Annihilation of dignity: Untouchability in Karnataka

Annihilation of dignity: Untouchability in Karnataka

Women near the common toilet facility in P K Halli, Ballari district; Pemmanahalli Gollarahatti in Pavagada taluk, Tumakuru district, where Chitradurga MP A Narayanaswamy (inset) was not allowed to enter because of his caste. dh photos/anitha pailoor

The recent incident of caste discrimination against Chitradurga MP A Narayanaswamy in Pemmanahalli Gollarahatti of Pavagada taluk in Tumakuru district has brought into sharp focus the ugly practice of untouchability in the state. This BJP lawmaker was not allowed inside the backward settlement because he was a Madiga. Madigas, a Dalit community with 51 sub-castes, are considered the most oppressed group of all.

The incident might have shaken the state, but it didn’t come as a surprise to thirty-five-year-old Sriram who lives two kilometres away, in Chennakeshavapura village.

“Which community has treated us like humans?” he asked. “When an elected representative faces such a situation, imagine a commoner’s plight. Society responds if it is a high-profile case, but who has the sensitivity to respond to the everyday persecution we endure?” He didn’t forget to mention that the outrage will soon die down and the practice will continue unabated as before.

His neighbour, octogenarian Macchappa, recalls a similar situation in their village in which the government officials intervened to allow Madigas to fetch water from the village temple well. “We refused to touch the well,” he said, “Officials will be there for a day. But we have to face the social and economic consequences of breaking the barrier. The society has to change; people’s mindset has to change. Only then we can dream of a dignified life.”

As we boast of great strides in science, technology and philosophy, reports show the presence of regressive caste discrimination in society, in various forms and at different levels — in both urban and rural areas, among the illiterates and the well-educated.

For Tayamma of P K Halli in Ballari district, being a Dalit means not having access to clean drinking water and a toilet. The Ambedkar colony, where she resides, is the least developed area in her village. The dwellers of this colony have to drink visibly contaminated water. She has to either use a rectangular enclosure, a common toilet facility for women or resort to open defecation. The facility doesn’t have pits or a door and is located outside the colony, just next to a busy road.

Rachanna (name changed), a Madiga youth in Marchathal village of Raichur district, has to travel to a place 5 km away for a hair cut despite the village having three saloons. ”The dominant community doesn’t allow us in,” he said. To make matters worse, they don’t have direct access to the village tank, the only source of potable water. “We keep the pots in a corner. People from other communities fetch water from the tank and pour it into our pots.”

Great shame

Along with humiliation, physical abuse is also common for Dalits. The dominant community even decides the fate of youngsters in the village. He explains how a youth in the village was forced to quit a grassroots organisation as there was a feeling of unease among the dominant community. Despite the everyday struggle, they haven’t complained, for they fear the wrath of the oppressors. “We are born into this system and any attempt to ascertain our dignity is actively suppressed in the very beginning.” 

A sample survey done by Swabhimani Dalita Shakti organisation in Ranebennur taluk of Haveri district showed that over 97% of the Madigas did not avail any benefits from Dr B R Ambedkar Development Corporation or the state Social Welfare Department.

In Bengaluru, there are settlements where Dalits live exclusively, without any basic amenities.

In many towns of North Karnataka, students say they try their best to socialise in college but turn submissive as they enter their villages. Here, superiority and inferiority complexes stemming from caste rule over the bonds developed in educational institutions.

Seventy-two years after Independence, dignity, privilege and access to facilities are still far-fetched for Dalits. Even constitutional protection has not stopped atrocities against them.

The numbers from a study done by the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru tell sordid tales of oppression against the Madiga community which is often associated with menial jobs and low social status.

Eighty per cent of the manual scavengers in the state are from the Madiga community. Seventy-eight per cent of the Pourakarmikas are Madigas. Eighty per cent of the Devadasis, who are dedicated to God and live the life of a sex slave, are Madiga women.

A pan-Karnataka survey by Jeevika, an NGO working with bonded labour survivors, mentions that 85% of unpaid labour is performed by Madigas while 14.55% of workers are from the Holeya caste, another Dalit community.

