Background and about Speaker:
Leaders come and go but we don’t find many who understand the importance of a resistance surging forward, hassle-free, irrespective of who leads. But Usha, Convener of the Savitribhai Phule Dalit Mahila Sangarsh Morcha from Jaunpur has made this aspeect most important part of her work. Usha, in addition to leading various anti-caste movements centering around land, dignity and labour herself, works on building Dalit women leadership within these movements. She firmly believes that till a coordinated Dalit women force emerges, all movements will remain incomplete and unsuccessful. Usha takes us through the struggle of a Dalit woman leader as she speaks to us about her life, about her everyday struggles, be it against caste hindu mobs or her own family.
Dalit Camera: Ushaji, tell us about yourself. What have your struggles been as a Dalit woman leader? What are the kind of battles you had to wage against brahmanical forces, be it in the form of casteist forces or patriarchal forces?
Usha: I am from a Dalit family. I have seen & experienced casteism, untouchability very closely as a child, when my grandparents worked in the houses and fields of savarnas. On one such occasion, I went with my grandmother to her employers house. I felt thirsty and tried to drink water from the tap. I was very rudely asked to stop by the owner and was told not to touch the tap. She said she’ll open the tap and told me to drink water without touching the tap. I kept thinking why she treated me this way. I kept asking my grandmother this and I cried a lot. Even before I understood what marriage was, I was married away. I was very young.
When I was 14, I left for my in-laws’ place. Even in that village, I witnessed a lot of brahmanical behaviour. The Dalits of this village were also landless and were dependant on wage labour on the fields of upper caste for survival. My in-laws had little land and mostly used to work there but others worked on someone else’s land. Everybody used to work day & night, there was no real timings for work.
Most of the cases of extreme violence against women. They were beaten up a lot. If any child entered the field of a caste hindu, the children were beaten up badly. Other instances of violence that I noticed was in my own area. I observed that husbands battered their wives a lot. Both the father in laws and husbands use to beat the young women of the family. After seeing all this, I used to keep wondering why is this happening? I thought to myself that if this is happening to these women, soon it’ll happen to me too. It’s not that I didn’t have courage to say something but I had no one on my side, no support to take a stand against the violence being perpetrated by these men. I kept wondering how I can oppose this and question these older men as to how they are hitting the women of the family, who gave them the authority to do this. In the middle of all this violent madness, the women who were being beaten up used to talk and discuss their miseries among themselves, complaining about their father-in-laws, they understood that this wasn’t right but none among them could object to what was happening with them inside the house. From experiencing and witnessing all of this so closely, there arouse a need from within to understand what these incidents of violence meant.
Once some people come to our village who were working for the creation of self- help groups. Since, I was the only woman in the village who had an education at least till middle school, they chose me to do the work related to maintenance of records and other documentation work of the organisation. I put in my best and fulfilled my responsibilities as far as I could. They then gave me more responsibilities of working with women of other villages which I gladly accepted. I started working more actively and was made supervisor of the organisation·
We were the first to raise our voices regarding the question of labour in our village. It was the month of April and women in our village were working in the fields as this was the time when wheat harvest is cut. It was already 6 pm and there is a tradition called ‘Bhoj’ (literally means, burden) in our region. As part of Bhoj, in every harvest season, how much ever wheat has been cut in a day by one person has to be made into bundles and must be delivered at the concerned landlord’s place by that person. As it was already late, some women said that they cannot deliver all the bhoj of that day but, will deliver on the next day and asked the landlord to pay the wage for the work already done and wanted to leave. Then the landlord tried to assault them physically and ordered them to complete the bhoj and then leave. When we came to know about this we told them to keep the bhoj as it is in the field and let us all women go to police station. I was working in a Samooh (Self Help Group) then and I have taken up this matter while working in the Samooh. However, when we gathered together and started moving towards the station, the landlords stopped us on the way and told us that we can take our wages for the day and do rest of the work on next day. But, all the women did not not want to listen to his order and were adamant to go to the station. They threw away the bundles, raised their voice in anger and marched out of there.
Everybody started attributing this struggle to me. The Brahmin savarnas started talking about me to my family. They kept asking questions like how my in-laws tolerate my behaviour, how a woman can indulge in such hateful activities. “How can a woman behave this way, that too a Dalit”. I was in turn asked by my family, if I work the way I was working, against the oppressive activities of the upper caste people, then where would our cattle go to graze, who will give you his land to work on to earn money, whose field would we use for our basic necessities. I was told that no one will give access to their fields if I continue to behave in this manner.
