“Sir, we are lost, can you direct us to Luvkush Nagar?”
“Take left at the circle; go straight, you’ll find jamadaars there”
“When we were asking for directions, somebody said jamadaars live here. Who was he talking about?”
“Nobody like that here, we are Valmikis”
“When we moved to Lucknow, I had to give up school for two years. My five siblings and I, we worked and saved up money and after two years, I resumed school along with two of them. Now, I wake up in the morning, do safai kam, then go to College, then go to ITI for training. It’s a pretty busy day.
“You name is Madhu Valmiki. How do people react when they hear your name?”
“Not as bad as my village. Here, people are better but at times when they look at me and say ‘Oh, jamadaar’. Why do they say that, when we are cleaner than then, wear good clothes, don’t steal, live honest lives? I really want to punch them.”
The word ‘Jamadaars’ was an official reference used by the British in Colonial India to refer to workers from the scavenging community. Though many SC communities whose caste imposed occupation is safai kam have taken on other names like Valmiki, which have self-respect movements at its core, they are referred to by using this word which is suggestive of their caste imposed occupation. The non-acceptance of their surname of choice and the forced imposition of ‘Jamadaar’ is to an extent suggestive of how the lives of the Valmikis are. Pushed to an unsought-after corner, ghettoized and ignored.
In Rajendar Nagar, Dhanuks stay in an area which is referred to as “Nale ka bhagal ka basti”. Literally on the banks of the nala (drain) through which sewage of the half the city flows, there has been no developmental work done by the administration as far as memory of the residents go. All of them are employed in different types of Safai Kam, majority workers at Sulab Toilets but ironically there are no toilets in the locality. To relieve themselves, they have to use the adjoining areas surrounding the nala, mostly in full public view.
Similarly, in Luvkush Nagar, we were told that the Valmikis started living in the land around a nala where sewage would flow into. As the land was empty for evident reasons, they built their houses there and the colony grew. Now, Luvkush Nagar is known to be the largest Valmiki settlement in India. Though most of the land on which they live belongs to government, there has been no attempt to issue pattas or legitimize their residences, though there have been active attempts to clear them off the land. Even a drainage line, was laid as late as a year back and it’s still not fully functional.
Most of the land on which they live belongs to government, there has been no attempt to issue pattas or legitimize their residences, though there have been active attempts to clear them off the land
An interview with Ganesh and Snehalatha, two Valmiki leaders from Luvkush Nagar brought our notice to essential aspects of the life of a Valmiki in modern day Lucknow.
On Housing and Security
As the Valmikis of Luvkush Nagar still live without a legal claim over their housing, there are other ways that Ganesh describes which prove their claim over the housing land. “Due to the political issues here, there are now electricity meters and connections in peoples’ homes.” Essentially, for the democratic rights that Valmikis as citizens possess has enabled them to negotiate with state’s representatives to provide them with basic needs. “These define a person’s identity; like Voter ID card that can be an address proof; and Aadhar Card”, Ganesh adds. “As far as the Pattas are concerned, the struggle is still going on and we are submitting applications time and again to concerned officials. Our community’s leaders are working on it so that we get legal status for our homes and not live in fear that one day we might be forcefully evacuated”, says Ganesh.
On Politics and Representation
Ganesh claims that Valmikis were better represented by Kanshi Ramji than by present BSP leader, Behenji Mayawati. He goes on to say, “Kanshi Ram had five agendas, as far as my reading about him goes, in which one was regarding Safai Karamcharis but, in Mayawati’s presents agendas for the party there is no place for our issues.” Ganesh gives two examples to prove his point. He says, “During Kanshi Ram’s time there was one leader from our community named Ram Vilas Valmikiji. Kanshi Ramji came to his home, had him quit his job and made him contest in elections. Although he lost, still, Kanshi Ramji made him Minister for two departments during which time Mayawatiji was Chief Minster for six months.”
Another instance he sites is that, “The reservation in government sectors was started by Mayawatiji after her government was formed, including reservation in hiring Safai Karamcharis in village Panchayats. This led to non-Valmikis being hired as Safai Karamcharis in villages who are still employed on to this day. The consequence of this move is that, the non-Valmikis who took up the job are drawing 20,000 rupees of salary and sub-hiring our community members for 2,000 rupees to do their job. I don’t know what she (Mayawati) had in mind but, our jobs have been cut down due to this.” One can think of this reservation policy as aiming at destroying Safai Kaam as a Caste based profession, though it can be understood from Ganesh’s words that Valmiki’s have not yet been provided enough means to break from their profession and hence, they have no other option but to depend on this job. “Among those who avail reservations we don’t even constitute 5%, although, we constitute close to 10% in the country among the 21% of SC population. Despite that, we didn’t get complete benefits of our reservation policy.”, says Ganesh, hinting that one of the strong reasons for this is lack of effort.
“The non-Valmikis who took up the job are drawing 20,000 rupees of salary and sub-hiring our community members for 2,000 rupees to do their job”
However, “One thing that makes us happy is, whenever Mayawati wins, people (non-Dalits) say, this is your government,” says Ganesh. Snehalatha tells us, “We tell our kids to look up to Mayawati and tell them how she used to cycle to places and now she is in position where thousands of cycles will rally behind her. We tell all the kids in our coaching centre to not vote anyone except for our party and our party means Mayawati party. Whatever it is, when Mayawati wins, we feel very happy.”
