By Gagan Sethi*
In Golana village of Central Gujarat, the Dalit hamlet, known as Vankar Vas, was getting overcrowded. Families were growing, and the 100-odd households in the Vas now had grown up children, some of whom had married. Almost every household had two families living in one room plus the outer courtyard. Blame it on overcrowding; family quarrels had become pretty common.
The year was 1984. With the cooperative now generating regular income for the Vankars who were its members, the young Turks of the Vas began pressuring the elders, called mahetars, to negotiate with upper caste Darbars, who controlled the panchayat, to allocate some common village land for housing.
However, Dalit’s claiming such a right, especially when elders knew that a big portion of the panchayat controlled common village land was encroached upon by few powerful Darbar families, was blasphemy.
The matter came up for discussion ata cooperative meeting, and those of us from the NGO who were working for promoting it suggested that we should talk over with the deputy mamlatdar at Cambay (now Khambhat) and ask for his intervention.
We met the gentleman, who seemed helpful. He suggested that we should make an application to the gram panchayat giving specific survey records showing the land that was encroached upon, giving population records of the census. A copy of the application and supporting documents should be forwarded to him.
Youngsters got together and began a house-to-house survey and signed the application. We had now to go to the panchayat office and hand over the application to the talati-cum-mantri and get a “received” signature, a common practice in government system. We convinced a few elders to accompany us, and a group of about dozen reached the panchayat office.
As we were about to enter in, I noticed three elders showing signs of uneasiness. I coaxed them to enter in, and especially told the talati, who sought to offer me a chair, that elders should be respected first.
We gave the application and took a “received” copy. We also issued a subtle warning to the talati that he should follow the law, and not act as per the whims of the Darbars. We returned to the hamlet, where others were eagerly waiting to listen to the outcome.
One of the elders, Shivakaka, started narrating the story. And tears started rolling down his eyes. Entering into the panchayat, and being offered a chair to sit, was something he could not imagine till then. Aged 60, he said, he till then had never entered the panchayat office. This was the first time when he not only entered in, but also was even offered a chair, on which he sat!
I realized how difficult it was for a poor Dalit to even access public spaces – it was, as if, a dream come true. And, to be able to be treated with dignity by offering a chair was beyond their imagination.
Even today caste system prohibits normal persons to access public spaces like panchayat buildings, police stations, and government offices. A recent study by Navsarjan – an organization started by Martin Macwan, and currently chaired by me – took a sample of 1,589 villages. It startlingly revealed the level of discrimination – untouchability practiced by upper castes on Dalits in access to public space.
In 55.6 percent villages, Dalits were allowed to enter into panchayat offices. In 54.7 percent villages they were not allowed to sit in the chaura, or the village square. And in 85 percent villages they were not allowed to participate in gram sabhas.
Without access to public institutions, equality and fraternity remain a dream for which assertion and struggle continue till date. Baba Ambedkar’s suspicion that there would be no change in the condition of Dalits unless there was separate electorate for them is yet to be belied.
*Author is founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social Justice. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. First appeared in DNA