Monday, August 21, 2000

Atrocities against Dalits high in Punjab


LUDHIANA, AUG 20: "Punjab has no untouchability, probably because of Sikhism, but I am ashamed to say that in committing atrocities on Dalits, we do not lag behind," said Harinder Singh Khalsa, the 1974 batch Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer turned politician, who is now a member of the Schedule Caste, Schedule Tribe Commission. ENS caught up with the powerful and vocal member of the commission, during his recent visit to the city, where he has a house in Barewal locality, and where the former diplomat's family now stays.

Khalsa gained prominence soon after he resigned from his much coveted post of Charge d' Affaires, as first secretary at Oslo after Operation Blue star, and asked for political asylum. For his act, he was dubbed as a `terrorist' by the then government and a number of cases were slapped against him. Subsequently, all the cases were dropped as they were stated to be politically motivated and Khalsa became an MP on SAD ticket, during the previous Lok Sabha.

Opting out of active politics for this term, Khalsa found himself in the SC/ST Commission, which, like other commissions, is considered to be meant for cooling heels before trying for political rejuvenation. But, not for Khalsa. The confidence of many police officials, including some very senior officers, is known to wither away when they stand before him facing his ire.

The man has strong views on certain subjects including reservation, and he does not believe in mincing his words. "Press is our (Commissions') main source of information, particularly about atrocities committed on Dalits. That is because sometimes, administration and even state governments also try to suppress the information and distort the facts, which is very unfortunate," he says and adds, "I'd rather view the existence of the commission as an aberration because given the 52 years of our existence as a free nation, had we been normal, law abiding people having faith in the Constitution alongwith the commitment to uphold and implement the provisions of the Constitution, there would have been no need for a commission, a commission meant to investigate the atrocities and to implement the benefits meant for the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes."

Probe him further on the debate of reservation at the cost of quality and the `deserving' losing out on opportunities because of reservation, and pat comes the stinging reply, "What is the quality of Indian administration today, (with or without the reservation)?" and then he reasons, "Reservation today is not being done at the cost of quality, it is provided to only those sections, who would otherwise remain downtrodden, given the centuries of mindset of others and backlog of ignorance among them". For thousands of years, they have been denied participation in social life, it will take some time for them to come up to the level of `equality ' and till such time, reservation should be given to them, he adds.

However, countering the propaganda against reservation, he says that nowhere has the reservation reached its optimum level. "Punjab should get 29 per cent reservation, while the government professes to provide 25 per cent reservation at present, the truth is that not even that percentage is being provided to the needy".It is a sad state of affairs that we still encounter a mindset, a psyche, which provides raison d'etre for the commission, he says.

Source: The Indian Express, August 21, 2000

We must first unlearn and then re-learn

Ayesha Chawla

Women symbolise and uphold the honour of a community. Yet the community just watches as the honour of women is regularly violated. Rajasthan has the highest record of rapes against women and statistics show that one Dalit woman is raped every 60 hours. The state is usually a silent observer with eight out of ten perpetrators escaping the law. Caste and religion work in tandem to magnify traditional stereotypical notions about the honour and respectability of women. Yet it is these very patriarchal structures that create a situation in which women have no protection or honour.

Kumkum Sangari, professorial fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, points out that there are multiple patriarchies, which may overlap and reinforce each other, or may contradict each other. The position of women depends on their location in these class, caste and religious structures. In Jaipur, the recent rape of a 17-year-old Dalit girl in a temple, by 11 men exemplifies the way that traditional notions of caste still thrive in what one hesitates to call `modern' India. First the family and then the community of the girl abandon her because of the shame that she has brought. The victim's religion, caste, and gender were violated at the same time.

Therefore these attacks against women are political in nature. Politics is about a power relationship that exists between two groups. One group determines the course of action to be taken, while another group is at the receiving end and is reduced to the status of the "other". Gender entails the creation and crystallisation of an identity by a society, over the centuries.

Women in India are systematically made to feel inferior to men from the time of their birth. In a nation of scarcity, more often than not, only the male child is entitled to privileges such as education and medical attention. Women are conditioned to believe that they must be obedient and self- sacrificing. In such a situation, rape and other forms of violence are additional components of guilt in a woman's personality. She blames herself for all the wrong that is done to her and her sexuality becomes her own worst enemy.

