Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Dalits ask for justice in West Bengal

Truth is always Explosive in the event of conspicuous silence - Dalits ask for justice in West Bengal

By V.B.Rawat

"If I speak untruth, I can survive; If I speak the truth, It will be Explosive." -- Bulleh Shah

The Baul singers famous for love songs provide a musical odyssey to the otherwise lackluster journey from Kolkata to Shantiniketan. The chaotic Howarah station from where Vishwabharati Express leaves for Shantiniketan reflects the old glory of Kolkata, the financial capital of the country. Today, thanks to the 30 year rule of the "progressive" left, Kolkata still lives in its past. It is a city unlike other metros where the poor can afford to live, they say in their support of the existing system, yet fail to answer why man-pulling rickshaws is still one of the most familiarsights in this "city of joy".

Old trams, pot-holed roads, unimaginable traffic, heavy congestion and pollution, are the hallmarks of Kolkata's roads. A crude reminder of where it stands. Yes, they say that they stand for the poor, hence Kolkata "welcomed" every one with open arms. After the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, it was Kolkata which invited the "terrorised face" of Gujarat who was pleading for his life. The entire country agreed that it is in Bengal where the communal forces can be kept at bay. A very sensitive state, and yet no communal riots, is the other hallmark of the left front's rule in West Bengal, apart from the land reforms which it claims to have implemented. This in the first two years of its coming to power, and after that, the government just getting on because of the old good work that it claimed to have accomplished during its earlier period.

Despite all this, Kolkata does not look a city of freedom. At every nook and corner, you feel somebody from the Marxist party is spying on you. "Diwaron ke bhee kaan hote hain" is a saying in Hindi but it could be well said about the cadre of the CPM in West Bengal, where political dissent is blasphemy. The highly intoxicated police force and administration can teach you a lesson.

Dalits dissent

During my recent trip, I could not meet a single person from riksha puller to Dalits, and who have been evicted from their places, who would laud the "great" communist ideology of the ruling classes in West Bengal. While the left front and its leaders have been critical of "imperialism" and "globalisation", very little has been done for the vast majority of Dalits in West Bengal. Will the left and its elite leadership ever think of their bhadralok imperialism imposed upon the Dalits in West Bengal? Will they come out against it? The West Bengal government does not even admit that there is a growing discrimination against the migrants Dalits from Uttar-Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi and Haryana. While the government is keen to be seen as a secular government, it is the same government which does not mince words against the Madrasas. It is the same government which cleaned the streets of Kolkata to greet John Major, when he was prime minister of Britain and visited Kolkata.

Stories of torture against the Dalits are not reported to people outside from Bengal. The intoxicated beaurocracy and police are there to play with "data" - the left are expert in this. The entire left front structure is in the hands of upper castes said Mr Abhijeet Dutta, a lawyer in Howarah, and though the backward communities forms a majority in West Bengal, it is a difficult nexus to break. While there is no doubt that the upper elite leadership of the left front is not corrupt, yet the same is not true at the local level.

Kishan Balmiki narrates the plight of the Safai Karmcharis in the municipality. Many employees have been retired but are yet to get their dues as it take more than five to six years. For getting a job other than that of Safai Karmcharis "we are asked to present our caste certificate. As our parents had come more than 50 years ago to this place our children should be domicile to this state, yet we are asked to bring our caste certificates from our native place." In the Municipal Corporation, there are positions with the names of Privy Cleaners, New Resident Mehtars. Unlike other states and municipalities where officially scavenging is prohibited, in "progressive" Bengal, the Municipal Corporation feels that it is its duty to get manual scavenging done by the migrant Balmikis.

