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Karnataka: How A Government Job Spelt Doom For 37 Dalit Families

Four months after being hounded out of their village, no respite in sight for these ‘untouchables’
Imran Khan

2013-03-23 , Issue 12 Volume 10

Castaways Ostracised Dalits demand land and security

When , 33, applied for a job as a cook at an anganwadi, little did she know that it would blow up into a crisis, not only for her, but for all the 37 families in her village. For nearly four months, the community of village in Chitradurga district, 200 km from Bengaluru, has been protesting at Freedom Park in the state capital, against their ostracisation by the upper-caste residents of , a village 12 km from Shivanagar.

The upper castes are adamant they won’t allow Lakshmamma, a Dalit woman, to cook for their children at the anganwadi, and have enforced a social boycott on her community as “collective punishment” for her refusal to quit her job.

Lakshmamma had been thrilled when she saw the advertisement for the job in a local newspaper in August last year. Like most Dalits in her village, her husband Nagaraj, 43, worked as a labourer for upper- caste landowners in Majure.

The anganwadi job meant a lot to the family of five that could barely make ends meet. So when Lakshmamma finally landed the job, it could have been the beginning of a better life for her family.

But trouble started the day she joined work at the anganwadi in Majure. The upper- caste residents of the village, comprising Lingayats and Vokkaligas, refused to allow a Dalit woman to cook for their children at the anganwadi. At a hurriedly convened meeting, the upper-caste elders decided to ask Lakshmamma to sign a letter of resignation. When she refused, the elders decided to impose a social boycott on the entire Dalit community of Shivanagar.

The boycott meant the Dalits were not allowed to buy anything from the local shops, nor could they work in the fields and houses of the upper-caste landowners — their basic source of livelihood. In effect, the Dalits had been rendered jobless.

In protest, the Dalits organised a sit-in at the Hiriyur taluk office on 15 November last year. Demanding the intervention of the local police and the district administration to end their persecution, they not only protested half-naked, but six of them even went to the extreme of smearing themselves with human excreta to symbolise their intolerable plight, hoping the officials would be shocked into taking action.

The protest led to action, no doubt, but it was against the protesters. Six protesters — who had smeared themselves with human excreta — were arrested on charges of disturbing the peace. “The police torched our tents. Fearing for our lives, we went to Bengaluru and set up camp at Freedom Park,” says Bhojraj, one of those arrested. Since then, a tent at Freedom Park has been home to the 37 Dalit families of Shivanagar.

The protesters allege the police action was carried out at the behest of local MLA (Independent) D Sudhakar. When contacted by TEHELKA, the MLA flatly denied that anything of the kind happened in his constituency. “It is just a conspiracy to malign my name,” he says. “I have done enough for the Dalits.”

The dalit protesters at Freedom Park are staring at an uncertain future. Too scared to return to their village, they are worried about their children’s education and desperate for alternative avenues of employment.

“We sent petitions to the chief minister and the social welfare minister, but nothing has happened so far,” says TD Rajagiri, president of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (B Krishnappa faction), which is supporting the agitation. “We are requesting the government to provide land and security to the Dalits. They cannot go back to work for Majure’s upper-caste landowners.”

Social Welfare Minister A Narayanaswamy told it’s impossible to give land to all the Dalit families at once. “We will give land to some of them this year, and to another batch, the next year. Unless and until they agree to this, nothing can move forward. But they have refused so far.”

After challenging the unwritten code of untouchability, facing persecution and protesting for nearly four months, Lakshmamma is left wondering if it was indeed a mistake to apply for that job. It remains to be seen if the state authorities can reassure her and the other protesting Dalits that their future would not be all dark.

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