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Podcast | 'Caste System Will Kill More Children if Not Abolished': Meira Kumar

What happened to my father was 100 years ago. The same thing has happened to a boy now. And he has been killed.

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(Editor's note: On Monday, 15 August, Meira Kumar, the former Lok Sabha speaker, tweeted: “100 years ago my father Babu Jagjivan Ram was prohibited from drinking water in school from the pitcher meant for Savarna Hindus. It was a miracle his life was saved. Today, a nine-year-old #Dalit boy has been killed for the same reason. 75 long years after Independence, caste system remains our greatest enemy.”

Babu Jagjivan Ram was the Deputy Prime Minister of India, and a Dalit leader.

Kumar was speaking about Indra Meghwal, a class three student, who died on 13 August, after he was brutally thrashed by his upper-caste teacher for allegedly drinking water from a pot meant for the teacher.)

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The country may have taken giant leaps and has progressed in so many ways, but the mindset of the people has not changed. What happened to my father 100 years ago – though he survived and wasn’t killed – the same thing happened to a boy 100 years later. And he has been killed.

What happened to my father in a school was in 1922. At that time, the country wasn’t independent but here we are celebrating 75th, in fact 76th year of Independence.

The little nine-year-old child has been killed. It’s shocking. I feel very sad about the way Dalits are beaten up. What is this complete dehumanisation of Dalits? I am very worried that how a large section of Indians is dehumanised – right from their childhood. The way they are being brought with ideas of discrimination, hatred, violence, and anger. Their mind is poisoned. It’s not good for them.

‘Non-Dalit Leaders Have To Take Remedial Measures Too’

The non-Dalits are failing. They wash away their hands. The Dalits are our countrymen and women. In fact, the community to which that teacher belongs to – that community and other non-Dalit communities – should take out a peace march from Jalore to Jaipur. They should hold a meeting there and take a pledge that from today, we will never harm a Dalit, and that we will protect and honour a Dalit. This is what a society means. We keep talking about our very superior culture and very superior civilisation, but we must show it also.

Why must it always fall on the Dalits? When such horrific incidents happen, people say, ‘Why aren’t Dalits resigning? Why aren’t Dalit leaders resigning?’ This is one point view. My point of view, however, is that non-Dalits should come and work towards working on this.

Non-Dalit leaders will have to step up else segregation will continue. They must take remedial measures, too.

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‘I Faced Caste Discrimination, Too’

Caste discrimination does not become less because you are a great man’s daughter. The caste discrimination remains as it is regardless of whose child you are. Maybe because I was Babu Jagjivan Ram’s daughter, I led a life that was more sheltered than that of other girls, maybe I didn’t have to face what my father had to face, my mother had to face, and what my other family members had to face.

There are occasions when people invited me to their homes, but I was not accepted by all the members of the family. From the kitchen, I could hear voices such as ‘Why has she been invited?’ or ‘In which tea set should we serve her?’ I could hear all that.

You’ll be very surprised with what happened with me in a place like London, where I was posted as a foreign service office and was looking for a house. I came across a gentleman, Mr Jacob, from Kerala, who had lived in London for 25 years and wanted to give his house on rent. I visited his house and I liked it, and everything was almost settled. Just when he was leaving, he asked me if I was a Brahmin, so I said, ‘No, I am not a Brahmin, I am from the Scheduled Caste. ‘Does it matter?’ He said no but he never gave me the house.

The very fact that he wanted to know my caste was very strange. It is everywhere. I get very concerned about it because it has poisoned the minds of so many people. It has made them so inhuman. Their conscience is completely gone. This has caused me a lot of worry.

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‘No One Has Tackled the Question of Eradication of the Caste System’

The victims, the Dalits, their plight is a cause of concern. But the fact that those who commit these atrocities, the way their mind works, is also a cause of concern to me.

Everybody is saying Dalits are suffering, yes, they are suffering. They are paying the price. Par jo gair-Dalit hai unko bhi upar uthao, woh paatal mein gir gaye hai. They have fallen to such dismal depths.

No one has tackled the question of eradication of the caste system. My father did it. When he was the Minister of Railways in 1956-57, on the stations you didn’t have people selling bottled water. You had these water pots, and water was being provided through those to passengers. Those who managed these water pots were all Brahmins. They were called ‘Paani Paande.' No one objected to being served drinking water by them because they were Brahmins.

What my father did was that he gave Paani Paande, who were all railway employees, some other jobs. In their place, he put Valmikis. He gave them that job in every station in India, with one stroke of his signature. Everybody turned against him, abused him but he said no. This is one way of removing the caste system. This was not a little step, it was a huge step.

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‘My Mother Wasn’t Allowed To Eat Meals in Hostel Dining Room, Father Too’

I learnt a few things from my parents. Everyone does but these were a little different because they were pertaining to caste, atrocities, discrimination, and facing it. I always understood, always knew, that we were different because people were always talking behind us, and sometimes to our face.

