(Students of TISS, Mumbai recently elected Bhatta Ram as the new President of the student council in what is being called a ‘historic win’. Inspiring hundreds of students like me, who enter this institute with high hopes, only to find ourselves in an elite and daunting space, Bhatta Ram says the main aim was our assertion. In this interview, he shares with us his journey till now and what he plans to do afterwards, and tells us how he fought his way through discrimination and deprivation to reach where he is today.)
Pranjali: Jai Bhim Bhatta. First of all, I would like to know about your background, your early life and experiences.
Bhatta Ram: Jai Bhim, I am Bhatta Ram. I come from a village in Rajasthan where Dalits are not treated as humans. When one is born, they don’t get to know where they have taken birth. I was in class 7th when I got to know that I come from a family that is called ‘Dalit.’ I found out that people feel hesitant to even sit with each other, to listen to each other, do not drink water from each other’s hands. I was born in a Dalit family in the Meghwal community. Since birth, we are told to not talk about our caste.
I did my schooling at Rajkiya Senior Secondary School, where teachers would promote the upper caste students while the lower caste students were demotivated. I used to walk 7 kms one side to go to school every day, and whenever we stopped to drink water, the upper caste people would raise their hand up to make us drink water. I stopped going to wedding functions because I knew I’d only be humiliated there. There’s also a temple where we are not allowed to go inside. Gradually, I got to know about caste-based discrimination. As I got in college, I started working simultaneously. In college, there were two scholarship forms and the professors tried to pressurize us to fill the one with less scholarship amount. We had to fight the officials there to have our scholarship form passed.
Since I worked while I was studying, people always saw me through a caste lens. They wouldn’t sit or eat with me, which, many a times, made me wonder why I was born in a Dalit family. In my final year, I was interviewed for promotion. I had completed 3 years working there. Promotion is given after 2 years but I was never promoted. One of the seniors, Pradeep Sharma, who was also a Brahmin, told me that I am being discriminated and won’t be given promotion here. He encouraged me to leave the job. In July, 2017, my cousin, Harchand Ram, who is doing his PhD from JNU called me to Delhi for a month. I met different professors and scholars in JNU and that is where I heard about TISS. In August, I got to know about Wardha, Nalanda Academy. I took 6-7 people from the community to study in Wardha. We met Anoop sir and he motivated us. Later, I filled the TISS admission form and got selected.
Pranjali: What has been your contribution to the Dalit movement?
Bhatta Ram: Until 11th class, we had only studied that BR Ambedkar wrote the constitution, there was just a small section in the textbook about him. In 11th class, my uncle, Deva Ram, who has a tre-puncture shop, was associated with BAMCEF and Moolnivasi. I started going to rallies with him. Later, through Dalit, Adivasi Evam Ghumantu Adhikaar Abhiyaan, I met more people and got to know how Babasaheb emancipated us. Gradually I started understanding the movement. It was after going to Nalanda Academy that I properly understood who we are and what Babasaheb has done for us. I read Jotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule and Periyar.
As I saw the movement more closely, I started writing on Facebook. There were debates and fights too. I raised issues related to caste discrimination in my village as well, including not getting my own salary. I discouraged my people to go to the wedding and other functions where they’re humiliated. The dominant castes have a system there that first they will sit, then their shoes, and then our people. I worked against the dowry system. There’s a Bhil community in my village which is educationally very backward, so I used to go to them every evening to encourage boys to go to school. Then the Kaludi issue happened, about which I published an article on RTI. I also wrote a report to the UN regarding the issue. I have even received death threats after the report got published.
Pranjali: You had to struggle a lot before reaching TISS. How was your initial experience in the institute?
Bhatta Ram: I got to know about TISS in 2017. From what I had heard, it seemed like TISS was an ideal institution as it stands for social justice, dignity and equality. But after coming here I saw that the people here won’t even sit with us or talk to us. They say that this person is from a village, he doesn’t know how to wear clothes or how to talk. When they got to know that I work in the movement, the indirect discrimination increased further. I got to know that my classmates were grouping against me. At one point, I even started planning to drop out. I realised that the social justice and equality they’re talking about is only limited to Facebook. Then I decided that I will have to raise these issues so that my brothers and sisters won’t have to go through the same. As I started getting involved into politics, people started commenting more, on my language, clothes, reservations etc.
