Glossary… and beyond

From Candala to Antyaja to Horijon to Dalits.

The word “Dalit,” popular and common in India, comes from the Sanskrit language, and means “grounded,” “suppressed,” “crushed,” or “broken to pieces.” It was first used by Jyotirao Phule in the nineteenth century, in the context of the oppression faced by the then “untouchable” castes. In Bangladesh the word is basically unknown even because it does not exist in the Bengali language. However a Bengali form of the term can be found in the word pododolito which maintains a similar meaning as well. Its adoption in Bangladesh has been basically determined by its wide use in international circles. The popularization of the term in India was brought about in the 70s by the Dalit Panther, a radical militant movement. Now the word Dalit is commonly used to indicate so called untouchable castes, the pariah, the outcasts. In Bangladesh such a use is very recent and is well known only to upper caste and cultured people of civil society. It is on the other hand much less known to Dalits themselves. The latter, instead, keep clinging to the name of their respective caste (i.e. the Rishi, the Dom, the Sweeper, the Kaora, the Bede etc.). Generally speaking the term has no religious connotations, being thus able to gather under its purview Christian, Muslim, Buddhist as well as Hindu Dalits. The term dalit, on the other hand, has instead a strong political connotation. In this sense, the word is considered to correspond more to the kind of political and sociological philosophy originating from the work and thought of Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar (1891-1956), an untouchable himself, the all time leader of the struggle for Dalits’ liberation.

In India Mahatma Gandhi tried to popularize the word Horijon (i.e. sons of God, Vishnu) to indicate so called untouchable castes. However the term was basically rejected by Dalits themselves on the basis of two considerations. The first: the term Horijon, apart from its patronizing flavour, is a religious one which has its tradition and meaning within Hinduism. Christian and Muslim Dalits would hardly accept to be identified with such a term. The second: traditionally Horijons in South India were the sons and daughters born in Hindu temples, out of sacred prostitution, their mothers being the so called devadashi, or servants of the deity. In Bangladesh Horijon has never gained currency even though it is indeed used by a particular section of so called untouchables. In fact in Bangladesh Horijon does not indicate outcaste groups in general but has become instead the name of one such group, the Sweepers or, contemptuously, the Methors.

In one of the most famous and ancient Hindu law books (dharmasastra), the Manavadharmasastra or Monusmriti (translated as The Laws of Manu) so called outcaste groups are collectively named as chandala, curiously a term which in time came to indicate a particular group of untouchables called nomosudra. This latter group while in India is included in the list of scheduled castes, in Bangladesh has managed to raise its social status, remaining however on the threshold of Hindu belonging and acceptance.

Antyaja jatis is instead the Sanskrit expression used from early medieval times in Bengal. Antyaja literally means those who are last in the caste system. Reference to this term can be found in Bhabadeva Bhatta (he lived somewhere between 800 and 1100 AD) a law expert from Gauda, what used to be the Northern part of modern Bengal. The Sanskrit term Antyaja has remained in Bengali in the form of Antyaj. And this was the term used by Parittran and the group of students involved in the RISHI movement up until 5-6 years ago. The term was eventually abandoned for two basic reasons. Firstly although a Bengali word, antyaj was incomprehensible to most Bangladeshi people, let alone to foreigners. Secondly, the word Dalit was eventually adopted because internationally known and particularly because it embodied the fighting spirit and the pride Parittran and the Rishi Movement from the late 80s had started to stir up among their own people.

The Rishi

The Rishi, contemptuously called “Muchi,” are to be found all over Bangladesh, but perhaps their highest concentration is found in its south western regions, particularly in the districts of Jessore, Satkhira, Bagerhat and Khulna. In other parts of Bangladesh the Muchi are not known by the name of Rishi but by the name of Robidas. Mainly Hindu by religion, these people are placed outside of the caste system and considered untouchables. Their untouchability status relates to the Rishis’ traditional dealings with dead cows and their skins. Chamar is the other name these people are known to all over North India and Bangladesh too. Although most of the Rishi people have discarded their traditional occupation and taken up other socially more acceptable jobs, their stigma remains and is the cause for their continuous discrimination and segregation. Their hamlets are well separated from other Hindu or Muslim neighbourhoods and usually are located in unhealthy environments along riverbanks and on swampy land. Physically separated by the rest of society, they are also psychologically segregated. Considered second class sort of human beings they are often refused a place in restaurants, shops and public venues in general. Inter-dining and above all inter-marrying with other groups is frowned upon, and even well-to-do Rishis at the time of marriages have to look for possible brides and grooms within their own group.