Unlike most of the states which are serving notices to people who have dry latrines to convert them to the sewer line or flush latrines, in progressive Bengal, the municipality still feels that if scavenging is prohibited it would ruin the livelihood of thousands! On the other hand it ignores their legitimate demands for housing, electricity and schooling. Interestingly Kishan Balmiki also narrates how he has not been promoted to the position of a Supervisor because he was not a matriculate. While he plans to do a matriculate (to get the supervisor's salary) yet the Corporation wants him to work on his present position of cleaning the streets. While for him the Corporation says that he should be doing his traditional work, one Bhadralok Brahmin was given a position of supervisor despite his education being below 5th standard. May be because how could they employ a Brahmin in this cleaning shit business, which has been reserved for the Balmikis for over so many years, and Kolkata cannot be an exception.

The Case of Bellilius Park in Howarah: Over 18 months back, the Howarah municipal corporation evicted about several hundred Dalit families mostly from the Balmiki community from the Belilius Park, Howrah. These families had been living in this area for over 40 years when their forefathers had come to Bengal. Many Dalit intellectuals say that the British took the Balmikis to the areas of the cantonement and provided them housing facilities. Belilius Park is about 2 kms away from the famous Howarh railway station. It has land of over 120 bighas which has not only a school but also various shops now leased to hundreds of people. An NGO in the name of the environment filed a petition and got an order from the Kolkata high court for the eviction of these people. People were evicted without any alternative housing. While the temples and schools of the community were demolished along with their houses, the Bhadralok police and authorities kept Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose's statue in tact in the dirt of the now defunct park. While the communists boast of morality, their morality kept quiet when the statue of a person became more important than the lives of several thousands people. Those who shout slogans and force the Delhi government to change its master plan or otherwise face their wrath, kept a conspicuous silence over the same happenings in Bengal.

Kishni Balmiki from Panipat, Haryana, who has been staying in this locality for over 40 years narrates the brutality of the police during the eviction: "They did not allow us to pick up our utensils and other items. There were commandos and bulldozers. Our gold ornaments and TV sets were stolen. Even the daily usage items were picked up by the anti social elements. We don't know where to go from this place."

Shame of Kolkata and the response

One and a half years ago, I wrote a story "Shame of Kolkata" on this eviction and sent it to many friends, who however felt that the story could damage the image of the left front and help the fundamentalist forces, for which reason many of them did not carry it. We circulated it to many friendly people and also to many of the left front people in Delhi whom we personally knew but without any response. Perhaps they could not speak against their Bhadralok politics. We thought that they would speak out with the same force as they had in Delhi and elsewhere, but to our utter disappointment, they did not even acknowledge our report which was mailed to some of them directly. The point is not whether they acknowledge us or not, the point is that these Balmikis had worked very hard for left front candidates in various elections. The Balmikis had been former friends of the Bhadralok communists. And yet they call the CPM the most fascist party at the moment.

Many journalist friends advised me that the only people fighting for the downtrodden are the CPM, and how bad Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan, Lalu Yadav and others were. When they give such examples of corruption they tend to reflect the upper caste Hindu psyche which is selective in these things. Nobody, is debating here the pros and cons of identity politics. For us the issue of the eviction and rehabilitation of the Balmikis of Belilius Park is utmost. It is not a left verses right issue. It is an issue of the rule of law and whether the left front which claims to be the moral guardian of the proletariat really respects rule of law.

Some friends in Kolkata objected to my questions regarding Dalits. "They are not sincere", they said. "We had fought their case for years yet they don't come to us. It is difficult to find a friend amongst them. Despite doing our best we get nothing in turn", they said. It was surprising that mainline Bengal politics as well as social scientists ignore the fact that Dalits, or any other marginalized people, refuse to be just a tool in the hands of any one. They would like to be a part of every struggle, with dignity with and honor. The days of a feudal politics where the upper castes speak of the rights of Dalits and they just listened are over. An interesting aspect of this socialism in Bengal is their continuous apathy to the cause of Dalits. Oh, We don't believe in caste like you people from Uttar-Pradesh and Bihar, they said. But sir, how many of the upper castes clean shit in the morning, I asked a friend. Is it not a grave reality that toilets are cleaned by migrant scavengers only? Let us assume that you only believe in class struggle and all of us who make noises about the Dalits are castiest. Please tell us who are the poorest of the poor in this country? Who are landless? Who are tortured in police custody? Who cleans shit? Who washes cloths? Who are the fishermen? Who are the leather workers? Do you mean these are rich people, upper caste people I asked. And what is the reality of other side? Should I name them and find about their land? How come you communists who were educated in Oxford now cry out when our time to go to England has just arrived? How did the landowning Bhadralok become a well wisher of proliterate? Perhaps this is the only reason why communism has been destroyed in this land - because we gave it up to the big landlords to lead the movement of the landless and kept away the landless because they happened to be Dalits, Adivasis?

