I visited Beed, one of the most backward districts in Maharashtra in the Marathwada region for three days ending yesterday. We put up at Manavi Hakka Abhiyaan (Campaign for Human Rights) (MHA) at Telgaon in Beed District. MHA was the birth child of Late Eknath Awad, a Dalit fighting for their cause. The work of MHA was multifaceted, spanning from Dalit atrocities, land disputes, gairans (grazing lands), gender inequality to irrigation. The purpose of the trip was to study caste, land and contestations. The trip, in one line, was a life altering experience for me.
About Manavi Hakka Abhiyaan and Eknath Awad
Dalits in Maharashtra were subjected to numerous atrocities by upper castes, mainly Marathas and Brahmins. They were the primary land tillers but had no legal rights to land. They were forced to do menial jobs at the Maratha households and were not compensated for it. In order to survive, they took to begging and stealing. They lived a life full of poverty, struggle and indignity. Even in 2017, as I visited the four villages around Telgaon to study these atrocities, I could see flavours of this oppression still working its wheels.
What Eknath Awad with MHA did was to re-equate this imbalance of power and give Dalits back a their respect and dignity by following an Ambedkarite narrative and ideology. They sought to do this by giving them land. Eknath Awad encouraged Dalit families in Maharashtra to encroach gairans in their villages and start tilling them. The produce from these fields would help them make a living. Gairans were grazing lands for cattle in the villages, that were not highly fertile but arable. This land did not belong to anyone in particular but was a common resource of the village. This was a very rational way of going about it as it was not a loss to the upper caste landowners. In 25 years of its functioning, MHA was able to give possession of such gairans to more than 25000 families and helped alleviate them from their horrible conditions. Over and above this MHA also worked for equal rights for women, education and stopping domestic violence.
Day 1: MHA, Sadola and Purushottampuri
We arrived at the MHA premises at 7:30 am after a 9 hour bus ride through the night. The premise was green but wore a deserted look. After the demise of Eknath Awad almost two years back, the functioning of the NGO curtailed drastically, with activists associated with MHA still working on the field. However, the cause lacks a central figure. In front of us were four buildings, two of which were for residential purposes and the rest for official ones. Right at the entrance was a hand pump which spewed out cold water in those heated and dehydrating afternoon hours that helped us get through the day. It almost became a ritual for me to wake up and go the hand pump first thing in the morning to wash my face.
Food everyday was a simple affair with bhakri (bajra roti), a vegetable, rice and dal. All food would be cooked on a chulha (wooden burner). This held true for both lunch dinner and lunch, while for breakfast, we were served poha. Bhaskar Gulle, or as we called him Gulle Mama, was the caretaker who looked after our food along with one more family that stayed on the premises. As we were having lunch, in came Rajesh Ghode, one of the activists for MHA who was very well known in and around Beed and was to stay with us for the next three days and show us around.
We gathered at the meeting hall post lunch to understand about MHA’s work. The discussion was led by Rajesh Ghode. At the end of the discussion, Rajesh bhai said that he would like to sing a song for us. The song was in Marathi and went, “Durbalanna jo de swabhiman, Manavi Hakka Abhiyaan!” It meant, we are MHA, the ones who give self esteem to the weak. In the trip to follow, we were audience to a lot more poetry, songs, shayari and qawali. All the songs were about MHA, Eknath Awad, Ambedkar, Phule, Annabhau Sathe and others who belonged to this line of thought. I have never before seen such effective use of music to join together people and communities for one cause. Whenever Rajesh Ghode would sing, he would go into a completely different zone. He would sit on his knees, and the glow on his face and the glitter in eyes while he used to recite one line after the other with all the energy and his hand movements were unmatched. Such glow on ones face can be seen only at one other time on a person, when (s)he is in love. I knew right at that moment how dedicated these activists were to their cause.
We started moving towards the first village on our itinerary, Sadola. This was one village which was most negatively impacted due to atrocities. We were told that the Dalits in the village live outside the peripheries of the village, away from the upper castes, and were allowed inside only when required for some menial job. This partition exists even today. We first visited the part of the village where there were houses of the upper castes, called vadas. Each vada had two things in common. Each boasted a saffron flag, symbolic of the Maratha identity. Every vada had small windows all over the walls. These windows were to be used by the women of the house to talk to someone outside the house. Women were not even allowed to come to the doors. We did not see any woman roaming alone in the village. Any women who would see us through the door would quickly turn their eyes away or close the door. These oppressive roots of patriarchy were still deep and strong in the village.
We next went t the Dalit basti of the village outside the periphery of the village. In the part of the village where upper castes resided, we met a bunch of children who we interacted with. They followed us till the periphery but did not enter the Dalit basti with us. Casteism was ingrained in these kids right from their childhood. The condition of the basti was horrible. The basti was situated at a place where all the sewage water of the village was drained out, and there was this constant stench. There were very few concrete houses with no proper roads to walk. Rajesh Ghode told us that the upper castes at least allow him inside their houses due to his popularity and reach and offer him tea. But the cup in which the tea is served is different, and he is not allowed inside the village.