Religion and Politics
Ganesh speaks of the alleged indifference of BSP towards his community. He tells us that even though they vote for BSP, their support is never acknowledged and in turn, is denied by dismissing their claim of support. Apart from suggesting that maybe other more dominant SC castes do not want to share power with Valmikis, he says, “When Babasaheb Ambedkar and Gandhi were alive, Gandhi used to visit our localities but, never used to eat or drink in our homes. He once visited Panchkuian locality in Delhi and our people went there. He only came to us because he feared that we might take the path that Babasaheb showed us. Babasaheb said to Chamars to leave skinning work and they will progress and he asked us to leave cleaning toilets. But, our people didn’t follow him, they followed Gandhi.” Snehalatha adds, “Even today some of the elders in our community tell us to vote only for the hand symbol and to no one else”. Ganesh explains further, “When our people started believing in Babasaheb and started taking the path he showed us, Gandhi realized that if all these people leave their jobs, who will be doing the cleaning. Gandhi wanted Varna social order and Babasaheb didn’t believe in it. Today, I can say that if Babasaheb didn’t give us the power to vote, we would have been living the life of worms.”
“When Babasaheb Ambedkar and Gandhi were alive, Gandhi used to visit our localities but, never used to eat or drink in our homes.”
Furthermore, Ganesh says, “There have been campaigns, started around 1950s, that Valmiki (who wrote Ramayana) is our community person. However, we don’t believe that we are his descendants but, we do know that our community worships him. Valmiki has been associated with our community as part of a long continuing conspiracy. We don’t believe in all these theories of Hindutva.” “Another important thing is that, in 1930 after Muncipal Act was introduced, our people started getting jobs and that too, permanent jobs. There were two important needs in our community, hunger and poverty. Since, most of our community members followed Gandhi’s notion of cleaning work being valuable in religious terms, while disregarding Ambedkar’s ideas, haven’t invested their money on education and remained in this profession”, says Ganesh. He also suggests that, “The reason for our situation today is only the lack of education, due to which, even among SCs we have now become ‘Maha-Dalits’, the lowest of the lower communities.”
Despite Safai Kaam being imposed on them by virtue of Caste since thousands of years, Snehalatha is still modest about her community’s continued backwardness. An important aspect that she attributes her community’s compulsion to do this Caste imposed profession is the lack of education among them. According to her, it is because her community members are not only unable to afford for the education of all their children but, also unable to make sure their school going children are receiving adequate attention from their parents. She says, “We do all our hard work only for our children. Women those who work as domestic help ready their kids for school and leave for work. But, they would not know if the child has attended the school or not. When she comes back home she finds the school uniform somewhere and the school bag somewhere and when she asks her child he they had gone to school, the kid says, yes mother, I went to school today. Still, still she wouldn’t have any idea what her children were doing the entire day. So parents can do all the hard work and earn money but still they are unable to educate their children.”
Ganesh tells us that spatial location too matters for children to generate interest in education. As he says, “Locality has a lot of influence on kids. In case of Snehalatha, her home was situated in an apartment where they were the only Dalit (Valmiki) family. I stayed in a slum where all the houses belonged to Valimikis and there is a huge difference between the influence of slums and colonies in the community. In our slum I socialized with kids who never went to school and she used to socialize with kids who knew that their only work was to focus on education.” According to him, one good thing that happened in terms of education is that there is now competition, which is a byproduct of privatization, among people to send their children to better schools than their neighbors. As he says, “If my kids are going to a good school or college, the neighbors will think that they should send their kids to better schools even if they have to work hard and earn more money. This thought was not present in people before but now it has come. So, I think in the coming 10 – 15 years the situation might improve.”
One good thing that happened in terms of education is that there is now competition, which is a byproduct of privatization, among people to send their children to better schools than their neighbors
“Babasaheb Dr. B.R. Ambedkars writings and teachings all suggest that “Justice to the least” should be our guiding force while working for the social upliftment of the Dalit masses. But we still do not work on the principles of equity, our focus is still not justice to the most marginalized. Till we consciously adjust our focus, it’ll remain that way.”, remarks Bezwada Wilson, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan. There is no two ways about it, he says. “No political party or mass organisation has really done anything for Valmikis, till date. There is a continuing oversight of the plight of the Valmiki, though it is so visible. Really, how can one be ignorant of the multiple Safai Kamdars dying in the gutters every other day? We just want to hide the truth away.”
The Valmikis today are apprehensive about not only the state’s intervention to provide them means of empowerment but, also the fellow Dalit Castes from whom they feel increasingly distanced and ignored
The Valmikis today are apprehensive about not only the state’s intervention to provide them means of empowerment but, also the fellow Dalit Castes from whom they feel increasingly distanced and ignored. When we ask Ganesh, in such a scenario, from which community or group does he expect a helping hand in their fight for social justice, he says; “We will have to achieve such a level, where, we will be able to erect a broader idea of social justice instead of breaking the one that is being used by upwardly mobile Dalit castes, so that, their idea would automatically appear as insignificant when placed against ours.” He adds, “We don’t think any Caste or community is trying to unite and include us, rather, they are trying to divide us which has led to enormous internal divisions with different names and faith groups within Safai Karamcharis.” In the face of all these challenges, Ganesh hopes that the modern education will bring about a change within Valmiki community that Babasaheb envisioned for them and has taken upon himself the task of spreading the importance of education within in community. He and Snehalatha run a Computer Coaching Centre in LuvKush Nagar, where they teach children of all ages for very modest fee and mostly without even charging a penny form those who can’t afford. Their political activism also includes organizing meetings in various Valmiki colonies and introducing people to those Valmikis who have been educated and achieved high literary, administrative and political positions in society, so as to engender the values of modern education and thought.