Sorry Sir, but the Balmikis of this country are the lowest of the low and if they cannot be communists, then who will be communists? How can the Bhadralok communists leave them out? Is caste more important for them then a broader socialist vision?

But the problem with the issue of scavengers is not just the left parties. None of the others dared to raise the issue of Belilius Park in their election manifesto. None would come to them and share their grief. An old woman in her 70s said " pachas saal tak inkee tatee saaf karne ka yeh sila mila hai'. (This is what we have got for fifty years of cleaning their shit.)

The biggest achievement of the left in the last 30 years has been to use Bengali chauvinism for its own purposes, and therefore there has been no question of any body raising even slightly the issue of the violation of human rights. Outside Bengal they are the only people visible to us who fight the menace of the BJP with their "educated, casteless" comrades. At a conference two years ago Comrade Bardhan asked why do you abuse us when we are not in power. His reference was to the Dalits who were questioning the credentials of the left. I now want to remind our comrades about the Dalits of Howarh.

Balmikis: A community living in Uncertainity

18 months have passed since the communities were evicted mercilessly from the Belilius Park. Some of them are living in the nearby slum of "East West" bypass besides South Eastern Railway Carseth. The conditions are horrible there as people know they can be evicted any moment without any notice. The left front is expert in paper work and that is why they want these Babus over our heads all the time, their trade unions will call for a nation wide strike if any of the babus are asked to be accountable.

At the East West bypass, I enter the house of Chandra Pal Balmiki, 47, who has 6 children. (Some of them stay there in a one roof hut, and the others at P Road where he has rented a small house for Rs 800 per month.) Over 150 evicted families have encroached on this land as they had no other place to live. Just behind them is the railway track which links Kolkata to Mumbai. The pain in the face of Phool Kumari is visible when she narrates those horrible events of eviction - "they did not even allow us to collect our utensils. We lost our radio and TV as well as many other utensils. My husband Ganga Prasad fell unconscious, as it was too much to bear. For many days he was just struggling for his life. I earn Rs 2000/- per month for my family by working in six multi stories complexes in the area. I go at around 5 am and come in the evening around 6 pm. This is our life. Nobody knows what our children will do and how long we will be here."

Another woman who seems to be in her mid twenties narrates her own problem. She lives with her small daughter and mother. "I was born and brought up here but now the question of our identity has become vital. My husband does not work and I have to work in the nearby buildings to survive. We don't know when the municipality will come again and throw us out."

None of the administration or political parties are here to speak to the people about their plight. That is the pain of being non Bengali in a city or state which has always harped on the big slogans of unity of the proletariat.

Kishan Balmiki who led the movement of the Dalits against the eviction in the Howarh municipal corporatio says "Staying in Bellilius Park was easier for us. We had all facilities including schools and doctor. Now we are far away in a small rented house. Can we afford to live on such a meager salary by spending money on commuting and living? I pay Rs 1,400/ as house rent and Rs 600/- for commuting. I normally leave my house around 5.30 am and return by 11 am."

