Manu Over Ambedkar

We have a voice: Balmiki children at the public hearing at Sabarmati ashram. Photograph Courtesy: Navsarjan Trust

Gujarat’s Balmiki kids face daily humiliations in school and village

By Mari Marcel Thekaekar

Our Kids, Their Kids

• Children of safai karmacharis in Gujarat are forced by teachers to clean toilets and mop floors in school
• They are abused and beaten if they refuse to do the menial tasks
• Treated as untouchables and kept at arm’s length by upper caste students
• In some areas, they are not even allowed to drink from a common source of water
• Reports of their notebooks never being corrected since teachers don’t like to handle their books
They had, it seems, come from all corners of Gujarat. From Gandhinagar to tribal Panchmahals, from Porbandar on the western coast to the Dangs at its southern tip. The children arrived at the Mahatma’s Sabarmati ashram, lining up solemnly in their new Gandhi caps. At the gates, they were welcomed with handwoven cotton thread malas by elderly Gandhian leaders.

They were children of safai karamcharis, Balmiki kids used to watching their parents sweep public streets and private homes and clean filthy toilets. The children were at the ashram to share their ‘experiences’ with a fact-finding panel, tales of being forced to clean toilets and mop floors in school, of horrific discrimination by their upper-caste schoolmates and teachers. They came to the podium in line, district by district, took the mike to tell their stories. Matter of fact, stating the facts somewhat baldly. There was no wallowing in pity, in ‘vibrant Gujarat’ this was how life was for them.

Pooja, a fifth standard student, says they are not even allowed to take water from the drinking water matka: “The kids from the ‘upper’ castes blow air and do ‘phoo phoo’ to cleanse themselves if we touch them by mistake. Or they sprinkle water on the spot we touch…. The teachers don’t want to touch our homework books. So they are never corrected. I clean the toilets. I have to. Because the teacher tells us to do it. We are Bhangis. No one in school would like to be friends with us. They say ‘Hey Bhangi door bes, (sit far away)’.”

Prakash, from Mohua taluka of Kheda district, is in the seventh standard. “I clean toilets in school.” “Why do you do this?” the panel asks him. He looks puzzled, it’s obviously a stupid question. “Because the teacher tells me to….” “Why do you obey him?” Wasn’t it obvious? “Because I’ll get a beating if I don’t obey.” What do you want to be when you grow up?” the panel asks. “A teacher.” “Why a teacher?” “Because I want a life of dignity,” Prakash replies shyly.

Aarti, in the seventh standard and studies in a Girls High School in Patan district. “I clean the classroom and the toilets three times a week.” “Why do you do this?” “Because the principal asks us to do it,” she replies. “How does he know you are a Balmiki?” “From my name. If we say we don’t want to clean toilets, they beat us. Three Balmiki girls, Sangeeta, Raksha and Daksha, were beaten because they didn’t want to clean the toilets.”

In the schools, the pattern is almost always the same. The teacher or principal asks “all the Bhangi children to stand up”. Then they are allotted the toilet cleaning duties.

Rahul is an unusual name for a Balmiki kid. He disposes of dead animals for Rs 10. He also cleans the toilets and urinals at school. Have you heard of Rahul Gandhi, someone inevitably asks. “No,” he replies. “Didn’t you see him on TV during the elections?” “I don’t think so.”

Jayesh, in the 10th, is sharply turned out. Maroon shirt, cream trousers, hair smartly cut. A mobile peeps out of his pocket. It’s hard to believe that the lad regularly mucks about in manholes to earn some extra money. But he dreams of doing a BBA, getting a job in an office. “If I pass my BBA and get a job, I will never do this work again,” he declares.

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