The Dalit evangelists
Posted online: Sun Jun 20 2010, 00:16 hrs
It's 9 at night and men stand guard at every turn along the narrow
path that leads to the Dalit colony spread over a hill at
Kaippattimukku near Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram district in Kerala.
Inside one of the houses, a woman in a black t-shirt with a photograph
of BR Ambedkar printed on it walks towards the group of women sitting
on the floor and addresses them.
"We, Dalits, spend our hard-earned money for watching movies in
theatres. But have you ever seen a movie that makes a Dalit proud?
Have you ever seen an SC/ST woman on a film poster?'' asks Pallimon
Women, mostly farm workers, nod in agreement. Sandhya continues,
"Political parties do not allow Dalits to grow into leaders. We have
been destined to fill grounds where leaders address the public. Don't
you think a change is needed?''
Sandhya is one of the 2,000-odd new generation Dalits evangelists who
under the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) is exhorting Dalits to
explore their identity and create their space in society.
At houses belongings to Dalits and tribals, DHRM 'preachers' talk to
people on how Dalits have been victimised over centuries by the caste
and sub-caste system and on the need for a social "rebirth". After the
first class, members in a colony are put on to a 72-hour-long
These sessions veer around topics like backwardness among Dalits, the
need to discover the Dalit identity, ways to regain the Dalit
individuality, nurturing the habit of thrift, weaning the community
away from alcohol and the necessity for breathing life into Dalit
folklore and ethnic music.
A Dalit outfit with an unprecedented cadre culture, the DHRM is
different from other Dalit organisations that tend to stick to issues
regarding reservation and land. In the two-and-a-half years that it's
been around, it has been gradually gathering support. Ten thousand
families have joined the DHRM, which claims its message has so far
reached three lakh Dalits—it distributes amongst the community about
30,000 copies of the weekly newsletter.
In the past, a number of social movements in Kerala fought—and won—for
Dalits the right to enter temples and equality with upper class
Hindus. The Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924-25 played a crucial role in
winning Dalit rights in the country. Where Dalits were once not
allowed to even use the road near the Shiva temple at Vaikom in
Kerala, the agitation resulted in the approach roads to the temple
being opened for Dalits. Following this came the Temple Entry
Proclamation of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore (now South
Kerala) in 1936, which allowed Dalits to worship in all temples.
But 70 years after that watershed moment, a movement to call Dalits
out of temples is gaining momentum in a state where Dalits constitute
9.8 per cent of the population. The DHRM is not interested in getting
Dalits their place in Hindu society. Instead, they advocate a complete
break from Hinduism. So, calling the Hindu caste system the biggest
oppressive machine, the DHRM has embraced Buddhism as its religion and
Dr B R Ambedkar as its god.
Signs of change are now there at the ghettoes where the DHRM has
gained control. In houses of the group's activists, pictures of Hindu
Gods and Goddesses that had graced the walls for generations, have
been replaced with photographs of Ambedkar.
Some DHRM families pray to Ayyankali, a social reformer of the last
century who worked for the rights of the Dalits. They have stopped
going to temples and offering rituals. Customs performed at the
occasions of birth, marriage and death are held according to Buddhism.
FLOATED as a charitable organisation in 2007 at Paravoor near Kochi,
the DHRM was formed after a group of Dalit leaders who had worked in
various political parties and Dalit outfits, regrouped and got
together. Its chairman V V Shelvaraj, 29, had been an active worker
with the BJP, another founder and South Kerala organiser Varkala K Das
is a former member of an CPI (M) area committee.
"The DHRM envisages freeing Dalits from the clutches of the caste
system. Hence, we have embraced Buddhism, which Ambedkar followed.
Besides, Buddhism was identified as the religion to regulate the
undisciplined Dalit life,'' says Das."We want to break the shackles of
the caste structure and organise the community democratically," he
"A Dalit becomes a DHRM activist only when a person realises that he
or she is not a Hindu. We are facing the charges of extremism from
police and the mainstream political parties because we teach Dalits to
abandon Hinduism. But our activists will not sport any Hindu
identity,'' says Das.
To help Dalits value their traditions and culture, the DHRM promotes
folklore and music. "We have only disgust towards the dance forms such
as Mohiniyattam which belongs to the upper class Hindu tradition,''
The organisation also tries to foster a sense of belonging among
members. So, members address each other as brothers and sisters and
eat together at functions with their families. In fact, unlike other
movements which woo only the youth, the DHRM strives to draw families
into its fold. Its appeal to members to quit smoking and drinking has
gone well especially with women.
Rajan N, a farm worker, who joined the DHRM, had abandoned the routine
visit to the local temple. "The money I gave to the temple, I now give
to the DHRM fund. I strongly believe that the movement will make the
lot of the next generation better.''
AS Dalits in Kerala get mobilised under a new banner, political
parties in the state are beginning to get worried. In south Kerala,
where Dalits are traditionally CPI (M) voters, several Dalit grassroot
workers of mainstream political parties are shifting allegiance. Many
of them say they moved to the DHRM, after they realised that political
parties would continue using them for small jobs and for carrying out
violent activities but would never share power with them.
CPI (M) secretariat member and Attingal MLA Anathalavattam Anandan
admits their vote bank is shrinking. "The DHRM is working to weaken
the Left vote bank. With the DHRM wooing the Dalits, the Dalit vote
will split and this will hit the Left,'' he says.
Meanwhile, Hindu organisations and other Dalit movements in the state
too are beginning to feel the heat. Several Shiv Sena and BJP members
have left and joined the DHRM. Hindu Aikya Vedi state secretary R V
Babu alleges that the DHRM gets support from "the Islamic world". "The
National Development Front (NDF) and the Jama'at-e-Islami had the
tradition of extending their support to the Dalit politics to use the
community as a hitting tool," he says.
DHRM members, meanwhile, complain of being harassed by both the Left
and the Shiv Sena. According to Das, the CPI (M), BJP and Shiv Sena
have brutally attacked members. "These parties have realised that the
Dalits who have joined the DHRM would not act as per their directives.
Fearing attacks from political parties, our men have to guard people
when our classes are held."
At Munambam near Kodungalloor, siblings Shinsa and Shansa who belong
to a CPI (M) family, are active DHRM workers. "Several men in the
region had gone into hiding after the police harassed them on charges
of terrorism,'' says Shansa.
State intelligence sources admit that Dalits under the DHRM have
emerged as distinct bloc. "In the past, the Congress and the CPI (M)
used to dispatch trucks to colonies fetch the Dalits for party
functions. This has stopped happening in colonies where DHRM calls the
shots. Also the consumption of liquor, which was high in these Dalit
settlements, too has come down significantly,'' sources say.
Some in the state say the DHRM is being helped by the right-wing
Muslim outfit Popular Front of India (PFI), which had floated a
political party, the Social Democratic Party of India.
Says PFI senior leader Nazeerudheen Elamaram, "What is wrong in
supporting an outfit which struggles to regain the Dalit identity. The
CPI (M) and the Shiv Sena have joined hands to destroy the Dalit
Das, however, says the DHRM was propagating a hardcore identity for
Dalits and would not allow the PFI's dream to build a Muslim-Dalit
plank to be realised. The DHRM, he adds, would field its own
candidates in the coming elections to the local bodies.
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