Most of the evicted people are living in Bagar (Balgachhia) Howrah. Bagar is a dumping place where the entire waste of Howarah town is dumped. The number of families here is about 1500. The condition of this place is unimaginable. There is no water and no electricity, hence people live in dark. Being a dumping place, there are pigs everywhere, dirt and filth, so that if you stay there for even an hour it will make you sick. An elderly woman from Panipat, Haryana, who is working with the Howrah Municipal Corporation asked me to stay there for a day to "feel" their problems. "Beta tenu yehan reh ke dekh, abhee to tu pankhe ke neeche soya hoga isliye pata nahee chala. Hum log kaise rahte hai jara dekh." I could see the tears already in her eyes. They cannot even cry because there is no one to listen. Many children have left school because the school is far away. For these people who work in private houses to clean toilets, as well as in the Howrah Municipal Corporation, things are more difficult as the timings clash. They cannot afford to go clean toilets by bus or rickshaw. They come home late with nothing to celebrate or to enjoy.

Starvation deaths

Marxist "doctors" will never admit that people are starving in their state. Over 18 of the evicted Balmikis have died in the last one and a half years. And I can vouch after seeing many faces, that many more are just waiting to die any moment. The conditions of the areas where these people are living are simply "hellish", with no medical treatment possible. It is Kolkata's Shame not to love them, those who have kept them clean all their lives. In the hellish Belagachchi, with mosquitoes all around, one can see how 16 families are living in one verandah with all of them cooking together in the evening. The faces of old men, children and women show how "nutritious" their food might be.

Phool Kumari Devi's husband Ganga Prasad is unwell and she has to earn wages for her family. She goes early in the morning around 5 am and returns only in the evening at around 5 pm. Where do we go from here babuji, this land belong to railways. We don't know what to do but we are only waiting for death.

Ganga Devi who came from Kanpur has been living with her mother and daughter. The condition of all the three reflects what they could be managing to eat. "Sir, I was born here and my daughter is also born here and still I have to prove that I belong to this land. My earning is about Rs 1000 per month. What should I do? Where should we go? They have destroyed our life. I don't even have a ration card."

Gopal Balmiki is about 30 years of age. His father died six years ago. All the dues of his father are still not paid. As he takes us to the back of his house, the dirt and filth "attacks" you. Just in front of his so called kitchen is dirt spilling around. " We cannot live here, sir, though we clean the houses of others, we ourselves remain in such filth."

Walking down the lanes of this place one can see mountains of filth and dirt dumped here to make Howarah city clean (though one know how clean is the city). But without electricity, water and other medical facilities, these people are dying a slow death. The anguish and pain reflecst in Idrajeet when he speaks to us. He looks handsome yet totally broken. "I earn two thousand rupees per month. I clean a full seven-story building for which I go at 6 am and return around 11 am. We have five children. Both my wife and I work there and there is no one who can take care of our children. There is no guarantee of our future here. During the rainy season this area become totally hellish. We did not have such problems in the Bellilius Park."

Kisni Valmiki is originally from Panipat Haryana and lives here with her relatives. "I work in the Howarh Municipal Corporation. I get up at four in the morning and return at eleven during the day. I have four children. Without electricity we have lots of problem. We cannot sleep in the night because of so much dust and filth. If you stay here for a day, you will realize the pain and anguish of ours."

Barasa Balmiki has been living in Howarh for over 45 years. He cleaned latrines and worked with the Howrah Municipal Corporation for over 30 years and is now retiring during this month. He knows that there are difficulties. Now living in a makeshift home at the Bagar Belagachhi he says that he does not know when will he get his money. "I want to go back to Haryana as many others have done but you know our pensions never come to the bank. We have to come to this place to collect our pension. And therefore spending huge amounts in traveling is not feasible and that is why many of us are forced to live here."

His young son who was a student of class 9th had to quit because there was no school nearby.

A most horrible scene is yet awaiting me when I visit a big junk old semi constructed house where 16 cots are visible like in a dormitory. The structure cannot be called a house because the roof can collapse any moment endangering the lives of all the people. Many of the people were sleeping during the day. Many of them might not even have taken their meal. They cook together in front of the house. The situation is alarming. All of them feel totally dejected and isolated in Bengal.

