Defiance in the Ganges

    Two women walk away from the Ganges river, carrying its water with them in the urns. (WNV / Priyanka Borpujari)

    Type “dalit” into Google News, and you will be flooded with gory reports from across India of women from this supposedly lower caste being raped and murdered, of men being hacked to death. In the northern state of Haryana alone, over two dozen dalit girls and women have been raped over the last month. There was a 16-year-old victim of gang rape who immolated herself; a woman who was gang raped at gunpoint in front of her three children; and another 16-year-old girl who was gang raped by eight men while four others recorded it and circulated the video, after which her father committed suicide.

    The National Crime Records Bureau reports that every day three dalit women are raped, two dalits are murdered, 11 are beaten and two homes are burned down. Yet in the face of such persistent hatred, dalits continue to assert their humanity. Rallies are often held and lawsuits are routinely filed. But it isn’t clear whether these efforts have triggered the kind of empathy needed to shift Indian culture toward recognizing dalits as equals. That is why dalits in the eastern state of Bihar have begun to try something different.

    In February 2011, 1,001 dalit women from the Dom community walked through the town of Parbatta, carrying pails of water from the pious river of Ganga (or Ganges). In symbolic fashion, they were taking claim of the river from those who had dominated and oppressed them.

    The Ganga Kalash Yatra, as it was called — kalash meaning earthen urn and yatra meaning rally — was the third annual such event in Bihar’s Khagaria district, one of the most deprived districts in the entire state. Dalits comprise about 70 percent of the population. But with unequal land holding patterns on top of the caste system’s social oppression, the options for employment are limited. Many work as farm laborers — where they are exploited in the fields with low wages for strenuous work — while others migrate to cities for rudimentary jobs. Often, women bear the worst consequences; being abducted by feudal lords is commonplace.

    Traditionally, Doms never had any land holdings, and thereby no income of their own. They were forced to do important jobs that no one else would take up — cremating dead bodies, cleaning the toilets of the people in the village and managing the dead bodies of animals. Like other lower caste communities, they were prevented from having a relationship with the Ganges. For whatever religious needs that were to be met, they could only access a tributary of the river. Every such symbol of oppression had to be reclaimed. And this is what the Yatra aimed to do, says Sanjeev, a longtime supporter of the Dom community, who has been instrumental in galvanizing the momentum behind their revolt.

    From riches to rags

    In a room lit with just a kerosene lamp, Sanjeev goes through the final details before the Ganga Kalash Yatra. (WNV / Priyanka Borpujari)

    Sanjeev’s story in itself is nothing short of a utopian tale. Until 2004, he was leading an urban life in the Indian capital of New Delhi. He had at one point been a runway model before working as a marketing executive. The death of a relative in 2004 brought him to Khagaria, the place where his parents are from. After the customary rituals and dinner, he stepped outside where he was shocked to see a man fighting with a dog over food thrown into the garbage pile. He went back inside and asked his relatives to get a plate of food for the man, and to invite him into their home. But his request to help this Dom man was met with ridicule.

    Later, during that same trip, he was shocked to see what he had only heard in stories — people from the same community were not allowed to take water from the hand pump that was situated in the upper caste area. He began to think about the idea of equality as he went back to his comfortable life in New Delhi. Months later, he returned to Khagaria without a round-trip ticket or a plan.

    Not knowing where to begin, but observing the obviously unsanitary conditions, he began bathing the Dom children, one by one, near a hand-pump. People watched in disbelief and doubt. Then he walked around, talking to people and asking women if they would like to read and write. Soon, a ramshackle hut of twigs and mud became a classroom. His students were women, who hid their faces behind veils. This made the men suspicious and they burnt down the hut. But within in a few years, they were learning along with the women.

    The community then formed Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan (BHS; Organization for the the Benefit of the Untouchables) in 2006 and with that the upper castes began to face challenges in their habitual domination of the dalits. Some responded with violence. Sanjeev was forced to leave Khagaria after his cousin was murdered in an attempt to intimidate Sanjeev and stop him from doing his work. Guerrilla Maoists, who have a certain influence in the region, also began to feel threatened that the young boys of the lower castes would no more be inclined to join their ranks to fight against the oppressive system.

    Nevertheless, BHS continued to thrive, with membership growing to over 10,000 people. It soon launched a campaign to stop the Doms from having to eat leftover food from the garbage. Meanwhile, the education work continued, and some of the Dom children were enrolled in schools — many for the first time in their families’ history. But once again, these changes were met with resistance. Parents from the upper caste protested the demographic mixing in schools and some teachers even neglected the Dom students.

    “People feared that if these children were educated and then employed at better jobs, it would not be possible to practice untouchability, which would signal the end of their own dominance in the society,” Sanjeev explained.

