t I study?” And the teacher replied, “What are you going to do after finishing the school? Even if you secure good marks in the examination, what would you do? You are chamar. You cannot go to college. And you should not go to college. Besides, who is going to take you to the college?”

This was in sharp contrast to Anshuyaben, whose duty was to teach only female students, yet she encouraged me in every possible way.  Finally, when the examination results were published, I was the first in the school. I got 66 per cent marks. It was 1986.  When Sangani came to know of my result, he said, “You did something wrong.”

Following the result, people started visiting me with food or sweets and congratulated me. However, my family did not have anything to give back to the guests, not even a cup of tea, as we were so poor. The entire village came to know of my high score. A local newspaper published my name and photograph, and I was so happy. However, I realized soon: I did not have money to study more. My parents could not afford higher studies. I must return to work.

The students who scored the highest mark in the school would be awarded Rs 251 as an award in the village. But neither the school nor the village gave me the award, because I am Dalit.

My uncle was working in the local administration at that time. He had more money. People told my uncle to help me. My uncle told my father that he would help me to travel from the village to the city and get me enrolled for diploma in electronics engineering. But my father denied the offer, not because he did not want me to study, but because he did not want to end up in debt, even to his own brother.

My uncle insisted to accept the help and finally my father agreed. My uncle said, “Kanti is one among us. He is good at studies. We must encourage him. This might be his only way out of this curse of caste”.

College was no different

In Bhavnagar town, where I studied, initially I did not notice the practice of caste discrimination. When I enrolled at the college my education certificates exposed my caste identity along with my village name. At the college hostel where I stayed, I realized soon that the upper caste students, as always, had the upper hand. They could stay anywhere they wished, in any room of the hostel. However, we from the lower castes were all boarded in a separate hostel, the “exclusive” Dalit hostel.

It is very tough in Gujarat during summer due to heat, and water is a much sought after commodity. There was a water tank for the upper caste students, but none for us in the hostel. We could not take a shower or wash our clothes. Often, we did not even have enough water to drink. We had to wait for the leftover water from the upper caste community. The hostel for the upper caste students had more facilities, including electrical gadgets and television. Nothing was there for us. Soon I realized that the college was no different from the village.

I had borrowed a cycle from my uncle for commuting between the hostel and the college. There used to be movie shows at night in the town. One day, an upper caste student came to me and said, “Give me your cycle. I need to go to go for a movie tonight.” I refused. “I won’t give you my cycle, because I don’t want to give it to you“, I said. The same night my cycle was destroyed. I was very angry and also sad. I could not complain against him. I just had to keep quiet.

The upper caste students could pick up any Dalit student they chose to beat us up. This could be with or without any reason. Sometimes they would come drunk and beat up Dalit students just for fun. We had no right to say “No”. We had to face it. We could not complain. If we dared, we would face abuse from the college administration. We just had to obey.

Some upper caste boys would bring girls to the institution. When they required our room to spend their time with girls, we were expected to vacate our rooms. If we objected, we were assaulted. We were treated as servants even in the college. It became intolerable. I soon moved from Bhavnagar town to Amreli for diploma course.

At Amreli, I started organizing Dalit students. I would directly contact those Dalits students who were admitted in the college. I encouraged them to stay together and formed a Dalit students’ union. I became a Dalit student union leader. The name of the Dalit student union was Dalit Yuva Vidyarthai Sangathan (Dalit Young Students’ Federation). We dealt with issues concerning Dalit students, and also started writing complaints, even petitions to the Prime Minister.

I started developing my own small group for the Dalit students’ rights, specifically on issues like scholarship for Dalit students. In my case, however, even though I was qualified to get a scholarship it was denied to me.

The ration shop experience

In 1988, the government reserved ration distribution shop in my village for the Dalit community members. My father, who had studied up to the fourth standard, helped by my uncle, filled up a form to run the ration shop. His application was granted and he began his ration shop.

