By 1 pm in the afternoon, Ankur finishes sweeping the streets in Nanak Nagar, Jammu. One day, the owner of the local Sunny Book Store, Rajinder Gupta, confronted him after he had finished his work and accused him of not cleaning the roads properly. When Ankush denied the accusation, he was abused, slapped, and threatened. He is currently in Bareilly to attend a cousin’s wedding. His brother Ravi (name changed) narrated the entire incident to Newsclick. He said, “He slapped my brother and called him the word that I cannot utter.” After a few minutes of silence, he gathered the courage to say it. “He publicly called him a Bhangi (derogatory term used to denote a caste).” The caste is traditionally associated with manual scavenging, sweeping, and cleaning latrines.
As the incident became public, it was taken up by the Safai Karamchari Union who sought to file an FIR against Rajinder Gupta. The union told Newsclick, “When the matter reached the police, they refused to file a complaint because of the man’s position and stature in the society. Apart from that, he is associated with BJP and was backed by the party. The SHO asked us to reconcile with him. When we agitated, the man was asked to apologize and the matter was closed. Justice was not served to us. It was a case of forceful reconciliation.”
In the narrow lanes of Valmiki Colony of Gandhinagar, every household has a story. The lives of the Dalits in Jammu are fraught with instances of discrimination and harassment which go unreported. Some have internalised the discrimination and the others are trying to learn ways of dealing with it.
However, this is not just the story of Dalits in Jammu. Dalits across the country face structural and occupational discrimination.
Prisoners of the Caste System
A regular day in Rajvinder’s life is quite hectic. She wakes up at 5 am, prepares food for her family, cleans the drains and the roads in the ward assigned to her, comes back home to cook food again for the family. Done with that, she leaves her home to complete chores like washing clothes at someone’s house, mopping floors of upper caste houses or taking care of the toddlers in upper class families, which help her earn some extra money. Rajvinder says that this is how she is able to run her family, because Rs 6,000 per month is not enough to survive. Recalling a recent episode, Rajvinder said, “I have worked as a sweeper for last 7 years. Few days ago, while I was sweeping, I felt very thirsty. I knocked the door of one of the houses, asking for water. I was rebuked and asked to go away. They said that they do not have any water. Water doesn’t come for free, so they said they can’t give it to everyone who asks for it. We have now gotten used to this behaviour. We just smile and leave.”
Adam arrived there just as Rajvinder was talking to Newsclick. Visibly pale and tired, with unkempt hair, Adam sits next to Rajvinder. His body has a rancid smell around it. While rubbing his hand, he says, “My work disgusts me, but this is all I can do to feed my family. This is what my ancestors did. This is what am I supposed to do. But I hope my kids won’t follow this tradition.”
Before handing over a glass of water, Rajvinder asks whether I will drink water from her house. “If you are not comfortable drinking our water, I can buy you a cold drink,” she says. As I ask for the glass of water, tears well up in her eyes. “If someone is kind enough to give us water, they throw an unclean plastic glass at our face and pour water while ensuring that the bottle doesn’t touch the glass. Then, the glass is kept near the gate for next time or thrown away.”
Rajvinder mother-in-law, who is a retired sweeper, recalls, “I retired last year. I was not even allowed to enter the house. I was given a mat and asked to sit outside. Few minutes later, a glass of water or tea was pushed towards me in the name of godly deeds of feeding a poor. If we sipped our tea slowly, we were bluntly asked to drink faster and leave the house early.”
Sudha (name changed), another sweeper from the area, said, “Once the wife of a Deputy Inspector General (DIG) threatened me, saying that if I do not put in extra efforts while cleaning the road near her house, she will talk to the Commissioner and get me transferred,” Sudha was transferred when she argued with the DIG’s wife. But few months later, the union took up the matter and she was transferred back to her place of work. “I was clearly told to not talk to the DIG’s wife again and to not get into any arguments.”
Atrocities Faced by Dalit Children
In Valmiki Colony, most children are made to drop out of school after class 10 to help their parents by joining the traditional sweeping job.
Dalits who are able to send their children in private schools by earning money through private chores allege that their children face open discrimination from teachers and students once their caste is known. “Our children face discrimination in the school. Nobody shares their lunch with them once they are recognized as Dalits. The teachers look at them differently. They are never given tasks. They feel alienated among the other students,” said Ajay (name changed), another resident of Valmiki Colony.
Ajay’s son had applied for admission to the Commerce College, but he believes that he was not selected because of his caste. “My son had cleared the exam and other rounds, but at the last moment, his name was dropped from the list. The college administration had no explanation as to why this happened. They can’t see people from lower caste finding getting admitted to higher education institutes.”
The long history of Dalits in Jammu
In 1957, local Safai Karamcharis went on an indefinite strike and continued it for six months. The Jammu region was filled with garbage. In order to ease the situation, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad, upon deliberation, took a cabinet decision to bring Safai Karamcharis (Dalits) from Punjab. Over 50 families of Dalits were relocated to Jammu from Punjab to work as Safai Karamcharis, but these families were not given citizenship of Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, they cannot apply for jobs which require State Subject Certificate.
The Safai Karamcharis were allotted colonies for housing and a free permit to enter the state but not made permanent residents of the state. Joginder, a man in his seventies, recalls, “We were relocated after the Safai Karamcharis in Jammu went on a massive strike for 6 months. At that point of time, one needed a permit to enter Jammu and Kashmir. We were given that permit and relocated but we were never given the citizenship of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Christianity – A dignified Life
Anand loves being called Adam. He believes that the name adds dignity to his personality. He feels like he belongs to a community which is not looked down upon. In his house, there are two pictures hanging next to each other – one of Jesus Christ and another of Valmiki. In Valmiki Colony, one will find Valmiki and Church posters pasted on the walls.
Like a lot of Dalits across India, a sizeable population here has converted to Christianity. Arun, a resident of the colony, said that the family had converted to Christianity when he was a kid. He believes that Christianity is a way towards dignity. When asked to explain, he said, “We are ensured by the pastors that we will have a dignified afterlife.”