We then moved on to the second village, Purushottampuri. The unique thing about this village was that there was land in the name of a temple trust. This land is called devsthan, about 10 acres lying idle. It was kept for God, as a symbol. Purushottampuri is the only village in Maharashtra where the Dalits were successfully able to encroach a devsthan and till it. It was night and we sat on the ground a little away from the Purushottam temple, addressed by the Sarpanch, a few activists from MHA and other elderly people from the village. The thing about Eknath Awad was that once the villagers would hear his name, they would be full of sorrow and energy at the same time.
They began their stories from their childhood saying how the upper castes would treat their parents. They would have to eat then leftovers from the houses that they worked at. There was no kind of monetary compensation. They would also protect their fields, for the entire year. When the crop was harvested, they would bend down on their knees, spread their shawls on the ground and accept whatever their masters gave them. They were not allowed to open their mouths and ask for compensation for the services they rendered in a dignified manner. This was nothing but a way of begging. In came Eknath Awad in the 1990s and instilled a feeling of pride, fearlessness and self esteem among Dalits. This gave them the power to encroach land. This was followed by numerous cases and stories of various villagers. The elderly person reciting it to us proudly said how his daughter is now a lawyer and has a Maratha servant at her home. The Sarpanch also served chai to all 40 students. The chai had jaggery in it instead of sugar and tasted very sweet and different. The night ended on a very high note with shayari and qawali.
Day 2: Upali
We visited a nearby agricultural village called Upali and met the Ichke family. They had 8 acres of gairan land out of which they were using only 4 to cultivate. The size of the family was 15 members and hence all the output was used only for subsistence, unless there was a dire need of money and they needed to sell a part of it. The farmer showed us a pile of rocks and said that is how the land is and hence they are taking some time to start cultivating on the other 4 acres. Kamal tai, the eldest female in the family led the discussion. She was bold, fierce, forward thinking and jolly. We not only spoke about her farms, but touched topics like inter-caste and love marriages, education, women empowerment and her views on all the same were astonishingly and surprisingly way forward than some of the females I have interacted with in cities. The outer appearance with a sari around her body and sindur on her forehead gave a very different and misleading image.
This interaction was followed by lunch at a nearby temple in the village. There was an occasion for which there was a feast in the village. The sponsors were generous enough to accommodate the 40 of us. We were served simple but delicious food with a couple of sweets and basmati rice. The night that followed was interesting. Rajesh Ghode had arranged for the best musicians from the neighbouring villages and they started playing native local music at 11 PM after dinner. The music was engaging. It went on till 2:30 AM and everyone was absolutely gripped. A few students from my institute who were acquainted with the music tried their hand at singing and we had an absolute blast.
Day 3: Sangam
The last day, we went through land records at the MHA office along with bank statements and newspaper clippings. We then left for Sangam village to meet one more farmer family. We sat right on a field that was freshly harvested as the stems of the crops cut were still there. Dr. Prashant Bansode, our teacher from the Institute introduced himself and us to the farmer family. The moment he mentioned we were here to study the work of Eknath Awad and how it impacted them, the family was in tears. Their eyes were bloodshot and they were saying that Jija left them too early and all of a sudden. Everything that they had was due to him and that he was greater than God for them. This only explains the level of involvement and dedication and the force of one man behind the entire movement that is Eknath Awad. As it was a field study about castes as well, we asked them about their experiences of oppression. The one very interesting discussion we had was about their aversion of inter-caste marriages if the other party is from either a Brahmin or Marwari community. They shared a story of such a marriage where the boy from the Dalit community eloped with a Brahmin girl and eventually stopped identifying with his own mother and sister. Such experiences do scar their image about the entire community. The discussion ensued with most of us explaining them how such one-off events should not be generalised to entire communities at once.
1) The education system in india, particularly at the primary, secondary and higher secondary level is skewed towards the masters. There is absolutely no intersection with reality. I completely fail to understand why we have no clue about such atrocities even in the late 20th and 21st centuries even after just being within 500 kms of them.
2) The trip will be a turning point for the students lives. Everything I do, all my actions will be influenced by this experience of mine. The sheer knowledge of people living in such conditions and still being so happy and energetic has changed my outlook. The way we stayed for 3 days, with less electricity, heat and no Wi-Fi, that and even worse is the life of all these people.
3) We take a lot of shortcuts to do our work. We want instant gratification and success in the work we do. Think about the life of an activist who has to wake up every morning, does not know what kind of a situation he is going to face. He has no financial compensation for his work, but it is so important at the granular level. It is life changing for Dalits. There are no instant results. It is an accumulation of daily effort from his end that culminates in liberty and freedom for others.
4) Land has given dignity to these Dalits. They still have to work outside to make ends meet. But there is a sense of independence and self esteem. They can now enter the village, and in some cases, the Sarpanch too is a Dalit. There is an entire shift in the socio-cultural fabric of these villages for the better.
Finally, we gathered at the meeting hall before dinner. Students shared their experiences and emotions and learning. This was followed by a speech by Rajesh Ghode and ofcourse, a song! We commemorated him and Gulle Mama with a shawl and sweets which they graciously accepted. I packed my bags, had dinner, washed my face with the water from the hand pump, and took the bus back to Pune.