Sunday, September 20, 2015

Her revolting words were music to my ears.

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

‘Even if you hang me on a lamp-post for not cleaning your ‘shit’, I am ready for it but I will never do this. Never do this, never do this’, said Champa Devi when I interviewed her first in the late 1990s when I started going to Mohammdabad, a small town of district Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh where the families of those engaged in manual scavenging work became my extended family. I always wanted to hear the words from those who are victims of our racist caste system that assigned the work of cleaning human excreta to a particular community of untouchables, known in this region of eastern Uttar Pradesh, as Rawat. Champa Devi always believed in ‘sukhi roti khayenge lekin jhadu nahi lagayenge, malmutra nahi dhoyenge’ (We would rather eat simple dry bread yet won’t touch broom to clean human excreta of others). These words were music to my ears as I felt that the biggest roadblock in our war against manual scavenging is the mental slavery, which has been imposed on the community for centuries. There is no denial of factor that the brahmanical system enslaved people mentally and compelled them to do the work but ultimately the liberation need our own convictions to fight it back. It is therefore important to acknowledge many of those who may not have been celebrity but lived life on their own conditions despite prevailing socio-cultural environment of gender and caste prejudices.

Champa Devi was working in the Mohammdabad Municipality as Safai Karmchari i.e. sanitation worker, when I met her for the first time around 1997. I was visiting Mohammdabad and trying to understand various issues that Rawat community was facing here in their engagement with the sanitation work, which is a sophisticated acronym for manual scavenging. Many of the young girls were interested in studying further but most of them had left their school due to financial constraints as their parents were unable to support their education.  As I roamed around, spoke to many who were engaged in the manual scavenging work, the quick-fix reply was, ‘What do we do? Where is the alternative? Who will feed us?’.  And if you compel them to speak they would say,’ If you want us to leave then we will leave it.” It was a way to suggest that we need economic alternative to do that. I would often question them as what do they get out of it and the answer would be ‘economic security’ but the fact is that it is not economic security but ‘security of life’. What is the ‘economics’ when somebody clean the human excreta of the other human being without getting anything in return? The only thing the ‘bade-log’ i.e. dominant caste people whose toilets are cleaned would provide ‘leftover food’ in the afternoon. Is not that a humiliation of the people who strive hard to live their life? And in the year end, during some festivities, they get 20 kilogram of rice or wheat and some left over cloths. Champa Devi had always despised this in her typical style,’ What do you get after working day in and out. The filthy leftover food and you don’t feel humiliated in begging for it. What cant you do other work which other community people do. None of the other community people do this work if they don’t get the work”, she would retort.

Mohammdabad is dominated by the Muslim Ansaris and rural areas by Bhumihar Hindus, who are powerful landlords and both have deep faith in the caste hierarchy. In the city area, it is the Ansaris that calls the shot politically but in the villages both the Muslims and Hindu upper castes run the show. For the Rawat community here untouchability exists both the side however its forms may be different in the town and the village. Just last year when some of our friends started a sewing centre for young girls in a village called Ranipur the upper caste Muslims refused to come to the house of the Rawat community people, as they remain untouchables.
Champadevi lived life according to her own convictions. She was married in childhood but never really able to live with her so-called in laws and revolted. She could not confine herself to domesticated village life engaged in manual scavenging hence left the village to life her life independently. She moved out and found the job of a Safai Karmchari in Mohammadabad. It was her conviction that she decided not to marry again and live the life the way she wanted. Her job with the Nagarpalika made her independent and she started supporting the families of brothers and sisters apart from encouraging young girls to study and men to leave manual scavenging.

Every time, I met her, she would appreciate the work that we have been doing in the community. ‘These young girls must grow. They must study and become independent. It is important for girls to learn sewing, computer and other related things’, she would say. It was always good to hear her putting her viewpoint strongly. She was ready to fight and die for the cause of society.

Once, I asked her opinion on what many people think about the issue of manual scavenging will become irrelevant if we increase the money given for the work and pat came her answer,’ You pay me Rs 10 or 20 for cleaning your shit, I am ready to give you triple the amount please do come to my home and clean my latrine’, she would challenge those who place such arguments.  I am ready to be hanged she often said to me than cleaning the human excreta of anyone else. It is inhuman and against our self-respect. I want to ask my community people to come out of this mindset, educate your daughter, chose respectful occupations and live a dignified life.’