After my father got the license for the ration shop, my father stopped working in the farm as he had to open the ration shop every day till late evening. When he used to go to the farm, he would accompany with him other family members like my mother, grandmother and my sisters to work at the farm. However, with the absence of male members in the family, it became difficult to go outside of the village for farm work.

The ration shop needed more than one person to be run. It also required some investment for which my father had to get a loan from a bank. But the loan and the interest was too high for my father to pay back. My father also wanted some support for running the shop and asked my uncle to join as partner. The problem was that the profit from the ration shop was not high enough and had to be reinvested in the shop for ten years.

This ten year period was the toughest time for my family. Any profit there was had to be divided for three persons, and after division. We got nothing. In addition to that, I was studying at the time.

Though the shop began in the village, half of the ration card holders in the village went to Amreli town to collect their ration since they did not want to buy it at my father’s shop. Thus we lost 50 per cent of the potential customers.

There was a village head, belonging to the upper caste community. A BJP leader, he intentionally kept changing the ration card register which had the record of those who were registered with the ration shop. The ration card holders started getting confused as to where to go to collect their ration and blamed it on my father. They believed that my father cheated them since they could not find their names under my father’s ration shop in which the ration card holders initially registered their names.

My father and my uncle who was a second partner were not aware how to run the ration shop and the legalities involved. They found it difficult to understand what the village head was doing by changing the register. However, another uncle, the third partner, who was working in the government service, came to know of what was going on. My uncle could not say that the village head was wrong. He was not supposed to be involved in the ration shop as he was working for the government.

My father and uncles struggled for a while by talking to people. During the first part of running the ration shop, we faced various problems, one after another. It was believed that Dalits should not run a ration shop and it had been dominated by the upper caste. However, it was the government which had granted us the license for the ration shop and they could not prevent us from running it.

I used go to home during vacation. My father was running the ration shop and mother and sisters worked at the farm. I also went to work at the farm to support my family. However, even after hard labour at the farm, we did not have food to eat at home. We were so poor, that often we would only had water and some dry rotis to keep us alive. However, none of us complained.

When I was studying at college, many people used to come to me for writing a complaint and getting a petition done. Even when the upper caste people threatened me, the hostel was safe. I did not have to pay the rent in the hostel, as it was subsidized for me by the government. This was the time that I read an article written by Martin Macwan, who had founded Navsarjan Trust in 1998 as a Dalit rights group.

I was already a self-styled activist and became interested in social work for the community. I did not sit for my examination. I was engaged in something else, rather than studying. I almost stopped studying in 1993, as I became a social activist insideout. After reading Macwan’s article, I met him and asked him, “Can I work with you?” I joined Navsarjan Trust as a village human rights defender in 1998. This was my new beginning as a human rights activist.

Putting theory into practice

The first case I dealt with was the case of Devaliya village in which the water pipeline for the Dalits was cut off by the upper caste people. We protested it and created social tension, which resulted in the social boycott of the village by the upper caste for a long period of time, about three to four years. I started meeting people, writing complaints and organized protest meetings. Various people came to us and inquired as to what had gone wrong.

It developed into a huge social issue. People from the central intelligence department approached me. One of them was a Dalit. He said, “Why don’t you complain to the National Human Rights Commission?” He gave me the address. This was my first petition to the National Human Rights Commission, which responded with an order consisting of 21 pages, though generally it responds in just one or two lines.

We took the order to the High Court as public interest litigation. The High Court stated that what the National Human Rights Commission had said was right and must be enforced. I started to learn how these things could be used and how the mechanism could be utilized.

Macwan would often for regular session of activists regarding different issues of law, land reforms, social issues etc. He gave regular coaching to activists to empower them with the essential tools and basic knowledge. As I started working with him, I immediately got an opportunity to put theory into practice, and it succeeded.

Meanwhile, I found that my family had some apprehensions. Even today it has. They say that I should be careful and I should be afraid of this and that. However, when circumstances forced me to react and when I got exposed to more knowledge, I realized that caste discrimination was wrong and there were different laws and mechanisms. I tried to find some remedy. Initially I was afraid. As time passed by, I slowly became courageous and got results.


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