My life among the Dalits
21 February 2006
Sr Alphonsa Fatima FMM
In the year 1992, we four sisters opted to live among the Dalits in Pallapalayam village, Indira colony at Udumalpet Taluk in Coimbatore District Tamil Nadu.
Dalits are the untouchables of the society and so we opted to live because they are the Dalits, among the Dalits, because they are scavengers, who do all kinds of dirty work, like cleaning the public toilets, gutters of the streets in the villages and towns, burying dead animals and so on. Also they are considered very low in the status and looked down on by all the people in the country. They are called ‘sakkiliar’. We chose such people to live with because we learned that they are the majority in our district and whose socio, economic, political and cultural rights were curtailed. They were denied their basic human rights, especially by the caste people and the local landlords.
The residence of the Dalits in almost all the states of India is the same for they do not have houses or land of their own. They fully depend upon the local land owners or government for work. It is impossible for them to get government jobs because they are illiterates, and if they are employed by the government it would be for scavenging work, and they are paid very low wage and considered as `D´ grade workers. Eg. I found only three male and two female primary school teachers in Udumalpet taluk among the Dalits of this particular caste.
Women and men were going for ‘coolie’ work and children too were accompanying their parents to graze the cattle for the land owners or working with their parents for daily wages.
We learned that only 12 children were going to primary school, and many of them were bonded to the landlords in whose fields their parents were bonded labourers. That is, they work for the same land owner from generation after generation faithfully with low wages. We regularly visited the families and built a rapport with them. We also went to work with them in the fields of the landlords. The landlords were suspicious of our going to work and so strictly told the women not to bring us to work with them. They worked more than eight hours, but they were not aware of it. We contacted 10 more colonies of the same type of people; there too we found the same type of oppression.After learning the situation of the people for six months, we started literacy classes for the women and the youth. For the children we started special coaching classes and so we were able to send many children to the schools. The children were enthused to do their studies well and so the people of the area demanded we take tuitions for their children too, which was very impossible for us because they asked us to come to their areas (because they would not send their children into a Dalit colony.)
There are 200 families in the colony -- they had no leaders among them and for any disputes they would approach the local leaders who are non-Dalits. Our stay among them brought some changes in their lifestyle and they began to solve the problems by themselves through meetings and so on.E.g. There were lots of superstitious beliefs, the people were going to receive blessings for sicknesses such as diarrhea or fever etc instead of going to the hospital. The women stopped completely going to the temple priest for the blessing.The women and children were organised and simultaneously regular awareness and literacy classes were conducted and so, the people of the area, the non-Dalits questioned the women and men of the colony and learned all the details of the programmes and the changes in the colony.E.g. There were no children to graze the cattle and women were going to work irregularly, for they had their own self-help scheme (ie micro credit unit.)
With our help and guidance the children were faring well in their studies. Apart from that the women and the children were encouraged with a small savings scheme and so they were confident to educate their children and then onwards they were independent to take decision for their children and the family.
We took part in all the activities of the people in the colony such as their temple festivals, family functions, joys and sorrows which brought us close to people to know more about their culture and their attitudes about caste discrimination. We found that they have been oppressed in all the ways possible (e.g.) socially, economically, politically and religiously. The more we got involved the more they strengthened their confidence in us and accepted us.
Our regular meetings and discussions on human rights, women’s rights and various caste-based issues created in them confidence and courage which made them move to take part in different meetings organised by the Dalits movements and women’s movements in various places. Usually they do not go out of their place because they do not know to read and write and fear meeting outsiders.
If the police entered the colony the people would hide themselves for fear of them. Our constant accompaniment and follow-up in creating awareness and teaching to read and write made them go ahead in their activities. This helped them to participate actively in movement meetings, strikes, hunger strikes and so on.
It had taken nearly two years of time, and then began the problems for us. Our stay among the people was at risk, for the local landlords who were Hindu fundamentalists questioned some of the men in the colony and forced them to vacate us from there, for we have come to convert them to Christianity. With the help of some men in the colony they arranged to pick a fight among men and women who were involved in the micro-credit unit. They confused the entire situation of colony which led us and the women to the local police station and then to the local magistrate court, a signature campaign, petition to the collector and so on.
The more we were troubled, the deeper were our strength and courage to commit ourselves and to stand by the people, and be with them until the situation was ended. We were asked to leave the place by the provincial for fear of further troubles and danger to our lives. We were away from the place for two days but returned. It was a hard task for us to maintain peace among the people because there was an attempt to split the people and create fights among them. We were extremely careful to tackle this issue without any breakout of fights. We used peaceful tactics, that is, not to pick a fight with anyone, even if it wounded them very much and so women were very careful and did not react to anyone and to any situation. Almost every day we discussed the issue and finally the decision was made to forgive all those who caused us to suffer. The solution was to deepen the commitment of women in this issue and to create clarity on their rights, and to be united to work together.
The children played a very important role in this issue. They refused to eat at home and sign the signature campaign paper. They questioned people who were bribed by other caste men to send us away from the colony. When two children were threatened to say to the police that we taught prayers, the rest of them shouted together to the police that these children were saying lies. Finally, we all discussed to put an end the problem and to rebuild the unity and bring peace in the colony.
As the temple feast was approaching it was an appropriate opportunity at that moment so we planned to join those who created problem to celebrate the temple feast. So the women took initiative and the feast celebration put an end to the situation. The government officials did not support us very much for they were reluctant to get involved in this issue for fear of their officials who were non-Dalits. We too sent petitions to the collector for not allowing us to do the service to people which was in collaboration with the government scheme; the micro-credit unit.
The Hindu fundamentalists tried their level best to chase us from the colony by arranging public meetings in front of the colony to influence the people, also they bribed the police to threaten us and so the policemen came to call us to the station for an enquiry. Our petition to the Superintendent of Police (S.P.), made them come enquire in the colony. The entire village gathered, nearly 2000 people might have gathered to see what the Deputy S.P. (D.S.P.) would do to us. Many of the people thought that he would arrest us and so the women and children were crying bitterly for fear of our arrest.We were told by the D.S.P. not to leave the colony and not to convert the people. Then the local Magistrate (Thasildar) took a further step to put an end to those Hindu fundamentalists and the landlords who were the cause, he called out the parents of those men for discussion and warned them not to allow them to get involved in this issue.
I lived among them for 12 years empowering women, youth, and children and learned that the poor have many values to teach us: especially sharing, love for the neighbor, love for the nature so on. They are very human and affectionate people. I found meaning for my religious commitment in being and living a simple life – for they were living a very simple and contented life. Now, our sisters are continuing the work but moved to another area and continuing the contacts and the programmes with the people