Outsiders started threatening my family. I have been a survivor of Domestic violence too. The domestic violence I faced was of the kind that I was forced to discontinue my work. I sat at home for a few days but the people from the organization came home, spoke to my family and requested them to allow me to continue working. They spoke to my father in law as well and I rejoined work. But even after this, things weren’t easy. I encountered a lot of family problems and faced a lot of abuse from both my husband and my father in law. I was habituated to their violence.
DC: Why did you face this resistance from your family?
Usha: This is because they felt I was unnecessarily getting into confrontations with people from dominant castes and that there was no need for this. They were concerned that if I continue doing this work it will lead to enmity with people from other dominant castes and they will not be given any work. My father-in-law was scared that his son will be attacked. I left my work again but rejoined it as soon as I could.
My husband lived in Bombay. He worked as a mestri. In Bombay he had an affair with another woman. I knew this through my relatives – he used to come home for a week or two and during this time he would subject me to a lot of violence. But I didn’t let this affect me, I told him that I will continue to do my work and he could beat me as much as he wishes. One day the situation got out of hand and he beat me really badly – he tore apart my clothes and used an iron stick to beat me. That day I decided enough was enough, took my children along, left for my parents house. Since then I’ve not returned back to his house.
Even at my mother’s place people had a problem with my work. It wasn’t easy working there and I confronted many difficulties. People didn’t stop objecting to my work. Whenever I used to head for work on my cycle, my cousins would taunt me by saying, “Look Mayawati is going”. They did not leave any chance of making fun of me. And imagine, they were my first cousins! But I never said anything to them. I never reacted or responded to their taunts, but I always understood what they meant and I knew that I will answer them. One day I will, I thought to myself. I made a note of each person’s words and I told myself that I’d give answers to all of them one day.
When I started working here, we had a team which comprised only of men except me. Everyone used a cycle to travel, so did I. I used to travel almost 70 km. everyday by cycle to get to work. I used to work for 2-3 days in the village and only return home on the 4th day. I knew that when issues have already erupted about my work there’s no point in giving up. I was even more adamant about continuing my work. I wasn’t worried about whether I was going to become something big or not, I knew I just had to continue working. My team which comprised of 3 male members and me would travel to different villages – stay there, conduct meetings, and return back only after 3-4 days.
We continued working this way. In 2001 I associated myself with DAG. Here I was trained on using the SC/ST act, about aspects of casteism, about Babasaheb and his ideology. I went through a lot of training and understood legal procedures. I was well aware of how to run an organization but hardly knew anything about the law. By then I knew how to organize against caste-based exploitation – but hardly knew what the law was and how it can be used.
After my training was done I took up my first case. It was a case where a child of 8 was raped. I saw a lot of people gathered outside the police station and enquiring what had happened I was told that an 8 year old child was raped and the police had called both parties for negotiations. Thakurs and Brahmins from 8 villages had come to push for a negotiation. The boy who had raped the girl was a 35 year old dominant caste.
I did not have anyone’s number but I was convinced that I needed to intervene. I went to the PCO and dialled the SP’s number. I informed him that in a rape case, the police was involved in negotiating with upper castes. Then clearly a case had to be filed and people at the station were trying to negotiate between the parties. Soon after the phone call, DSP made a call to the police station and the victim was sent for the medical examination. The boy had already run away to his wife’s village. He was arrested from there and brought here. He was then punished legally. In 2004 we organized a public hearing of all the cases of domestic violence and rape cases we had filed and documented. The public hearing was completely organized by Dalit women and when realized that we can do all this by ourselves, why shouldn’t there be an independent Dalit women’s’ organization where our women have their own space; where they can talk openly; where they can decide independently for themselves. While keeping these things in our mind, we presented our plan to the colleagues in our organization as to why can’t women have their own independent organization. This was relevant because Dalit women were hardly able to talk in front of their male counterparts in the organization. Most of them weren’t speaking out as there was a constant fear of being judged in their mind and that they would be understood in a wrong way. Keeping these things in mind, in 2007 a separate organization was formed when different names were suggested but we decided to name our organization after Savitribai Phule because why shouldn’t we name our organizations after our leaders. Most of the histories of our leaders are invisibilized and it is evident from the fact that no other organizations are named after Savitribai Phule. Hence, it was important that we name our organization after our own leaders. So, we named our organization Savitribai Phule Dalit mahila Sangarsh Manch. This is a completely independent Dalit women’s organization.
