A Dalit housewife transforms into a Social Activist

By Elizabeth Sangeetha Paul

Kolkata, Jan. 29, 2019: Sujata Chiti, an ordinary village dalit woman in her mid-30s, is vibrant women leader in 24 Parganas (South) district of West Bengal. She has mobilized around 1000 Dalit women and takes care of the issue of Rights and intervenes when there is exploitation and violence. She has been formed by Udayani (awakening), social action forum of Calcutta Jesuits, for the past one decade.

Here she shares her story of transforming herself into a social activist to Elizabeth Sangeetha Paul. Excerpts:

MATTERS INDIA: Tell us something about yourself?

SUJATA CHITI: My name is Sujata Chiti. I was born in a poor Dalit family, in the year 1983. I have two siblings, one elder sister now married with two children and an elder brother who is a daily labourer. After class 10, my parents stopped me from studying. While my brother droped out in the primary itself. I desired to study more but my parents got me married at the age of 18. At present, my husband and I work together to run the family. While my husband is an agricultural labourer, I work in Udayani as a coordinator of Bishnupur block. I have a daughter studying in class 10. I want my daughter educated and have a brighter future.

What was your life prior to joining Udayani and how have you changed as a person after joining Udayani?

Since my childhood, I have seen Dalit women facing two-fold discrimination by people of higher castes in my village, firstly, for being a women and secondly, for being a Dalit. I always wanted to raise my voice against the wrongs, but lacked the confidence. I belong to a very common conservative family where liberal mind set was not appreciated. As a Dalit woman, I felt, weak, vulnerable, exposed and exploited. I considered myself to be inferior which caused me to shy away from societal responsibilities.

Being married in a joint family, I was always bound by the rules and customs of the society and my in-laws. Therefore I could not come out of the shackles of a stereotypical Dalit house wife. I lacked confidence and leadership qualities to venture into new things. I was unaware of the basic rights enjoyed by every individual. It is only when I started working with Udayani that I became aware of my potentialities.

My first involvement with Udayani started with coaching of children at the centre of Nurshidachak Roman Catholic church. At that time, A Jesuit Priest, Probal Gomes was the assistant director of Udayani and recruited me to teach. I was inspired by the Jesuit priests from my childhood on. I had grown up seeing many commited missionary Jesuits.

I used to teach 30 children. Alongside I also started forming SHGs in my village. I formed the first SHG in the year 2007 named “Maya Mamta SHG”. I ran the education centre and four SHGs simultaneously.

Throughout my journey in Udayani, I learnt to be a leader and group dynamics along with systemic oppression meated out by influencial few in the society. I was taught by the director on how to counter these forces collectively and peacefully. I have learnt to fight for my rights and stand up for people of my community. Especially, I have gained a lot of work experience from Jesuit Priest Irudhaya Jothi, my director, seeing him always eager and never giveup attitude at any harsh conditions. He always motivated me to go a step forward and work hard. He made me understand through his actions that everything is possible and filled me with positive vibes when I was about to give up.

Now I have developed leadership qualities to lead the entire Dalit women’s community in my area. People now consult me for any kind of domestic problems which makes me feel contended and proud. Also, my activists accompany me in all my endeavours and stand with me no matter what the situation is. We have achieved our goals because all of us worked together and never gave up. The faith and respect which my village people slowly developed in me encouraged me to stand against the odds and continue my work for the development of the people.

What inspired you to join Udayani and what was the turning point of your life?

The increasing consumerism and westernisation added to the exploitation of my community in the past. Not only were the Dalit people of my village economically and educationally backward, but they also did not have any long-term goals and vision of their life. Slowly the Jesuits intervened to bring development among the Dalit masses which resulted into a positive change among them.

The major turning point in my life came in the year 2014, when I was working as an animator of Udayani. I was asked to lead other activists and women of the block full time, which I initially refused due to fear and low confidence.

Fr. Jothi perhaps saw in me a leader and encouraged and motivated me to take up the leadership, he spoke to my husband and child including my parents. Since then no turning back and he is with me to guide and support.

Being a housewife, going to different places and working with different kinds of people were not easy for me. I faced a lot of problems in the village as people were finding it hard to accept me. But I found a new power within myself to move forward. Eventually I am able to fulfil the challenge of organising 1000 women as Self Help Group (SHG) members in my block. I know now I have power within.