My mother, Indrani Devi, told me that in her hostel, she was made to eat at the portico, not in the dining hall. She was made to sit on the ground in the portico and eat there.

My father told me that at Banaras Hindu University, he was not allowed to eat in the dining room. His thaali was thrown away, and then when he asked Madan Mohan Malviya ji if he could shift out of the hostel and take up a room on rent. Malviya ji said that there’s an ‘untouchable’ boy called Shankar Ulekar, who cooks his own food and washes his own utensils, so ‘you do the same.’

My father said, ‘No, I won’t do it. I don’t mind cooking, I don’t mind washing utensils, or sweeping but if I do it in the hostel, it will always pinch me that I am different. It will give me an inferiority complex, and it will affect my studies.’

Finally, my father shifted out and he gave the advance and put a lock and went to fetch his mother. When he came back, the landlord said, ‘you never told me you are an ‘untouchable’ and I can’t give you the room.’

My father said that he had already given the money and put up a lock and if he’s not allowed to stay, he will beat him up. That man got scared and that’s how my father stayed there.

The barbers came to know my father’s caste and refused to cut his hair. My father organised his own people and said that if the barbers don’t give their services to us, we will cut our own hair, and we will not give our services to them.

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‘Asked My Father Why He Fought for a Country That Discriminated Against Him’

When he told me all these stories, I was very young. I learnt that you can’t accept these things, you must find solutions and overcome them.

When I was young, I asked him why he fought for this country? What had this country done for him and his father except for constantly being discriminating against them? Insulting them? Why did he become a freedom fighter?

He said, ‘I became a freedom fighter because I want to see a free India. Our days will change, things will change for us.’

I sometimes think he’s not alive to see what happened in Jalore because things have not changed in 100 years, India has not changed in 100 years.

‘The Constitution Doesn’t Mention Caste System Is Abolished, It Should’

Nothing changes. Incidents such as Hathras, Jalore make headlines for some time, but it feels like nothing changes. That I believe is because the caste system is rooted in our society. It’s not just a social problem, it has its roots in religion. If something has its roots in religion then it takes a very long time, and a consistent effort, to really remove it.

The other thing is that the Constitution, according to which the country runs, nowhere says that the caste system is abolished. It doesn’t say that. In the American Constitution, the have clearly said that slavery stands abolished, and they have provided for affirmative action.

Here, we have provided for reservation, but we have not hit at the root cause. The root cause is the caste system. Had this been included in the Constitution, the Executive and the Parliament would have been very clear about it.

The words written in the Constitution show us a path, they clear the confusion so that the Parliament, the Executive, the Judiciary, and our fourth column, the Press, are clear that this is what the Constitution wants. Now, how much of it is applied or what the reality is are another matter of discussion.

But the words written in the Constitution show us the path, throw light when we are in the dark.

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‘Caste Atrocities Should Not Be Viewed Politically, Can Happen in Any State No Matter Who’s Ruling’

My father was asked why he didn’t want to leave Hinduism, despite all the discrimination? He thought it would be better if he stayed in this and cleared the filth. He was determined that he would improve the situation in which Dalits were living. He wanted to ensure that their rights, their dignity are secured. My father would also say that ‘even if you change your religion, your caste doesn’t change.’ Caste has such a strong grip that it doesn’t spare anyone.

When I first heard about the pot incident, I felt very proud of my father. He was just a teenager at the time, and he was able to handle it. The principal had to listen to him. That was his first battle and he won it. I was very young when I first heard this story and I didn’t fully understand the implications of it but the fact that my father had won made me happy. It also inculcated in me some sort of courage.

These incidents should not be viewed politically whether it happens in Rajasthan or UP or Uttarakhand, it’s immaterial of who’s ruling there. The fact is that this has happened, and we must change the mindset of the people. When we politicise, the seriousness of the matter gets diluted.

The fact is that this happened, and it happens, regardless of who’s ruling.

‘Society Killed the Nine-Year-Old Boy, Caste System Killed Him’

I am with the young boy’s father and his family at this hour. I don’t have words. What do I say? One can say I hope you have the courage to face this irreparable loss or be in peace – but they don’t mean anything. These words fail to convey the tragedy of what has happened. They are just words, and they all fail.

He was a small child, look at the society. The society has killed him. The caste system has killed him, and if we continue to practice this system, it will kill more children in the future. Unless we stop it. What do I say to his father? His mother? His grandfather? His uncles?

He was nine years old. My youngest grandchild is 13 years old, and I make him sit on my lap. I love him. Here’s a nine-year-old baby, who’s been killed. I don’t know what to say except that it’s intolerable.

(As told to Somya Lakhani.)

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Topics:  Dalit   Dalit Atrocities   Jalore 

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