According to Channo Devi who belongs to Panipat, Haryana, without electricity and toilet facilities we are just the living dead. We have been put in a living hell, she says and adds "we go to work at 4 am in the morning. We cannot afford bus, so we go either by cycle or on foot. My daughter cooks for me. See my feet and hands, they have developed various kind of diseases." And Channo devi shows her legs and hands, diseased skin, which will worsen in the coming days if things are not taken care of.

What is happening in Bellilus Park

We were informed that an NGO had filed a case to clean the Bellilius Park in the name of beautification. And the Howrah Municiple Corporation which wanted to honour the court's verdict did not demolish the 65 shops which fall with in the premises of this Park as they belonged to upper caste Bengalis. Inside the park where these families were living has now become another dumping ground. Mounds of filth, and people from the nearby area who come to defecate in the open, while some of the washermen do their work from the dirty stale water of the area, amidst which the statue of Subhash Bose is still there. Perhaps Netaji would be weeping wherever he is, seeing his statue in such a place left unattended. The remains of temples and schools are still there. As we are discussing the issue I see young boys and girl sitting in the open and defecating in the area while the washermen and women clean cloths and dry them over the remains of the destroyed houses. The beauty of the park is that there are only pigs and stray dogs there now. The big street light poles are still lying around telling the story of police brutality.

If the story of the destruction of Belilius Park has not become an issue in Bengal, the conscience keeper of the country, then we will have to think about the issue of human rights being politicized in India. We will have to think how ideological pursuits dominate the Indian political scene. An unwritten code of conduct works here for the media and for the activists, it will help the BJP hence we must keep quite. But for how long? How long will the lives of the Dalits be kept in such subjugation where they don't have anybody to speak with and complain to?

Just in a few yards from the old destroyed temple, a small dhobhighat is being constructed by a member of Parliament, Mr Swadesh Chakrawarty. It is interesting that Mr Chakrawarty did not bother to meet the people who were evicted from this area. His party has forced the Delhi government to change its master plan and to reverse a Supreme Court Judgment regarding factories in domestic residential areas, which according to the court were polluting Delhi. The party seems averse to antagonize its vote bank in Bengal at the cost of migrant Dalits. We all know how members of Parliament use their funds. These funds could have used to rehabilitate the people even if there was a need to displace them in the name of environment and beautification.

Conclusion

Nothing happens in Bellilius Park's from where people were evicted in the name of beautification. Just remains of old demolished houses, temples and schools and they show us the brutality of those who shout at the top of their voices against global imperialism while condoning their own brand of racist imperialism in Bengal which the migrant Dalits face. It is more ironical that none of the mainstream political parties and even the media has come forward to raise the issue. Have we become obsessed with the market and international events that we tend to ignore these issues related to lives of thousands of people without any importance? If displacement can become an issue elsewhere surely it could have become so in West Bengal. But why this conspicuous silence here?

In these eighteen months, the miseries of the Dalits of Howarah have increased and none of the left front people including its member of Parliament bother to ask what is the way out. The ruling party in West Bengal and its well wishers will have to tell the world whether they are the strongest defenders of a Varna system or whether they care for the lowest of the low in India society. Whether the discrimination being done to the migrant Dalits in West Bengal will end or will they simply say there is no such problem. I hope they will not deny that manual scavenging is officially not prohibited in West Bengal and that the municipal corporation employs people for cleaning private toilets. One sincerely hopes that the Dalits of Howarh will get justice and for that the government will have to be sensitized so that it can uphold the rule of law. It cannot throw away its people who kept its cities clean despite facing indignities and humiliation. In fact, it is Kolkata's time to repay the debt to the Dalits who work day and night so that the city remains clean and hygienic. Let the left front government come out of its preconceived mindset and abolish manual scavenging, give the Dalits representation in government services and rehabilitate them in such a way that becomes a symbol of a new India where work is not confined on the basis of caste and where every one is free to make his or her choice of work and living.

Date: December 01, 2004

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