Just two weeks back I visited one of the reputed universities of West Bengal, to give an interview for the position of assistant professor. Though I am well qualified for the post, I faced caste discrimination and I was explicitly asked to state my caste, category, religion and other caste related details. This discriminatory behaviour showed that Varna system is still ingrained within the mindset of the people. Have you ever experienced this kind of discrimination?

Within my village, I faced caste discrimination from people of higher castes. The biggest example is that I receive greater acceptance from women who are dalits than the so called higher castes. Also when I approach the government officials for some work, be it at Block office or banks, I faced this kind of discrimination. The very first thing they do is to send us away saying come some other day, perhaps thinking that talking or listening to us is not worth. Even if they listen, they used to neglect our problems and sideline our problems. Once all the people in our community unite and fight against this discrimination then change may happen.

What are the changes you have brought about in the society after joining Udayani?

Bishnupur is a Dalit dominated area where most people are landless labourers. The primary occupation of the people in Bishnupur is fishing. This is mainly because it is a wetland area covered with many ponds and water bodies. The intrusion of land sharks in the area has forced small scale Dalit agricultural labourers to sell off their land in return for meagre money. As a result, the local Dalit people are becoming landless and migrating to the cities in search of odd jobs such as domestic helpers or factory workers. We are too close to the city and so the land is all sold out.

From the very beginning, my activists and I have been spreading awareness regarding this injustice and have been able to make the SHG women understand, not to get carried away under the manipulation of these companies. Also we asked them to come out of their shells to take an active role in external affairs.

Not only land rights, but with regard to Right to Food, we have delegated, campaigned and protested at the block, state and national levels. We have been to Jamshedpur in 2013, Delhi in 2015 and Plassey in 2016 and took part in the protest movements in relation to food security. In 2015, we demanded with 5000 people in front of Baruipur Food Corporation of India (FCI) go-downs asking the government to role out food grains to the starving masses. Our struggle for Right to Food for over ten years has brought about implementation of the NFSA act in the year 2013. This gave us a new confidence that if we work together we can make the mighty govt too to make a legislation for us.

We are still carrying out demonstrations, meetings, rallies and surveys to stop loopholes and proper implementation of National Food Security Act and National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA). For instance, I, along with my activists, did 10 ration shops survey in Nepalginj in 2016, and pointed out a lot of discrepancies taking place in the shops. From that day itself, the ration shops started giving cash memos, started writing on the board for public view, and shops now remain open for three days a week.

During the month of February 2017, beating of empty plates (Thala Bajao) was carried out in Andharmanik Panchayat to raise the non implementation of 100 days work and after the protest, 30% of the people got new job cards and now work under MGNREGA.

With regard to village problems, in January 2019, 54 people from three sansads of Bishnupur block under my leadership demanded at Bishnupur BDO to get toilets in their house under Swacch Bharat Abhiyan scheme and tube-wells and toilets in the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) centres. With our pressure, the BDO assured our demands would be fulfilled within one month.

There are many such instances where we have achieved success in our struggle towards basic entitlements. We also give trainings to make people aware about their Human Rights and give training on Human Trafficking, child marriage and violence against women to make them aware about the various social evils.

Simultaneously, income generation trainings are also given to make the SHG women financially independent. Mushroom training, nursery training, computer training and solar training are some of the trainings which are organised for the SHG women.

Udayani has been a guiding light throughout my journey from being a simple oppressed Dalit woman to a confident leader of ‘Sampurna Nari Kalyan Sangathan’. Without Udayani’s support, I would not have been able to evolve as a powerful and humane leader and work selflessly for the people of my community.

What are your aspirations for the NGO in the near future?

Presently, I have around 1000 women formed under seven federations and applied for registering it as a Non-Governmental Organizaion. This NGO, that is ‘Sampurna Nari Kalyan Sangathan’(all women well-being movement), would be the only Dalit Women Organisation in the area having more than 1000 Dalit women members led by Dalit women for the Dalit women. Being a leader of a Dalit women’s organisation, I feel that I have the responsibility to uplift the people of my community and make society accept them. I wish to make this organisation strong enough to cater to all the problems. We now started dream dreams thanks to Fr. Jothi and Udayani.

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