We have a team of women in 15 districts but due to financial constraints, we do face certain difficulties. But, still, in 6 districts we work actively.
DC: What kinds of issues do you focus on?
Usha: Our Dalit women face a lot of issues in everyday lives and these women are also struggling with the problems of violence within their homes. In the formative public meeting of the organization I was chosen as the coordinator. Initially, as we had teams of women working in 15 districts, we are unable to do this now due to financial constraints. However, our teams are working actively in 6 districts at the moment. A Dalit woman faces different kinds of oppression everyday but she wasn’t really aware of the violence she was facing at home. The domestic violence they were facing at home didn’t count as violence to them in the face of the kind of violence they were facing outside as Dalit women.
DC: Before delving into what leads to violence inside the home, can you elaborate on the nature of violence that Dalit women face outside their homes?
Usha: In the case of a Dalit woman, she faces three kinds of oppression; one for being a woman; then for being a Dalit woman; and for being poor. In her everyday workplace, she has to face different kinds of abuse by dominant caste men, be it in the form of verbal and sexual abuse, physical violence or attacks; she has to face them all. Even in her fights for survival and sustenance, she has to face abuse. In the face of all these abuses, the one that is being meted out to her at home seemed less. In this context, we tried to make our women understand the violence they are facing at home. We also tried to facilitate better working of governmental schemes as these schemes were never accessible to Dalits or were never made available to them. Even Dalits didn’t have the awareness to get these schemes implemented in their favour. None of these schemes were ever used by Dalits.
DC: Did the government make an honest attempt in making these schemes available to Dalits?
Usha: No. Obviously, the government never had the intention or plan to ensure that these schemes were available to Dalits. There were never any checks and balances to monitor the functioning of these schemes or their accessibility to Dalits. We worked on this and also did fact findings on instances of caste discrimination. In addition, our main concern was the issue of land and next, we worked actively on building leadership among Dalit women.
DC: When we travelled to Poorvanchal, we saw the extent of landed women farmers who in spite of having some land are still dependent on everyday labour. While they are fending for themselves on the fields of dominant caste men, what are the kinds of oppression she faces?
Usha: Talking about the area where I work, when we look at a Dalit, they are essentially landless. Dalits’ entire life is dependent on working on the fields of others. Even the ones who have land hardly have 20 – 30 Kathas and maximum they have would be 1 acre which would have mostly been acquired during land redistribution. Owing to this, it must be understood why they are being dependent on the work provided in the fields of upper caste men for their survival. For their everyday sustenance, they are completely dependent on their labour. They lead their lives by selling this labour. Hence, this complete dependence on this castiest employment structure in the villages they are vulnerable to constant violence. So, they have no option but, to live with it. A Dalit woman doesn’t have land and she needs to feed her family and children and need money to treat them for any medical expenses. Many men migrate elsewhere for work and she stays back in the village and works in the fields, thus, constantly facing castiest abuse be it physical or verbal.
DC: Mostly, which are the communities on whose fields these women work?
Usha: Mostly the fields are owned by Yadavs and Brahmins which is indicative that the women work in the fields of upper castes.
DC: How is their behaviour towards these women?
Usha: To talk about their behaviour, first is the manner in which they face abuse and secondly, they work in hostile conditions. They are supposed to work for 8 hours but, are made to work for 16 hours. She is not allowed to go home before she finishes the work that her employer keeps giving her until he thinks he is done. Especially, regarding the hostile working conditions, there are different cases we have documented. For example, when women have faces molestation when they have gone to work on fields. If their work is not done, there have been cases of them being beaten up. When women, for the lack of a place, went for defecation, there have been cases of them being attacked by landowners with sickles and their dead bodies dumped in wells. For the lack of possession of land, if there is any incident, if a Dalit boy is arrested, it becomes extremely difficult to obtain bail for him. We often have to ask people from a different block to join us to pressurise the bail for someone arrested in another block. You must have heard about Fulpatti’s case, in Maharajganj. We had taken it up and are still fighting for it. Fulpatti, along with her relatives had been arrested and we were trying to obtain bail for them. We asked all her relatives for land that could provide for the bail. Some were too scared to give, most didn’t have land. The workers of our organization they procured the bail for Fulpatti.
