Twenty four-year-old Lijesh Prakash is on a mission that may seem improbable to many. A mission to eradicate a social stigma that he and many others are still living with — untouchability.

For Prakash and a handful of determined youth, from Chermala colony at Perambra in Kozhikode in north Kerala, it is a fight to prove to the rest of the world that their community, the ‘Sambhavas’ or better known in the local parlance as ‘Parayas’ are not the same untouchable lot and that they also have an identity of their own and a will to gain equality.

That such struggles still exist in one of the most literate and socially developed states in the country is perhaps the biggest irony that stares Kerala in its face. ‘Sambhavas’ — who fall under the ‘scheduled caste’ category — have been living in the colony in Perambra for half a century now. Everything around them has changed, except the perception of them in the world outside the physical boundaries of their colony.

However, what has now made the plight of the colony a heated debate among social circles is the story of the Perambra Government Welfare LP School — hardly a few metres away from the colony. Even though it is a regular government school, it has only 14 Dalit students in all the first four standards put together.

This year, only three students have taken admission for the first standard, even though just about a 100 metres away, at another government school, the kids are jostling for space.

So, what keeps the non-Dalit children who are in majority in Perambra away from the welfare school?

Regunathan Thettayil, the school’s headmaster explains why: “Just because all the Dalit children of the colony are studying here, nobody outside of the colony wants to send their wards here. We have been going from house to house every year for the last ten years. But nothing has changed. Some people tell me on my face. Others give lame excuses. We gradually understood the real reasons.”

A complaint has been registered with the Kerala State Commission for Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribes in 2016 by an activist saying that the ‘Sambhava’ community living in the area had been subjected to tremendous caste discrimination and immediate corrective steps needed to be taken. The complaint let to the Commission issuing notices to almost everyone involved — right from the government secretaries to the panchayat representatives — but nothing much came out of it.

Men on a mission

Prakash and his friends want to bring a difference to this world of untouchability.

He told Firstpost that youngsters like him in the colony had realised that shedding tears wouldn’t change the way the world looked at them, instead they decided to bring change from within. “We want to tell the outsiders — who don’t want our company — that we can also live like them, with respect. Most of them think we are dirty, that we don’t bathe, and we do only menial jobs such as manual scavenging. Our ancestors used to do that. It is this perception that we need to change and the respect will follow,’’ said Prakash.

Determined to work their way up, these young boys — 10 to 15 of them — from the 40-odd families in the colony, had no idea how to take it forward till they found willing supporters among the firemen at the local fire station. A few of the boys who dropped out of high school or failed their tenth grade are now registering themselves with the Kerala Public Service Commission (KPSC) and are preparing to write various examinations that would help them secure a government job at various levels. The firemen who are providing the support say these boys are on the right track.

“Some of these are boys are very talented but the circumstances are such that most of then drop out after a few years in school. Over the years, having listened to all these stories about these children, we thought that we should do something for these kids. It was tough, but slowly they realised that studying and getting a job is the right way to earn that respect from the society,’’ Shaijesh, a Fireman at Perambra Fire and Rescue Service told Firstpost.

Now, these men double up as their teachers and mentors. Evening classes are conducted at the colony which often go beyond academics and bring in the aspects of social awareness and motivational talks. “We are in a whole new world at the moment and we want to ensure that this goes ahead and changes our colony completely. We are also trying to get our young brothers and sisters into this,’’ added Prakash. The girls have have also taken big strides, though their numbers are few. Aparna and her sister Ashwathy are the only two girls who have now made it to the graduation level from the colony. Aparna is studying bachelors in Sanskrit at a local college.
“We have seen how people used to look at us when we were younger — like we are from some other planet. Now that is changing and we realise that the change has come because we wanted things to change,” said Aparna.

A ‘Dalit only’ school

Even as the colony gears up for change, there is no such change at the Government Welfare School nearby. The school has a ‘smart classrooms’ and a ‘pedagogy parks’ but there are no takers other than the 14-odd Dalit kids.  “What is worse is that these children clearly understand that nobody else wants to come here to learn and play with them as this is just ‘their school’. This worries me a lot because whatever we do unless these kids get to sit with non-Dalit children, how will they assimilate into the society? Nobody understands the psychological imprint this segregation leaves on the young minds here,’’ said Thettayil.

Rather than sending them to a local school nearby, where again they stand the chance of being discriminated at a young age, they send them to far-flung schools and also help them get accommodated at hostels run by the Ministry of Schedule Caste and Tribal Affairs close to those schools. Most of them return after finishing Class X or Class XII with a will to make a difference to their social status through education.

Government efforts in vain

The state government maintains that it has been trying its best to sort out the issue. However, meetings called by the district administration were of little help. “What can any government do unless the mindset of the people changes. But we need to understand it is not as bad as it was many years ago. At the same time it’s still a work in progress. What we intended to do is raise the standard of living of these people first. That is the only way we can bring some changes in their lives and get them some self respect,” AK Balan, Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes,
Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes.

However, the ‘Sambhavas’ still live in make-shift tents and ‘kuccha’ houses — each one accomodating more than one family. The panchayat and local representatives are in denial about the actual state of affairs.

Perambra colony not alone

The LDF government cannot consider the caste discrimination at Perambra as a one-off case in the state. Hardly 200-kilometres away at Govindapuram in Palakkad, the residents of the Ambedkar colony have been on a similar path since the last few months. The latest standoff has its origins in an inter-caste marriage between a Chakkliyar girl, who belongs to the colony, with a boy from the Ezahava community. The homes of many in the Chakkliyar community were attacked and since then a majority of them have been sleeping by their temple for the last few nights and take turns to stand guard.

CPM claims that the Congress had blown the issue out of proportion, but there are many ways in which the Chakkliyars are consistently discriminated against. From not able to use the common tap which is used by the other communities to being served tea at shops in different tumblers or even having separate temples for worship, the list goes on.

Chermala and Ambedkar colonies are two episodes that would make any literate individual hang his head in shame. But there is a difference between the two.  While the Ambedkar colony is still an active volcano where caste violence can erupt any time, Chermala seems to have found its way to tackle the issue. They are breaking the barriers with some serious social empowerment, a lesson for the rest of the world.

Well known Dalits like Dhanya Raman says they are hardly surprised. “This may be shocking for the rest of the world that such a situation still exists in Kerala. Not for us. Take the case of the Dalit girl who was murdered inside her home in the evening. Her cries were last heard at 6 pm in the evening and someone in the upper caste neighbourhood went to check on her two hours later. The attitude is still the same — ‘They are Dalits. Anything goes.’ Kerala, with all its advancement in social indices, is still a horror world for a dalit,’’ .