Dalits seek end to discrimination

South Asia's "untouchables" still live a life of servitude and neglect.

By Shahriar Sharif for Khabar South Asia in Dhaka

May 02, 2012
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On a recent afternoon Nirmal Chandra Das entered a roadside restaurant in northern Bangladesh's Gaibandha district and asked for a cup of tea. He was refused point blank by the owner.

  • Women in the Dalit community in Old Dhaka gather to collect water from a tube well. Most Dalits work as sweepers and trash collectors, earning between six and 12,000 taka ($75-150) monthly. [Muslim Jahan/Khabar]

    Women in the Dalit community in Old Dhaka gather to collect water from a tube well. Most Dalits work as sweepers and trash collectors, earning between six and 12,000 taka ($75-150) monthly. [Muslim Jahan/Khabar]

The reason: Nirmal was a Dalit. Meanwhile, the owner's pet monkey sipped from a cup.

"A monkey could drink tea in the restaurant, but I was refused," Nirmal ruefully told an event at the National Press Club in Dhaka recently. "This has been our fate for centuries. We're not human beings. We're Dalits. I'm sure when I die, there'll be a separate funeral pyre for my cremation."

As general secretary of the Harijan Unity Council, Nirmal has been waging a campaign for equal rights and human dignity for his community for years, but to no avail.

Across South Asia, Dalits have suffered discrimination and oppression for centuries. In India, where they number around 160 million or 16% of the overall population, they occupy the lowest level in the caste system. Most are stuck with menial occupations, such as cleaning human excrement with a rudimentary broom and pan.

They are considered so impure that even their touch is defiling, hence their nickname: untouchable.

In Bangladesh, Dalits are often barred from entering restaurants and saloons. Even when allowed entry, special dishes are earmarked for them. To drink tea, they are obliged to carry their own cups with them.

"Racial discrimination is a serious problem in Bangladesh," Mesbah Kamal, a professor of History at Dhaka University and an activist for Dalit rights, told Khabar South Asia. He said legislation is needed to integrate Dalit people into the mainstream.

In addition, he said, "initiatives should be taken to ensure their participation by allocating quotas in education and financial sectors".

Dalit leaders agree there is little hope for change without new legislation.

"As there is no law regarding untouchability and social discrimination, we cannot file a case asking for resolution," Bodhanki Solomon, a leader of the movement for establishing rights for the deprived communities, told Khabar.

There are no reliable statistics on the Dalit population in Bangladesh. However, according to the Nagarik Uddog and Research and Development Collective, a non-government organisation, the number is probably around five million.

At Bangladesh's largest Dalit colony, in the capital's Old Dhaka section, families are crowded into one-room shacks made of straw and tin. Naked children squat in the open to defecate, and the area is ringed with fly-infested open sewers.

Dalit children cannot attend schools outside their colony and they can only mingle with others in the society by keeping their identity hidden.

A resident of the colony, B. Oppa Rao, said the local Dalits work mainly as sweepers and trash collectors for the Dhaka City Corporation, earning a monthly salary of six to twelve thousand taka ($75 to $150). Many others work for non-government organisations, but earn much less --between two and four thousand taka ($25 to $50).

Fellow resident Arati Rani describes her life. "My grandfather came to Dhaka from Andhra to work as a sweeper. Then my father did the same work and I followed him. I'm sure my children would do the same thing when they grow up," she said.

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