In April 2014, Beed district in Maharashtra seemed to plunge into political campaigning for the forthcoming national elections. The strong waves of politics are apparent everywhere – on its roads, flags of political parties, posters, flex hoardings with peculiar faces printed on them caught the eye. And, in the local newspapers, busy with a festivity of arguments and counterarguments from political fronts, election rallies and correspondents. Amidst this frenzy, I travelled about 300 kilometres into the austere villages of Beed and their subtle labyrinths of caste practice.
Observed in the context of Maharashtra, Beed is one of the politically vibrant and important constituencies in which Marathas and Wanjara castes (upper castes and feudal lords in Beed) dominate the political scene, representing political parties like the BJP, Congress, Shiv Sena, and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Beed had witnessed Muslim rule for centuries and the present debri of mosques in various villages, and ruined walls of forts at a few places seem to narrate its historic accounts. But Muslims now, like in many Indian cities, have visibly turned into minorities while upper-caste Hindus have taken over the political and economic power centres.
In this unequal social scenario, Dalits, one of the politically aware and assertive sections of the society in Beed, are always neglected, used and disposed of by the political fronts. This situation aids the phenomena of atrocities against Dalits in Beed. They are every day victims of atrocities for which upper castes are held responsible but rarely convicted. Progressive Maharashtra stands for many glorious battles for human liberation and freedom – mostly led by Dalits and lower castes, chief among the leaders being Mahatma Fule and Dr. B.R.Ambedkar – which changed the entire socio-political dynamics of not only Maharashtra but also of India, by transforming the modus operandi of protests, struggles, and movements for human emancipation. But in the contemporary neo-liberal state, it is a blot on the face of the state that Dalits, unceasingly, have been subjected to atrocities. But there is always hope, hope to stand and fight back and that is what I was to discover in my 15 day stay in Beed.
Atrocity and Assertion
Atrocities and assertion of dignity and human personality are interconnected. The level of assertion often determines the number of atrocities. The more one asserts one’s dignity in the caste system, the more assaults one has to face. This is what we understand from the words of Manisha Tokle (Manishatai), a dynamic human rights activist in Beed, whom I interviewed on the issues of atrocities against Dalit women.
Manisha Tokle, main functionary of Savitribai Phule Mahila Mandal (SPMM works with Campaign for Human Rights), Beed; she is also a well know human rights activist.
For 25 years, Manishatai has been fighting against atrocities on Dalit women and on the issues of women in general. In Beed, her work extends across 200 villages. According to her, Beed is a place where Dalits are politically aware and assertive about their rights. This leads to feelings of threat, jealousy and hatred among upper castes, and atrocious treatment of Dalits by casteist forces in the villages. From her years of struggle to empower Dalit women and women in general, she recalls a number of atrocities against Dalit women which seem no less than what they were 25 years ago. She counts fresh, two-three days old cases of rapes and assault on dalit women on her fingertips which present the picture of Beed as an insecure place for women.
She recalls one such case, not even a month old, where a girl whose survival depended on begging had been raped and suffered internal injuries, but this went unnoticed by the oligarchic Indian media. Not only at such crucial levels of commission of crimes, but equally at the interventionist level, the criminal justice system fails to protect the rights of a Dalit woman. Further, the media, by not noticing and reporting, fuels the brutal practice of caste.
“It takes hours for a dalit woman to file a complaint” Manishatai recalls in her tireless tone for justice. Despite such a gloomy and depressing picture of the criminal justice system and institutions, Manishatai with her team of ‘Savitribai Phule Mahila Mandal’ has been challenging the forces of patriarchy and casteism in Beed. Further, she loudly demands that Beed must be declared as an ‘Atrocity-prone area’ so that preventive measures could be taken up.
Assertion must continue
Beed is one of the districts in Marathwada region of Maharashtra that has been declared a drought–prone area. The geographical dynamics along with social ones have never favoured the Dalits. A majority of Dalits in Beed own no land, and those who do, have such petty holdings that they are hardly sufficient for survival. A large number of migrants at construction sites and menial jobs in big cities are provided by Beed. Beed is also a land of sugarcane cutters, and landless Dalits, from season to season, migrate to other districts of Maharashtra and Bangalore to toil on sugarcane fields where couples are hired by mediators on behalf of field owners. This is caste-based bonded labour as sugarcane cutters are mostly Dalits, and face various kinds of humiliation while working on the field.
With the vision of eradicating this caste-based bonded labour, Eknath Aawad (Jija, as people lovingly call him), a dynamic Dalit leader and Ex-Panther, had initiated the ‘Campaign for Human Rights’ (CHR) in Beed in the 1980s. This was a time when Dalit Panthers, a radical and unprecedented Dalit movement for Human rights in Maharashtra, fell prey to personal conflicts of leaders and ended up in several factions.
Eknath Awad, Founder of Campaign for Human Rights and seminal Dalit leader
Right from the beginning, Eknath Awad had an innovative approach to the upliftment of Dalits. He seemed to change the dynamics of the NGO sector by integrating the idea of radical human rights movement for welfare of people into it. Rural Development Centre (RDC) in Beed is one such initiative, developed after few years after the inception of the Campaign for Human Rights. RDC and CHR worked rigorously on atrocities, welfare of people and income generation areas, land issues of Dalits and education as well.
The source of his inspiration is the Ambedkarite movement and its ideology, as well as the ideas of ‘equality, liberty and fraternity’ which were principles dearest to Dr. Ambedkar. But there is something else, something much simpler and more profound, in Eknath Awad’s life which makes him work tirelessly for Dalits and their rights, and it is the agonising memories from his childhood. He says “It is the assault over me which became the school of my energy. The wounds of the assault and humiliation on my parents gives me the energy to fight back”.
Born into an untouchable Mang family in the early 50s in caste-ridden Marathwada, one could imagine the life he must have gone through, the physical assault from which he was saved from the swords and bullets of casteist hooligans. He still works every day, helps people in lodging complaints, and argues with officials to take heed of common people with his incessant assertive voice. Contrast this with all the political enthusiasm for the elections which seems to skilfully curb the voice of Dalits and their assertion, and neglects their issues, which are never written into manifestos of political parties.
My name is Yogesh Maitreya. I am from Nagpur. I am doing my M.A in Criminology and Justice (2013-15) from TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).