On the one hand, it is a society that asks her to give up all that she is for the sake of her own well-being. Yet, on the other hand, that same society cannot ensure for her a respectable existence.

Caste, religion, the state and the civil society are to blame. The solution is education and the strict enforcement of the law by the state machinery. Society at large must unlearn preconceived notions and then re-learn how to uphold basic values like liberty, equality and justice in the most democratic manner possible. The nation watches in horror as a girl child is married to a dog in Haringhata, Nadia; a woman's eyes are gouged out of its sockets; and another woman is branded as a witch and paraded naked in a village in Raipur for contesting a panchayat poll. But the law does nothing. It is time that the basic human rights that are guaranteed, are enforced. As political scientist and feminist Nivedita Menon points out, in the laws on rape and marriage, women's rights to property, custody and guardianship of children, the Indian state shows itself to be the protector of patriarchal values.

The lethargy of political will that can be seen in India today exemplifies these values. It is time that beliefs and ideologies are regulated by law. The state must uphold the rights of all its citizens. Including women.

Source: Indian Express, August 21, 2000

Saturday, August 05, 2000

Of human bondage

The release of five Dalit bonded workers from a quarry in Mysore district has raised the question of the effectiveness of the state machinery in preventing atrocities on the weaker sections of society.

RAVI SHARMA in Srirangapatna

LIFE will never be the same again for five Dalit quarry workers and members of 23 families of Kadathanala village near Pandavapura in Karnataka's Mandya district, who lived in fear of the quarry owner and his men. Although unshackled from the 15 kg iron chains that had kept them fettered for two years, the five Dalits are yet to come to terms with their new-found freedom. "I am waiting for the government to provide me a job. The only work I know is to crush stones," says V. Gopal, 25, one of them, who belongs to the Bovi community.

Gopal and the other workers - his father Venkatesh (58), Venkatachala (40), Krishna (38) and Nagaraju (50) - were 'rescued' and 'released' on June 22 by 60-odd activists of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS). They had been subjected to such inhuman treatment (the clamps of the fetters had been welded in place) for allegedly failing to repay a debt they owed their employer.

Chamundeshwari Crusher, the stone quarry in Arakere near Hangarahalli, 35 km from Mysore, where Gopal and the other workers spent almost 10 years crushing stones from dawn to dusk for a remuneration of Rs.55 a tractor load at last count, has been closed down. The licence for the quarry had expired in 1997. Its owner Puttaswamy Gowda, who is a former Janata Dal (Secular) corporator from Mysore, his son Arun Kumar, quarry foreman Muniyappa, and two persons from a welding shop in Mysore, are in judicial cu stody.

While Venkatesh had borrowed Rs.4,250, the others had taken amounts ranging from Rs.500 to Rs.1,000. Their wages were cut to adjust against the loans, but the outstanding sums never diminished. The released workers claimed that the accounts had been fudg ed; for instance, an entry of Rs.500 was altered to Rs.5,000. They alleged that Puttaswamy Gowda used the ruse of 'unpaid' loans to prevent them from leaving the quarry.

According to Venkatesh, all hell broke loose two years ago when he told Muniyappa that since he had repaid the loan he would like to leave the quarry. He was accused of trying to leave without clearing his debt. He alleged that Gowda's goons thrashed him , took him to Mysore and chained him. The price of the chain and the cost of the welding job and also transport were added to his loan amount. Similar treatment was meted out to the other workers. According to them, they were locked in a dingy shed near the quarry by night and let out to work or to walk down to their huts, situated 100 metres away, to eat a meal. They were made to work six days a week, from 7 a.m. until dusk, with the fetters on. They were fined Rs.100 if they turned up for work even a few minutes late. This amount was added to their ever swelling loan. Added to this, if they did not crush the stones to a near-perfect 4 inch x 3 inch size, they would not be paid for any part of the load. This "punishment" was, of course, given to other quarry workers too.