    This didn’t stop BHS. In fact, they started to receive some funding and established a core team of 12 organizers, including six women. Yet, something bigger was still needed. There was a need felt to assert the Dom identity, while also reclaiming universal symbols and resources, like the Ganges, which had come to be an instrument of oppression. Through meetings and brainstorming sessions, the idea of the Ganga Kalash Yatra was born. February was decided upon as the time for the Yatra because that was when the women had less work in the fields; summers would have been too difficult for a rally.

    Down by the riverside

    While attending the Yatra in 2011, it was remarkable to see women from far off districts and villages travel to Parbatta in the biting cold of the winter. They chipped in small amounts of money to collectively hire a tractor, that would take them to the Yatra. In the first year, 175 women participated, but about 400 did in 2010. I was told that the process had been the same each year: They had managed to take leave from their chores at home and participate in a celebration of their identity as women and equal human beings. Among them were Muslim women, who face religious subjugation and fall under the category of Other Backward Classes.

    For a month prior to the Yatra, women from the Kumbhakar caste — kumbhakar means potter — were making urns to be used by the women. Other logistical arrangements included buying fruits and packing them in plastic bags. Tents had to be erected at an assembly ground; microphones and loudspeakers also had to set up. Sanjeev said, “This time, we are having someone from the Dom community to preside over the function, and he will sit next to a politician who we have invited. This will give out the signal that the Doms are now capable of taking the lead for themselves, rather than having politicians decide for them.”

    The night before the Yatra, women had taken shelter in a small hall. In one corner, lentils, rice and vegetables were being cooked for everyone. As the temperature dropped that night, and the lights went out, lamps emerged and songs were sung by the women. Soon, only the crickets were heard, for everyone had to be up by 4 a.m. to get to the banks of the Ganges.

    Even before the sun was up, the women grabbed their bag of clean clothes and jumped into tractors to head to the river bank. Many trips were made by the tractors and a few jeeps. At the river bank, the women began to bathe; adolescent girls frolicked in the water. As the sun came up, the women carried water into the urns; some women applied vermilion on their foreheads and wore red-and-golden bands — just like the upper caste women would do on a pilgrimage.

    Women walked four miles through the town of Parbatta, in two immaculate lines. (WNV / Priyanka Borpujari)

    By 8 a.m., the women began to walk back to Parbatta. In two straight lines, with the urns on their heads, they headed to the meeting ground four miles away. A few jeeps with BHS banners glided between the moving queues; loudspeakers shouted slogans of empowerment. The town of Parbatta watched the rally go by. They had seen it in the previous years, but this one was larger. People stood in their balcony to watch the once-oppressed walk in stride, carrying the symbolic river waters.

    By noon, everyone had placed their urns at a specified location, and sat under a huge canopy. An oil lamp was lit, and a series of speeches followed by the visiting politician and the chosen president of the ceremony. Women broke their fast by eating the fruits and later, a cooked meal. The space and opportunity was used to convey people’s grievances to the representatives of the local administration. On the fringes of the meeting ground were small booths that gave out information about various government schemes, including those related to health, nursery for children, housing and employment.

    By 4 p.m., the ceremony was over. Women rested or walked around. But the air continued to be filled with remnants of the sociological process: priests were hired to chant ‘Sita Ram’ for 24 hours, continuously, without a single break. They began at 4 p.m. that day, and continued through the night, in different tones, until the next evening.

    Even young girls joined the women in the Ganga Kalash Yatra. (WNV / Priyanka Borpujari)

    At about the same time, the women took the pots and returned to the riverside once again. They threw the pots into the river, and collectively took a vow that they would not let themselves be oppressed in the year ahead.

    “What I am trying to do is to get the Dom to realize that nothing is owned just by the upper caste — neither the river, nor the rituals,” Sanjeev explained. “But this process is just one small yet significant step towards making the Doms heard. They have been suppressed for centuries. The government has so many programs for the lower castes, but has that changed the mindset of the oppressor?”

    The work that remains

    Although the Yatra did not take place in 2012 due to a paucity of funds, many want it to return. As Sanjeev told me over the phone recently, “They want it as a chance to get together, have some fun, and feel their own strength.”

    In the meantime, Sanjeev is focusing on getting the government to allocate homes and arable land to the Doms by getting the children involved. They have been making demands of the government for arable land, so that their fathers have work, which would thereby enable them to go to school.

    “They [the Doms] will have to stand up on their own and bring about the real change,” said Sanjeev. “I’m just a cog in the wheel.”

    Members of Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan carry a sign that says, “Towards A New Horizon.” (WNV / Priyanka Borpujari)

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