|Volume 6 Issue 02| February 2012|
Sk Enamul Haq
NAIMUL KARIM describes the plight of the dalit community.
Imagine leading a life where one has to hide his or her identity every single day in order to be accepted in society; where a person is punished in every stage of life due to the illogical divisions created by mankind. Being born in a family of dalits is the only criteria that one requires to meet, in order to lead such an existence. What's even worse is the fact that the government has turned a blind eye towards this inhuman practice.
With an estimated population of around 10 million, the Bangladesh Dalit Parishad (BDP) considers the dalits of Bangladesh as the most marginalised group in the sub-continent. "In countries like Nepal and India there are laws that protect dalits from being discriminated against. If a dalit is harassed in those countries then one can take the matter to court. But here, even after forty years, there isn't any law to protect us and we are still considered as untouchables," says Vikas Kumar Das, Coordinator, BDP.
Also known as members of the Schedule Caste (SC), the dalits belong to the bottom of the Hindu caste-system and for centuries have been discriminated based on social, cultural, economical and various other grounds. As a result of which they struggle to compete with the general public and have been compelled by society to stick to their traditional jobs such as cleaning gutters, polishing shoes, sweeping, etc. From Nama-shudras to Rishis, there are several dalit-communities throughout the nation. However, with no legal support, they are subjected to cruel discrimination. Although the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste, several dalits claim the need for protective intervention. "We want a law that specifically bans the atrocities committed on Dalits, that is the only way we can improve our stance in society," says Milon Das, member of BDP.
Narrating his own dismal story, Kumar Das explains how difficult it is for dalits to move away from their customary jobs and integrate with society, "After working as a medical practitioner for six months I wanted to start a medical shop. When I mentioned this to my colleagues they told me that it wouldn't work out since no one would buy medicines from a dalit's shop." Das left his job that day and never went back. Today he works for the BDP, one of the few organisations in Bangladesh that strives to improve the conditions of the dalits. "Forget getting jobs, we aren't even called for interviews because our names give away our identities," claims Kumar Das. Stressing on the importance of job-quotas, the Dalit Parishad claims that high competition in the public sector makes it more difficult for dalits to get jobs. "All our lives we have been behind in terms of education and other social factors, that's one of the reasons why we can't compete with the general public," says Kumar Das.
The last couple of years have seen the rise of organisations such as the Bangladesh Harijan Parishad (BHP) and the BDP that spread awareness and fight against any kind of injustice committed against the SCs. Through various seminars they have managed to gain the support of civil societies. While a certain amount of progress has taken place, committee leaders feel that dalits need to get representation in the parliament in order to receive more benefits. "None of the political parties have dalit representatives. Right from the upazilas to the national level, there are no dalits. Nobody thinks about us. Therefore, we are politically excluded and that is a huge problem," claims Kumar Das. He further said that several political parties, including the Awami League, listed the development of dalits as an agenda in their election manifestos in 2009, however, till date the government has done absolutely nothing. Members of the Dalit Parishad have also accused political parties of using them as vote banks. In a recent conference, a member of the BDP claimed that no matter what the outcome of elections are, the winning party eventually denounces the dalits. "The ruling party has never done anything for us. Our organisations (BDP, BHP) have to depend upon NGOs such as Manusher Jonno for funding," says Ashok Das, member, BDP.
Sk Enamul Haq
Narrating an election-related incident, Kumar Das says, "One of my relatives stood for the upazila elections recently. He got the nomination and we started supporting him. However, the entire upper-caste society was against this. They chanted despicable slogans and insulted our communities. Eventually our candidate had to step down."
Despite the uphill task, the BDP and the BHP believe that the government will eventually agree to their demands and have started taking various steps towards that goal. The plan to create a National Commission for Dalits for instance, is one of them. "We aim to create a commission that'll help us integrate with the mainstream and assist us in our various needs," says Ashok Das. "As of now, we are trying to collect ourselves and form a strong stance," he adds.
The atrocities against dalit-women, according to the BDP, is another issue that hasn't been addressed properly. Female dalits are doubly suppressed, claims Ashok Das, firstly for being a woman and secondly for being a dalit. "In our community, the upper-caste people have even created proverbs such as Muchir bow, shobar shundori bhabi, which means that there is nothing wrong in eve-teasing a female dalit," says Kumar Das.
The no-reservation policy has also affected the education sector as student-dalits struggle to get admissions in institutions. An educationist from the BDP claims, "Students from SC are discarded from universities because of their poor high-school marks, which they manage to achieve with limited facilities." Furthermore, dalit students who manage to get admission into government universities do not reveal their true identities in fear of a backlash. "Dalit students don't usually reveal their identities as they might be forced to eat at a separate mess and live in a separate hostel," explains Bashudob Das Babul, a third year accounting student, Sathkari Government College. He further said that dalit students don't get equal opportunities in the campus.
Narrating his own example, Babul says, "I used to be an active member of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and often gave political speeches. But when people came to know that I am a Rishi, they started to ignore and discard me." He further said that he was denied the post of Sadharon Sampadok (general secretary) in college after people came to know about his caste. Babul, like many other dalit students, having faced several rejections due to his caste, continues to look for a job. As of now he works for Paritran, an NGO that supports the BDP. Like several other members of the BDP, Babul believes that the dalits need a platform in politics in order to create a significant change.
While cynics may argue against the case of reservations for the dalits, on the grounds of equal opportunities for the citizens of the country, one needs to understand that with the kind of pain and suffering that the dalits have undergone for over centuries, it is impossible for them to rise-up in a society that does not provide a level-field. One hopes that authorities can perhaps be encouraged by the remarkable progress made by dalits in India, thanks to the reservations and take similar steps to help the approximately 10 million dalits of the country feel like they actually belong to this nation.
Naimul Karim is Feature Writer, The Star magazine and can be reached at naimulkarim@ gmail.com.
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