Why you should care
Because caste violence continues.
The author is the founder of Movement for Scavenger Community, which aims to end manual scavenging, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in social work from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. He is also an Acumen India Fellow. Read Part I of his story here.
Success in one realm of life can inspire success in another. As my cricket team, the Team of Chuhras, got stronger, I too became stronger as a man. I went from shy to confident — and I suspect it was this transformation in my demeanor that at last brought me to the attention of my schoolteachers.
In school I sat at the back of the class, dressed in rags my mother and grandmother brought home from the trash of their wealthy employers, fed from the scraps they took from their employers’ tables. I was disinterested, so disinterested that I had barely made it to the ninth standard. Over vacation, I was assigned extra work, but I failed to complete it. My teacher rapped my hands hard with a stick and gave me more work to do. I didn’t do that work either, so he increased the number of blows to my hands. I didn’t care. We were up to 22 raps on my hands until, in exasperation, he asked why I was not doing my work. I told him about the cricket. He changed his tone. He said I should read the first chapter of the textbook by the next day, and he would ask me questions.
When I answered his questions perfectly, he assigned me the second chapter to read. After three chapters of this, he moved me from the back of the classroom to the front and made me the class monitor, the one who helped the teacher keep order in the class. It was unheard of for a Chuhra, the lowest of the low, to be placed in a position of authority over other castes. I was confused to sit in front of the class. I started to study and decided I would never fail. I slowly decreased my fights as a gang leader and I focused more on studies. Of the 1,200 students in my school, my science teacher selected four boys for the science competition and I was one of them, a touch of recognition that started me on my path to university.
I wonder sometimes if my teacher would have noticed me if it had not been for the confidence I gathered as a gang leader and then as the captain of the cricket team. But it is also true that several of my teammates/gang-member Chuhra friends underwent this transformation too. Of the 12 members of the team, five of us became professionals: teachers, electricians, and one other scholar like me.
I consider myself to be very lucky but not extraordinary at all. As I have moved from the bottom up, I understand the number of barriers that stand in the way for any Chuhra who feels, as my team did, that we are the equals of those who spit on us, taunt us, and even more than that. Indians in the Scavenger caste, which bears different names in different regions, are brutalized every day. The 2012 National Crime Records Bureau report reveals 33,655 crimes committed against scheduled castes that year: 651 murders, 1,576 rapes, 3,855 assaults, 490 abductions. Only a minuscule proportion of violent crimes get reported to the police, so the actual instances of violence are likely to be much higher.
For me, we all are equal but we don’t have equal opportunities. If Chuhras and the other Scavengers have a chance, we can do better. We have lived a hard life and we know how to survive. If we have equal opportunities, we can take a place in the world equal to our abilities. I have named my study centers in Scavenger hamlets in honor of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who was the Dr. Martin Luther King of India. I believe Chuhras need urgently to follow his motto to “educate, organize, and agitate.” His philosophy and teachings have had a significant impact in Dalit communities all around India, and I want to spread that powerful message to each hamlet where Scavengers live, offering free access to books and classes to educate children so we can open the world to them as it was opened to me.
We opened our second center on August 15, 2015, in the Scavenger community of Bhubaneswar. I thought not so much about my five friends from the cricket team who, like me, were boosted out of this life of poverty by a victory that came our way. I thought instead of the other seven members of the Team of Chuhras whose lives followed their parents’ lives and who became Scavengers themselves. This is a destiny that society makes almost impossible to alter. Through these small MSC centers, I hope to start a movement that will allow all of the Team of Chuhras a chance to make their contributions to our world.