April 14th marked the birthday of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a leader of India’s Dalit movement. Dalit, meaning “oppressed” or “broken into pieces,” is the name of India’s lowest caste. The Dalit community faces many social atrocities including segregation, violence, and inhumane occupations (for example, manual scavenging, which involves cleaning human feces from toilets and sewers by hand).
Ambedkar, a lawyer by profession, was the first recognized Dalit leader. He believed that the caste system was India’s greatest social evil. Amongst other accomplishments, he was the first of his caste to be educated abroad and he was one of the principal authors of the Indian constitution in 1950. Under his pen, the constitution gives equal rights to all individuals regardless of caste.
Many upper class Indians opposed Ambedkar’s leadership. Gandhi also took issue with some of his ideas. Most prominently, the two clashed over the role of the village in Indian society. (Ambedkar was bold in calling villages primitive, ignorant, and too closely bound to caste.) Nonetheless, Ambedkar brought a glimpse of hope to Dalits: not only did he work for their rights, but he also set a strong example for them by transcending the social caste into which he was born.
On Ambedkar’s birthday, I was working on a photo essay with students from Tank Garden, a Muslim school. Halfway through our class, we took a break to hear a few teachers speak about Ambedkar. Because the teachers’ speeches were mainly in Urdu (which I unfortunately can’t understand), I had the chance to observe. My students – who themselves fall towards the bottom of India’s social pyramid – seemed captivated. I wonder what was running through their minds as they listened.
Later, the Tank Garden teachers talked to me about how the Dalit “stigma” has changed in their lifetime. When they were in grade school, their Dalit peers were not served water during lunchtime. Often, teachers and higher-caste students did not speak to or even look at Dalits. Today, discriminatory practices as such still exist in some places. The teachers told me that what has changed for them is that they now recognize and acknowledge the negative nature of these practices. The pace may be gradual, but Ambedkar’s mindset is influencing theirs.
My friend Ekta, another AIF fellow, is working at Navsarjan, an NGO focused on Dalit human rights issues. Check out her blog to read some fascinating stories about her on-the-ground field work in Gujarat.
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