In village arbitrations they are made to suffer injustice. Their voice is unheard in socio-political gatherings. And even those who manage to overcome their inferiority complex are silenced right away. The superiority complex of main stream society is enough to keep Rishi people quiet at the feet of local influential and powerful men. Rishi people live their life in fear, harassed all the time and used as cheap labour for work others do not want to do anymore. Virtually landless, the Rishi find employment as shoe polishers and coolies in market places. Many among them drive three wheeler cycles and many others weave bamboo baskets and other artifacts. Others become sweepers and dirt collectors in towns and cities. Unfortunately, all these jobs command little respect in Bangladeshi society and thus contribute to perpetuate their untouchable status.

In Hindu temples and in religious functions if they participate at all, they occupy a particular place separated from other caste Hindus in order to avoid their polluting presence. Formal education, though improving by the day, is still lacking among them. Illiteracy is still common among the Rishi, particularly among women, untouchable among untouchables. Rishi children are often discriminated against in classrooms and not taken care of properly. Insecurity of life, lack of awareness and customary tradition are the main causes behind child marriage still quite common among Rishi people. Girls are thus married off at an early age and used as a disposable commodity.

Parittran and the Rishi

Parittran which means ‘salvation’ is an NGO made up of mainly Rishi youngsters striving hard to raise the status of so-called low caste people in society by improving their education, establishing their rights, dignity and pride, developing their skills and generally improving their living conditions. The struggle started by Parittran and the Rishi has got already a history of 20 years, yet we are still far from achieving the equalitarian aims of Dalits’ struggle.

Origins of Bangladesh’ Dalits.

As far as the origins of the Dalits of Bangladesh are concerned, the argument is necessarily complex. The complexity resides in the fact that Dalits are not a homogeneous group in the same way a caste is, but they are more of a class, gathering several different castes. To speak thus of the origins of Dalits means to verify and research the origins of each and every caste or group falling within the collective meaning of the word ‘Dalit.’ It is for instance undoubted that the so called Sweepers or Horijons of Bangladesh comes from India. To this day this group of Dalits speaks the Telegu language among themselves betraying thus their non-Bengali origin. It is said that the Sweepers together with other service castes were brought to Bangladesh from India during late Mogul’s times, from the beginning of the 17th century. It is then reported that a large migration of Dalit Sweepers took place when Dhaka became a municipality in 1864. Now it is calculated that the whole population of city-cleaners in Dhaka and close by towns might be around 35-40,000. But if we take the Rishi population (cobblers, leather workers etc.) of south-west Bangladesh, or to be more precise, the Rishi of the Khulna division, we see that they do not maintain any sort of different element, linguistic or otherwise, which may help identify them as coming from places different from Bangladesh. Indeed they consider themselves Bengali. So far nobody has as yet started a survey of the Rishi population of Bangladesh, however good estimates would put their numbers in the Khulna division only, at around 400,000. It must however be noticed that not all the Muchi consider themselves ‘Rishi.’ Some among them, particularly in the northern districts, identifies with the Robidas grouping. Apparently these Muchi among themselves speak a form of Hindi, betraying once again their Northern Indian origins. Whatever the case, the argument about Dalit origins must be articulated and differentiated. Particularly, Dalits must also be aware that the whole question may be prone to political use and misuse. Indeed, to be certain about the origins of this or that Dalit group remains a complex task especially because these people have been willfully kept outside history. References to them are scarce and must be evinced from other sources. Besides the reference already mentioned to antyaja in Bhabadeva Bhatta above, the Brihaddharma Purana, a work from Bengal dated to the 13th century, witness to the existence in the then Bengal of Sat Shudras (from whom higher castes could accept food and drinks) and Asat Shudras (from whom higher castes could not accept food and drink because of their inherent polluting touch). These latter grouping might be considered the ancestors of today’s Bangladesh’ Dalits.

The Dalit Struggle and its non-Dalit appropriation

Although in the last years, the Dalit question even in Bangladesh has gained more and more currency, it is sad to see that many of those who up until yesterday did not even know of the existence of Dalits, are today the torch bearer of a movement which basically uses the Dalits to achieve unholy aims. The Dalits risk once again to be silenced, this time in the name of their own rights! The mohajons, caste Hindus and zemindars of old are now replaced and embodied by well meaning intermediaries, NGOs and individuals alike, once again using the Dalits as a commodity, the new financially appealing object of NGOs and organizations that claim to give voice to the Dalits while at the same time maintaining their enslaving hands on them. Those NGOs and organizations which pretend to speak for the Dalit people without asking the Dalits if they want them to speak on their behalf, continue to consider Dalits as their own disposable possession, something which is held together by the unholy distribution of the fruit of patronage, the relation existing between subaltern groups and higher tiers of the social ladder. In other words, those many non-dalits who claim to be the heralds of Dalit freedom, against caste discrimination are those same people who, through patronage, maintain the caste system and the power structure it embodies. Baba Saheb Ambedkar must be recollected here: until and unless the Dalits themselves take the struggle for their liberation in their own hands, there is no hope for them to improve their situation.

Joy Bhim!  Joy Dalits!