Dalits are also human beings

By : A J Philip

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Dr Jose Kananaikil in a Facebook  post. It was written in the past tense. And horror of horrors, I prefaced his name with “the late”! Immediately, my friend Jose Kavi contacted me to say that he was alive, though bed-ridden at a religious home on the outskirts of Patna.

I felt really sad that I referred to my friend in the past tense and took consolation in the superstition that if the death of a living person was announced, he would live longer. No, that was not to be.

Yesterday evening when I returned home after attending a marriage at Keekozhur, I found a message from my friend Fr Josey Kunnunkal that Dr Jose Kananaikil was no more.

The cryptic message said, “Our Jose Kananaikil died today at around  5 in the evening. He was in a coma but slowly slipped away. He suffered for the last ten ears but the end was peaceful. The funeral is on Sunday at 2 p.m. Keep him in your prayers”.

Jose Kavi’s Matters India carries a detailed report on him. It calls him the “Messiah of Bihar Dalits”. He certainly deserves the title. Not many people know how he became an advocate of the Dalit cause.
Dr Kananaikil did his Ph.D from Chicago University. The subject of his thesis was the condition of the Scheduled Caste people. For his field work, he chose Barh in Bihar. The research brought him closer to the poorest of the poor and he felt the need to do something for the amelioration of their condition. Thus were the seeds of the Bihar Dalit Vikas  Samiti sown nearly 35 years ago.

Before that, Dr Kananikil toured the whole Barh subdivision and organised hundreds of meetings of Dalits. Through such meetings, he sought to instil in them a sense of belonging to one another. His pioneering effort caught the attention of a dozen or so youngmen who sat together with the young Jesuit priest and gave shape to the Samiti.

They fanned out into the villages to conscientise the people about the need to stand united to face the oppressors.While the movement started spreading its tentacles, the landlords who could not have been amused by the goings-on came down heavily on the Samiti volunteers.

Mad with anger, they caught one Ram Swaroop Das, a Samiti sympathiser and blinded him. Instead of coming to the rescue of the hapless youth, who was implicated in a trumped up case, the police kept him in their custody for a whole day without giving him any first aid.

They did not raise a finger against the perpetrators of the crime. For the Samiti, the moment of reckoning had come.

The Samiti took up Das’ case by knocking at the doors of the judiciary. Their persistent efforts bore fruit as the police was constrained to release Das and take action against those who tortured him.
“The case ended in the conviction of the guilty”, recalled Dr Kunnunkal when I met 15 years ago. The success of the Samiti sent shockwaves down the spines of the landed gentry who realised that the BDVS could not be taken for granted.

The Samiti office on Church Road in the heart of Barh became a terror for the landlords who knew that if they harassed the Dalits, they would not go unchallenged. The Samiti set up a legal aid cell with a public-spirited lawyer from Barh as its adviser to help the poor in matters of litigation.
Small wonder that the Samiti’s popularity spread throughout Barh subdivision and its adjoining areas. Thus, the BDVS became a mass movement.

“In the Babubigha rape case also, the guilty were punished”, said Dr Kunnunkal. As soon as he mentioned ‘Babubigha’, I recalled the visit I made to that village nestling on the Nalanda-Munger border in Central Bihar in the mid-eighties. Its inhabitants were Scheduled Castes belonging to two of the lowest of low communities, Chamars and Beldaars.

They were a source of cheap labour for the rich farmers of the neighbouring villages. Such was their condition that even after working from dawn to dusk, they could barely manage to make both ends meet.

They accepted without a murmur whatever the landlords gave them as wages. They bore their misfortune with equanimity. Whenever they got some spare time, they sang aloud to the accompaniment of their rustic musical instruments.

In those rare moments, they forgot all their miseries. But music was not a passion or entertainment alone for them; it was a vocation that fetched them a few rupees during festivals and marriage seasons.

Like their labour, their music, too, was available for a song. Although the seasonal orchestral job took them far and near, it did precious little to make their life more comfortable.
Though belated, the tide of consciousness reached these hapless people. The harbinger of this awareness was Rampirat Das, a literate, who urged the people of Babubigha to join hands and demand fair wages.

The villagers realised that there was sense in what he said. They decided to follow him.
Soon enough, an occasion came when their determination was put to a severe test. A notorious landlord of a nearby village came to book the band party for a night-long session at his house in connection with a marriage.

This time, he found the villagers cool in their response. They demanded a fair wage. More than the amount they asked for, what infuriated the landlord was their audacity to demand a remuneration. “I will teach you a lesson”, he was heard saying when he left the village.

Little did the Dalits of Babubigha know what was in store for them. One night in mid-1983 when they were all asleep in their thatched houses, a gang of desperadoes descended on the village.

Said Parvati Kumari, who was just 14 when the incident occurred: “We woke up hearing a bomb blast. Before we could realise what was happening the goondas mercilessly beat up the men who ran helter-skelter in the darkness.” The terrorised women were gagged and raped.

Continued Parvati: “A torch was focused on me. I screamed in terror. They gagged me and started tearing my clothes. I have no recollection of what happened afterwards. When I returned to senses, I was in the hospital.”

She symbolised the horrendous tragedy that struck the people of Babubigha on that cursed night. It was a year after the tragedy that I visited the village.

Tears rolled down the eyes of Parvati’s father, Pyarelal Das, as he recounted the horrible events of that night. He could never recover from the shock he got when he saw his teenage daughter being raped.
Altogether seven women were raped that day. One of them who was pregnant had a miscarriage as a result of the mass rape. Their misfortune was confounded when the official machinery failed to come to their rescue or help heal their wounds. The police refused to register a case of rape. Not only that, the district administration worked overtime to ensure that the media in Patna never got the news.

But the villagers persisted in their efforts to seek justice. Finally, the incident hit the headlines in the Press when Dr Kananikil filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the police and the government for contravention of Articles 14, 10(1) (e) and 21 of the Constitution by refusing to register cases of mass rape and assault of the Dalits.

The apex court telegraphically ordered the district judge of Nalanda to verify the allegations and submit a report. The report confirmed the incident of mass rape.

The writ petition had mentioned how these Harijans were being denied their dues and how the landlords had been thwarting their attempts to get a piece of land where they could live peacefully.
The Supreme Court gave specific orders to the government to allot land and build houses for them. In compliance with the court’s orders, the government allotted land to each of the victims and built pucca tiled houses for them.

A nationalised bank came forward to help them buy new musical instruments. Once again, music returned to their lives.The successful culmination of the writ petition had a profound impact on the profile of the BDVS. It became an effective organ against the oppressors. Every year he would organise a Dalit Divas at Gandhi Maidan which attracted tens of thousands of people.

For Dr Jose Kananaikil, nothing mattered more than the interests of the Dalits. He devoted his life to serving the Dalits of Bihar for whom he was second only to Dr BR Ambedkar.

As I write this in a moving train, my mind is in faraway Patna where arrangements are being made for a befitting funeral for my friend Fr Jose Kananaikil. May his soul rest in eternal peace!


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