Champa Devi was not a theoretician or a politician but a simple woman who faced untouchability and left the life of indignity and disrespect so her feelings and expressions are focused more on the community and not on the government. The fact is while we all ask the government to invest more money and give more resources; it is also important that we listen to the voices of the likes of Champa Devi and introspect. We do not absolve government from its duties towards elimination of manual scavenging but a change is also needed from within and a bigger social awareness campaign inside the communities as the government and its upper caste officials may wait for next hundred years to ‘eradicate’ untouchability and manual scavenging but the community should not even wait for a day to leave this inhuman and undignified work.
Those of us who devote our time with the community it is essential to acknowledge the spirit of the community elders like Champa Devi which may not look very ‘glamorous’ and ‘mentionable’ to the feudal elitist mindset which define people in the name of ‘this or that’ ideology and not what they fight daily because of birth based discrimination due their caste identities. Champa Devi lived a full life and remains independent till end.  Whatever she may be, but Champa Devi’s words rejecting the culture of manual scavenging on her own and choosing a life of self respect and dignity would always sound like rhythmic music in my ears forever.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Imposing vegetarianism on Aadivasis in Jharkhand

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

As I boarded the Rajdhani express from New Delhi for Parasnath for my intended visit to Jharkhand the co-passenger in the side seat was a young boy from IIT Delhi who happened to belong to Jain community and was visiting to Parasnath for religious rituals that his parents were performing. During the conversation he said that he is a vegetarian but definitely respect people’s right to eat non-veg food. He opined that the world was changing and that a business community cannot be confined to narrow partisan and outdated thoughts that look down upon others who have different take on the issue. World is too diverse and as a global citizen you will have to respect people’s personal choices to food and drink he said during the conversation. The boy laughed when I said don’t he think that Jains are hypocrite as the biggest meat-beef exporters in India are Jains and Marwadis. His position was that we are in business and need to whatever is good but at the same point of time narrow attitude may be damaging for future of their business. It was a happier togetherness in the train for nearly 12 hours where I found how the Jain youngsters are changing and feel that their community needs to move beyond if it has to remain in business

Parasnath railway station looked much cleaner and better than any of its counterparts in other parts of the state. It clearly indicates that the authorities have done this to ‘honor’ the ‘feelings’ of Jains who come in large number to worship at the Parasnath hills. Outside the station hundreds of taxis, autos, offer you to take you to Parasnath for a ‘darshan’.

For long, I had desired to visit this place as I have visited historical places of Jains like Sravan Belgola in Karnataka and in many other places which is definitely a beautiful monument but coming to this place made really shocking revelations. The lush green region of the Santhal aadivasis is under the assault of money bags with huge concrete structures are being built around the area of Madhuban, the town where Parasnath hills are located. It is not just huge ashrams, temples, religious universities but townships are also being built around the area ignoring completely the environmental norms as well as the feelings of the local aadivasi communities. Their lands are being grabbed illegally violating all the rules and laws of the state. It need to be seen that Madhuban or what is being termed today as Parasnath is actually an aadivasi area and sale and purchase of aadivasi land is illegal then how come the vast tract of land are being provided to Jains. One can understand their religious feelings but why townships are being allowed to be building here. Now the government of Jharkhand is coming up with a plan to develop the city as a ‘religious’ place under the Parasnath Action Plan to attract ‘religious’ tourism in the state.

As I toured around the place there are big hoarding of ‘welcoming’ us to famous ‘Jain’ religious place. The state government has put its hoarding with warning of not to eat meat or drink or smoke in the region. The notice says, ‘ The state government of Jharkhand has declared this place as sacred religious place hence eating meat, drinking alcohol and smoking here is strictly prohibited and those violating the order will be penalized.

This is a dangerous order as Jharkhand is an aadivasi state and Jains don’t live here. They just come for worshipping while aadivasis have lived in this region for centuries and their food habits are in complete contrast with that of Jains so why should Jains be imposing their beliefs on others particularly in the lands of Aadivasis. Are Jains trying to colonize this area through their money and muscle power? Huge religious trusts have come up with sprawling ashrams, gaushalas are being formed and township inside the ashrams so that to avoid the Land Ceiling Act. It violate the sanctity of the place and need to be seriously looked into from legal and autonomy point of view of the tribal region. Whether the Jains are not using it a religious pretext to colonise the tribal regions of Jharkhand ?

