The Untouchable Midwife

Vimla Valmiky may have helped usher in the birth of scores of babies from the higher-caste Hindus, but every time she gets "the same uneasy feeling that they cleanse up after me to purify not just the baby and the mother, but the whole house by sprinkling the holy water all over the place," she says.

A traditional birth attendant who studied till Grade 5, the vibes she gets are all too real in this country born as a “democratic'” and independent state. The more than 260 million Dalits who live in India today are the most marginalised among the lot of scheduled castes. She is here with some 20 other women, all of different ages and occupations, among the 25,000 or so Dalits from 20 states that have come together to be heard at the World Social Forum where caste as an issue will be one of the five main themes for its panels and protests. According to Xavier Joe Freddie from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a non-Dalit himself: "For some the journey started on December 6, 2003, with the launch of the historical Dalit Swadhikar Rally, a national rally of Dalits for the assertion of rights."

The rally started from four different points of India -- Jammu, Kanyakumari, Kolkata and Delhi -- and ended in Mumbai on Jan. 16. The Indian government, always sensitive to international criticism, in September 2001 moved to block caste from the agenda of the U.N. Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa, arguing that it was already tackling a problem that was not racism. Fifty-something, fragile Sahu Devi, with her salt and pepper hair, has ventured out of her village in Barmer, Rajasthan state for the very first time. "It took me four days to get here," she explains as she squats on the dusty ground, unperturbed by the heat or the dust. She does not really know why she's here, but when prodded by others, she goes on: "To watch, listen and learn and then go back and tell others what the experience was like."

On the other hand, young Khatu Devi, who especially dressed up for the occasion in a bright yellow sari, a set of red bangles and a bindi, is loud and articulate. "We have come here to tell others to what extent are we discriminated. We want our rights and we think this forum is a place we can tell the world about our woes." She seems well briefed. She works in a mine and for the next 10 days or so that she's taken off she will not be earning 50 rupees a day or cooking or taking care of her children or fetching the water. "But the price is not too high considering what we are getting in the bargain -- bringing about a change in the mindset of the people," she says optimistically. Ghumpat Lal Mehra, who has been listening carefully to the women, feels it's time to interject. He says these women face double discrimination. They are not only poor women but to add to their problems, they are Dalits. "So, on the one hand they are untouchables, but on the other, the thakurs (upper-caste people) can touch them for their pleasure."

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, more than 100,000 atrocities, including murder and rape, are committed each year against Dalits, who in the view of Hindu traditionalists should not be allowed even to sit on the same bus seats as higher-caste Indians. But the prize comment comes from Mahesh Panpalia: "Tomorrow if a thakur offers me water from the same pitcher, I'd be so stunned I wouldn't know what to do." Ghumpat Lal Meher, a Dalit, goes on: "And God forbid if I take a sip, all hell will break." They can't imagine the dawn of such a day, not in the near future at least. They tell me of how in the past, not so distant past, say a few months back, Dalits actually ventured to fill water from pond that have been off limits -- and had to bear the brunt of that act. "Kerosene oil was poured over them and they were roasted alive." So while they clamour for jobs, better prospects, elimination of bonded labour and a respectable share in the crop that they grow on the land "which has been given to us by the government" but which their feudal lords refuse to accept, they feel that real liberation can come only "if we can bring about a change with regards to the untouchability issue".

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