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Pushpa Balmiki: I decided to fight


- An interview with Pushpa Balmiki

[This interview was first published as "My restlessness grew and started taking form quite early" in the March-April 2005 issue of Insight magazine. R. B. Rawat conducted the interview]

pushpa_balmiki

Pushpa Balmiki is the founder of Adharshila, an NGO working in the Tarai Region of UP. She has represented Dalit issues on various national and international foras. She has been instrumental in mentoring many grass-root level Dalit activists.

Tell us something about your background?

I was born in a Dalit family. My parents were safai karmis (sanitation workers) and faced a lot of hardships in bringing us up. Their daily work was to clean and carry human excrement out of private latrines. They used to get leftovers or half-eaten food, or some times, paltry sums of money on which all of us survived. After my four older brothers, I was the fifth child in the family. All our uncles,too, had only male children. In the entire family, I was the first girl child. For this reason, everyone doted upon me and I enjoyed a lot of attention. However, in the social world outside the family, I was an object of contempt. I could not play with the children of our upper-caste neighbors. It was with longing eyes that I watched them play and have fun.

My mother got married to an alcoholic at the age of twelve. He used to beat her frequently. At fourteen, she left him and married on her own. But where could she have found a refined fellow in the bhangi caste? My father used to gamble and that created problems for my mother. In order to rear her children, she worked very hard. From 5:00 am till 3:00 pm, she cleaned toilets and removed human waste. We ate only one meal a day properly, in the evening. In the morning, before going off to school, we used to divide and eat the leftovers of the previous night.

My mother never sent any of us to work; instead she sent us to school even if we were hungry. I used to see her crying for hours but could not understand why. Once, when my mother fell ill, my brother, who is now a scientist in America, sold off his school books and brought home some ration. Since then, he constantly had to borrow books from his classmates. We had to endure the most extreme deprivations on account of the caste system.

Somehow, I studied till Std. IX. Then my eldest brother tried to arrange my marriage. I always saw that though my mother did all the work in the house, the men in the family took major decisions. She silently suffered. Women do hard labour, earn for the entire family, work in the household also but are treated in an inhuman way. Their alcoholic husbands beat them throughout the night. Women get only the leftovers after they have fed the entire family. I found that the situation of women in our society is deplorable and because of this I started dreading marriage. The oppression of women within the family because of patriarchy and outside the family because of the caste system, made me see myself as an agent of social change. It was then that I decided to fight.

Eventually, after a lot of struggle, I completed my Bachelor's Degree in Arts. Then I yielded to the pressure and agreed to get married. I had kept the condition that the person should not be an alcoholic or gambler. Fortunately, my husband had no such habits. He is also struggling against caste-based oppression, along with me. His career had been cut short on account of his caste. He was an accomplished athlete but because he was from the bhangi caste, he was barred from competing at higher levels, while his juniors and upper-caste competitors, whom he had squarely defeated in competitions, were promoted and given excellent opportunities. I married him in 1979 and since then both of us have been working for social change. After staying at my in-laws' place for a couple of months, I left it and joined a govt. school as a teacher. My husband joined me soon and since then we have been working on issues like land, caste-oppression, labour and women empowerment.

Tell us some of your experiences of student days.

At the age of five, my mother enrolled me in primary school. The teacher there was a high-caste Hindu and despised me for my caste. While correcting my note-book, she would hold the pen from a distance so as to avoid touch. There was a pitcher of drinking water in my school for everybody's use but I was forbidden to touch it. I sat separately on my own piece of mat. For every little thing, I was scolded and shouted at. I was taking training in B.T.C. in 1976. I was the only Dalit in the class. My classmates despised me and therewas no social interaction between us. Besides,they could not stand me eating with them.

Since when are you involved in Dalit activism?

Since 1976, I have been working for this cause incessantly at various levels. Now I have been working in five states primarily for Dalit women and have got positive results from 90 villages. I consider Lakhimpur as a model district. In 1994, I shifted from Lakhimpur to Lucknow. Here, I came across a leaflet advertising a public exchange of ideas on some issues like attitude towards women, caste system, alcoholism, scientific concerns, etc. I attended the programme, where I was elected as State President, Women's Wing of the Indian People's Science Movement. This is how I came to understand that I could effectively work through institutions, when the other members and the govt. are supportive. While working in this organization, I wrote an essay on the subject of women. I received several letters of appreciation from all over the state. In 1995, I registered my own organization, 'Adharshila'. People have come and gone but the organization is successfully working despite financial strains. To strengthen the movement, I have been encouraging women to stand in the forthcoming Panchayat elections and have offered them my full support. I exhort the youth to come up and fight against discrimination of any kind. Inter-caste marriages should be encouraged. Through a special programme, I have been trying to understand the mental state of oppressed women in the states of Bihar, U.P., Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. In U.P., I have been working in Lakhimpur, Gazipur, Gaziabad and Kanpur and have got tremendous response from these places. I believe that politicians have a crucial role to play in social change and I appeal to them to work honestly. Balmiki caste is still far behind on the road to development primarily because they have not yet incorporated Ambedkar's philosophies in their lives. However, gradually this consciousness is growing. As far as entry into politics is concerned, I am prepared to take on the challenge and will not shirk my responsibility.

Tell us about your experiences of running a Dalit organization.

Between 1995 and 1998, I actively worked to associate with several institutions in a supportive network. But these institutions offered neither good guidance nor reliable information. Even voluntary service organizations used the work of our organization for their profit. They misdirected us instead of helping us. In 1999, I associated 'Adharshila' with Lucknow's 'Educational Partner's Centre' and finally received some formal training and accurate information. Then we trained a group of activists in that area who worked for us without pay. Eventually, some other organization took them away from us by paying them salary. This organization which is run primarily by upper-caste people has oppressed several Dalit and women's organizations. I have some upper-caste comrades here in 'Adharshila' but the upper-caste people of the above-mentioned organization have tried to woo them by saying, "Why are you affiliating yourselves with a bhangi? Come join us instead".

Tell us about your experience of activism as a Dalit woman.

I really feel great when women come to me and express their wish to work with me and support me. Lack of participation on the part of men is a cause of pain. Though my mother always supported me, my father and brothers did not; they indeed discouraged me. I was part of the creation of one 'Dynamic Action Group'. I was one of the organizers. An election was held for seven conveners and I was the sole woman convener. Because I was a woman, however, the men involved in the leadership did not give me a chance and took over the work that was my responsibility. I was frustrated.

What have been your achievements and losses, in retrospect?

I had nothing to lose- neither wealth nor respect. But I had a great deal to gain-including the two things I have just mentioned. Respect I have, to some extent, gained personally, but what I want is to achieve fearless, dignified, respectable lives for the entire Dalit community. This is my dream. Awareness, education and independence are all crucial for this, and these are the things I am, through my organization, attempting to attain. To some extent, there has been change in the sweeper community. I have obtained human resources, an institution and dignity. Some people in society even take my name as a model. The courage of the Dalits is growing. The community's elderly and its youth claim me as their own and love me. On the other hand, society's anti-social elements- those who earn their bread and butter by reinforcing social inequality, sucking interest off loans, bribing and taking bribes, striking deals with the police, and committing thuggery- have problems with me and are trying to attack me. This is because they do not want social change. Now I have three children– two sons and a daughter- and my husband and mother-in-law complete the family. At hand are not only institutional responsibility and an office structure, but young comrades, trustworthy supporters, and people's community.

~~~

[Courtesy: Insight, March-April 2005]

Picture courtesy: the net. 

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