The Santhals and other aadivasis of district Giridih are now feeling deeply disturbed with the continuous assault on their culture from the Jain outsiders with active support from the state government which is facilitating this colonization process. It is not just the issue of dictating their food habits and imposing it on the aadivasis the Santhal claims that the entire area of so-called Parasnath hills is actually Marang Buru, the traditional deity of the aadivasis of the region.  The hills are actually called as Marang Buru hills and have clearly been mentioned in the Gazetteer of Bihar’s Hazaribagh district in 1932 much before it became part of separate Giridih district. The Marang Buru Samvata Susar Baisi has been actively fighting for their right to worship their traditional deity in the hills.  Their leader Arjun Hemram says,’ Like Jains famous pilgrimage at Parasnath, Santhals too have their ancient deity at the Marang Buru hills and government need to promote their culture too which is the original culture of the region.

In the Gazattear of Bihar’s district Hazaribagh it is mentioned, ‘ Parasnath is the ‘Marang Buru’ or hill deity of the Santals of Hazaribagh, Manbhum, Bankura and Santal Pargana and each year they assemble at the period of full moon in Baishakh from those districts and celebrate a religious hunt for three days, after which a great tribal session is held for the trial of charges against Manjhis and paraganails and of the other grave matters which affects the outcasting of the individuals. The entry of this custom in the record of rights which was prepared in 1911 and of the similar right of the Ghatwars was followed by the institution of a suit by the Swetamber Jains to have it declared that no such customs exists. That suit was dismissed by the judicial commissioner and an appeal, preferred against his order, has been rejected by the High Court. The case went up by the Privy Council and it was held that the Santals have the customary rights of hunting on the Parasnath Hills.’

(Ref : Page : 294-295, Bihar district Gazetteers : Hazaribagh by P.C.Roy Choudhury, Special Officer, Gazetteer Revision Section, Revenue Department, Bihar)

The aadivasis are not denying that the area is of great importance for Jains but the fact is it is not the Jains but the aadivasis who are living in the region and now facing Jain’s dictates about culture and changing their practices. Historical facts have already proved that aadivasis have customary rights over the hills but now most of them are just ferrying the ‘Jain devotees’ on their shoulders to the Parasnath hills. Obviously, money makes sense for them but this also reveals that none of these ‘devotees’ would be able to climb up if aadivasis don’t cooperate with them.

Will Jharkhand government listen to the voices of Aadivasis and stop imposing Jain values on them.  The government must allow huge mansions in the name of ashrams and temples which the Jains have been religious building here completely changing the demography and ecology of the region. One aadviasi of the area Shanishar Manjhi has written a letter to the authorities on August 26th, 2015 in which he accuse one Kalyan Niketan run by some Jain to return  his 5.32 acres of land wrongfully grabbed and housed CRPF there. Son of Shanishar Manjhi says that they are still paying the ‘lagan’ on the same land. Jharkhand government need to answer as how has the aadivasi land gone to the non aadivasis and how are these huge religious structures and townships are being allowed at the Aadivasi zones?

Travelling to some of the most beautiful regions in Jharkhand, I found aadivasi life so simple and yet so beautiful in the lap of nature. For years, aadivasis revolted against any encroachment against their cultural autonomy and freedom. They lived life absolutely free and enjoyed their food culture. From Pakud to Dumka and Ranchi to Khoonti, one can see the beauty as well as struggle of aadivasis for centuries. The rice-beer, which they produce, can beat any market product and the forest produce, which they eat, is far better. Those beautiful houses, locations are under the threat both from the greedy corporate and the religious thugs. Will the aadivasis will revolt again this time when the state which they fought for is imposing dietary restrictions on them in the name of ‘cultural sensibilities’ of Jains but what about the cultural sensibilities of the ‘aadivasis’?  Will the Jains along with Jharkhand’s government and officials also respect Aadivasi’s right over ‘Marang Buru’ and their customary right of worshipping their deity over their own land? Jharkhand might boil again if the moneybags and distortions of legalities are played to deny the aadivasis their due rights to protect their land and their ancient community deity Marang Buru.

The Santhals and other aadivasis in Jharkhand want that answer from their ‘own’ government, which has imposed an alien culture on them in the name of religion, which never existed in the aadivasi zones. For years, the aadivasis have been betrayed just because they have lived their lives on their own without knowing much about the legalities of our system and therefore losing everything yet they fought physically against the British and threw them away from their region therefore if the state of Jharkhand does not act in good faith and give the aadivasis their due the situation might turn out of control.