Pranjali: Why did you choose to pursue Masters in Water Policy and Governance?
Bhatta Ram: Since childhood I had carried water for about 2 kilometers every day, I have seen my family carry water like this. For us, water is a form of dignity. In the Hindu religion, the concept of purity and impurity is linked to water. Babasaheb led the Mahad Satyagrah. When he was the labour minister of India, he established the Central Water Board and also constructed the Hirakud Dam. National Water Policy is also a legacy of Babasaheb, but we are not taught about all this in school or college. This is why I chose to study Water Policy, it is central to the society, and is directly linked to our dignity.
Pranjali: Why did you decide to contest for the post of President in the Student Union? What was the motivation behind it?
Bhatta Ram: First of all, I never thought I will be able to stand in the elections when I first came here. But gradually, I experienced the indirect discrimination and saw the way people perceived us. Even the attitude of the professors and administration is different towards us. I saw that the so-called leaders here raise our issues, they become our leaders but they have no knowledge about our problems, and so the issues remain unresolved. They only capitalize on our issues to reach those positions. I realized we have to be our own voice. I have my lived experiences, I can raise my voice for my community so that in the future, my brothers and sisters won’t have to struggle like me. My pen is my power. And as Babasaheb told us, go write on your walls that we are the leaders of this country.
Pranjali: Currently in TISS, we have a number of big issues in front of us. Recently Sine Die was declared in the Hyderabad campus. Now that you’re on this position, how are you planning to raise these issues?
Bhatta Ram: First of all, I would like to tell you that we don’t have the full information regarding Hyderabad Sine Die as yet. Once I get full information, I will work on the issues by talking to the admin or pressurizing them. As the president of TISS Mumbai union, I am standing with TISS Hyderabad students in full solidarity.
Pranjali: During the campaign, the GOI-PMS (Govt of India Post Matric Scholarship) issue was quite in vogue, a lot of candidates included it in their agendas. How are you going to address it?
Bhatta Ram: Actually, GOI PMS is not an admin level issue, it’s a government level policy gap. I am planning to approach the ministry after our Annual Council meeting to demand a change in the policy. Policy doesn’t allocate DH allowance, Hostel fee separately. It only states the general maintenance allowance etc. In the protest, the issue was made to look like it was admin’s fault. This is actually a government issue. It can be solved through the government only.
Pranjali: Tell me about the election campaigning. How did you fight in the elections, what were your main issues and how were they different from the other candidates?
Bhatta Ram: My main aim was our assertion- for equity, for our dignity. Winning the election was not the motive. Motive was to assert ourselves by telling about ourselves and our ideology because the right and left wing capitalize on our issues. GOI PMS is an issue of SC, ST, OBC students. The upper caste elite people raise our issues that they hardly care about and become our leaders. I believe that we will have to be our own voice. I openly told people to vote for whoever they think can work on their issues. A lot of candidates made big, unachievable promises, I used to talk person to person, and fought the election on the principles of Babasaheb, Periyar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule.
Pranjali: What do you have to say about the appropriation politics of the left and right wing?
Bhatta Ram: Right wing sees Shudras separately from Dalits. They want to attach the ‘Hindu’ term with Dalits. They want Dalits to do the work but they don’t want them to move forward, to lead. Right believes in purity, impurity and Manusmriti. As far as the Left is concerned, if they really were against the “Class system,” they’d support those who come from poor background, but they oppose them. It means that they only use our issues to become our leaders. You see when D Raja became the General Secretary of CPI, it came in the newspapers as the “first ‘Dalit’ Secretary” of CPI. Be it Left or Right, your Dalit identity always stays with you.
Pranjali: My last question to you is, what now? Do you plan to enter active politics? Or do you have any plans in the academic field?
Bhatta Ram: I am planning to get a job after my Master’s gets over, given my economic situation. After working for a couple of years, I will do M Phil and PhD. After that, I want to work as a social worker. No doubt politics is important, but I want to work not as a politician, but a social worker.
The interview was taken in Hindi which was recorded and later translated into English by Pranjali Kureel.
Bhatta Ram is currently doing his MA in Water Policy and Governance at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai).
Pranjali Kureel is a first-year student of M.A in Social Work (Dalit and Tribal Studies and Action) at TISS, Mumbai.