Studies indicate that most of the Dalit communities comprising over 150 sub-castes face subjugation at different levels — from being not allowed to fetch water from public taps to restricted entry to temples and two-glass system in tea shops. 

“When even well-educated people in modern society are caught in the clutches of caste, how can we expect backward communities like the Gollas whose lives are driven by the rigid concepts of purity and pollution to be any better?” pondered T R Chandrashekhar, former professor of developmental studies, Hampi Kannada University.

Various cases of caste abuse indicate that dominant communities like Vokkaligas, Brahmins and Lingayats act as oppressors in the state. Researches show the presence of a hierarchy even among Dalit castes, which leads to the practice of untouchability against the castes that are considered lower among them. Some Dalit castes are touchable.

 

Urban areas not safe

While discriminatory practices are crude and pronounced in rural areas, they are subtle and sophisticated in urban settings, said writer Subbu Holeyar. “We don’t get a house for rent if we reveal our caste. The way people look at us changes once they come to know about our caste. We are continuously reminded of our caste and ‘status’. Every such action demoralises our next generation as well.”

While the tragic suicides of Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi in the recent past highlighted the brunt of violence in educational institutions, Bengaluru-based scholar and grassroots activist Du Saraswathi has observed upper caste’s hegemony actively subduing the spirit of almost every student belonging to deprived communities. “Those who do not know the plight of Dalits equate caste with reservation.”

She felt that the arguments against reservation in higher education are part of a conscious effort to keep these communities away from the centres of knowledge.

“We as a society have become immune to sensitivities. Incidents get reported only when there is a crime,” said Ravivarma Kumar, former advocate general of Karnataka and former chairman of the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission (KSBCC).

He felt that the concept of exclusive habitats for communities is nothing but apartheid. “There are at least 30,000 such habitats attached to 29,000 villages. Measures to accommodate different communities in one area and a common cemetery will help break the barriers,” he said.

Why does untouchability persist despite several movements and powerful laws?

Scholar Kotiganahalli Ramaiah reasons, “Even a powerful law becomes toothless without changing the feudal mentality that is historically deep-rooted in society. How can a country that restricts entry to a public facility, be it a place of worship or a well, citing caste, even dream of becoming a Vishwa Guru? How can we consider a society that has lost sensibilities against discrimination as our own?”

Writer Nataraj Huliyar observes, “While Dalit organisations still retain their hold as a socio-cultural force and as pressure groups, the rigour of the Dalit protest is lost due to leadership issues and region-wise splits. Ambedkar’s ideology is not spread with deep conviction. As a result, the Dalit consciousness has lost its influence.”

The low conviction rates in the cases of abuse and atrocity also indicate the common tendency of all the stakeholders to ‘settle’ the issue and bring in normalcy. In other words, it means continuation of the practice. This is also because most people in power don’t have an understanding of the oppression these people underwent for centuries, said C S Dwarakanath, former chairman of KSBCC.

Education, which is still not a reality for a majority of Dalits, plays a major role in empowering the youngsters of these communities to ascertain their rights. This could be felt in the recent assault case in Kachanahalli in Nelamangala taluk of Bengaluru Urban district. The fact-finding committee formed by All India People’s Forum appreciated the determination of the victims to not settle the case. The study also found better access to education as a major factor driving the youth against casteist customs, oppression and subservience from within.

Lack of political will

Casual remark by a local politician in Pavagada about the Pemmanahalli Gollarahatti incident sheds light on the futility of political rhetoric. “Every politician in our region has cleverly ignored caste discrimination. They don’t want to meddle with their ‘vote bank’.” 

These communities are also left out of several government schemes meant for them. While some of the projects do not keep Dalits at the centre, some have failed to reach them.

As a result, “Ninety per cent people of this community lead an uncertain life, without proper shelter, food, education and job security,” said Dr R V Chandrashekhar of Talasamudaaya Adhyayana Kendra, NLSIU. “Internalising the idea of social justice and creating awareness among the oppressors are the need of the hour.”

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