Said Venkatachala about the chaining: "The chains prevented us even from wearing our underpants. We were not allowed to stay with our families. We were subjected to such harassment because we wished to leave the quarry. They were making an example of us. " The workers tried to escape as other quarries paid better wages.

Other workers too were treated mercilessly, and the punishment was always swift. The quarry owner's men would gather information about labourers who ran away and wait for them to appear at any of the 50-odd quarries in the area. They would then be bundle d into a jeep, taken back to the quarry and beaten. Tales of torture of workers after hanging them upside down from trees, humiliation of women workers and clobbering of children found not working have also surfaced. It is alleged that children were made to work the whole day for Rs.15.

Some workers, however, appear to have made good their escape. A group of 30 people from Kollipalya village near Chamarajanagar, near Mysore, met Divisional Commissioner G.K. Lokhare after the news about the chained workers broke, and said that they had e scaped from the same quarry. To substantiate their claim, they produced photographs of them taken with Puttaswamy Gowda during a Dasara festival, and also stamped papers, which they claimed were agreements between them and Puttaswamy Gowda.

Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, who met the Dalits on July 5, ordered an inquiry into the matter by the Divisional Commissioner. Lokhare said that the only crime of the workers appeared to be that they belonged to a socially weak section. He serve d notices on the farmers in the neighbourhood to explain why they did not report the matter to the authorities.

What is shocking, according to local legislator Parvathamma Srikantaiah, is that the workers have no voting rights. (Their forefathers had migrated from Andhra Pradesh in search of work during the construction of the Krishnarajendra Sagar dam.) "As I did not feel the need to go to the quarry for campaigning I was not aware that they had no vote. The KRRS activists knew about it but they did nothing," the legislator said. The KRRS has denied this allegation.

Administration officials in the area who are supposed to safeguard the rights and interests of the workers were equally blind to the goings-on. Their statements were reflective of their action. Said a local official from the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited, which provides power to the quarry: "The quarry was under benami ownership. We were aware of the fact. So what? They paid the prescribed fees, and we provided the connection."

The workers were not allowed to speak to any outsider, not even to the drivers of lorries that came to collect the stones.

One worker said that a group of men punctured the tyres of a lorry when they spotted the driver talking to some workers. The workers allege that as a matter of strategy they would lodge theft cases against the workers in the Arakere police station and la ter Puttaswamy Gowda himself would visit the police station and have them released on bail.

While the fear of retribution prevented the workers from speaking about the atrocities, the question raised is why officials from any of the government departments - Labour, Police, Revenue, Electricity or Mines and Geology - did not realise what was hap pening in the quarry. Equally surprising is the fact that the chained workers were noticed by a KRRS leader only during the recent panchayat elections and that no politician from the area was aware of the Dalits' plight. Lokhare's inquiry would look into this aspect and the question of fixing of responsibility on the officials concerned.

M. Shivanna, the Minister in charge of Mandya district, accused a former Janata(S) legislator of Srirangapatna, Vijayalakshmi Siddegowda, of having been aware of the workers' conditions but having done nothing about it. She has denied this charge. Parvat hamma Srikantaiah's political rivals say that she was told about the existence of bonded workers when she campaigned in the quarry site.

The quarry workers, however, are not sure which woman politician visited the site. But they are certain about the role of the revenue officials. They allege that the personnel manning the police stations in the vicinity were aware of their bondage. Putta swamy Gowda, they allege, is a powerful man. According to them, he even had action taken against a a sub-inspector who intervened on behalf of the workers.

Lokhare admitted that there were lapses on the part of the officials. "I am going to find out to what extent they are responsible."

The government has gone through the right motions - seven officials have been suspended, a compensation of Rs.25,000 for each of the five chained workers has been announced, and 25 houses would be built at Gangam village in Srirangapatna to rehabilitate the affected workers. While some of the workers want the government to allot them agricultural land, others suggest that the government take over the quarry and run it under a cooperative.

Whatever the decision of the State government, the incident has once again proved the ineffectiveness of the various pieces of legislation meant to protect the weaker sections such as the Prevention of Atrocities Act, the Civil Rights Enforcement Act, th e Prohibition of Child Labour Act and the Bonded Labour Act.

Source: Frontline, August 5, 2000