DC: So this is perhaps why the surveys show that most of the people in custody are, in fact, Dalits.
Usha: Yes. Most of them are from Musahar community, Chamar community or Muslim community. This is precisely because they do not own land, without which it is difficult to pay for bail.
DC: We have also come across cases where when they tried to occupy land, they have been were taken into custody.
Usha: Exactly. The moment you try to fight for land, you are falsely implicated for something or the other. This fight for land is a difficult one, fought with our sweat and blood.
DC: But when the government allots land to a Dalit, why is there so much resistance from the dominant but backward castes? Brahmins resisting is understandable. But why these castes, why would they want Dalits to remain landless?
Usha: There could be many reasons for this. One is that they are worried about the parity that owning land might bring about, about the lack of available labour that it will result in. Secondly, land is something which brings recognition, be it social, political or economic. Land is associated with status. And what do we have? Land is something precious. These people who have land, can do anything. They do not want people to be at par with them in terms of land. We started this fight for land with demand for small sections of land. The pattas which were allotted during Indira Gandhi’s time, we tried to find out where all these plots of land are located. We also found details about lands where people Chamar community bury their animals. The moment we started this fight, immediately there was panic and commotion about it. We managed to help some people acquire the pattas with the help of organisation and the police. But there is still some land which are still under the possession of blusterers. We found a small plot of land which was used for burying animals but was occupied by a particular Yadav. When we let him know that we would be taking over this land, all the Yadavs of that Panchayat got together and when to the local police station claiming that these Dalits have lost their heads, they are trying to illegally capture land. But we had the papers for the land so they had to give up. But the police kept asking around about me. I started getting calls and I told the policemen that I am not running from them. After this, many Dalit homes were set on fire, they were beaten up. We filed FIR about that as well. But ultimately the land now belongs to Dalits.
The fight for land is not an easy one. When we started our demand for new pattas of land, around 2013-2014, we stated that women be allotted 5 acres of land, and 10 decimals for dwelling. When we started getting the claim-forms filled, all savarnas, the non-Dalits, would surround us and ask if we thought land was a petty matter and was that easily available. We told them that our demand was from the government and that we had nothing to discuss with them, that our fight was with the government, to ask them to top all kinds of welfare scheme that they implement in our names and allot us land in the stead. We would be able to fend for our children just with that. But they obviously still had their fears. Once all the forms were filled, we made 3 copies. One for our SDM, one for the Chief Minister and one for the President. We could submit a copy to the SDM. But when we trying to go to the CM, people were trying to intimidate all the women who were going. That there would be bombs thrown at us, the train would be set on fire. Some people stayed back but there were finally 10,000 people who came. This was during Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure. We went in front of the Vidhan Sabha, met at Ambedkar Mahasabha. We put our memo forward. Then the government changed, BJP came to power. Now the issue is pending.
DC: Do you think that the BJP or even SP, which constitutes of backward, if dominant, caste people, will fulfill the demand of land by Dalits?
Usha: When we started our campaign, there were similar campaign coming up from places like Tamil Nadu, from Guntur, from 17-1 districts of Maharashtra. After 3-4 days of our strike, Mayawati conducted a press conference and mentioned that if she comes to power, she would fulfill this demand for land. She had probably given in writing that she would distribute 3 acres of land to Dalits. We had made people from all backward communities, except Chamars, fill the claim-forms. It was the women who ha to fill the forms, so we asked women from OBC, Muslim and Dalit communities to fill the forms. When we started a rally from Gwalior, the Congress government had already sanctioned the 10 decimal land grant and the money promised under Indira Awaas Yojna.
DC: What we have seen is that, under many such schemes, people have been allotted 1 decimal of land. But the government now claims that this cannot be done since schools will be built on this land, or some other excuses to vacate the land. We saw this in Azamgarh and Kushinagar.
Usha: Yes, all this is happening. All these things that are coming up, whose lands do you think they are coming up on? Earlier there was this rule that a Dalit’s land cannot be acquired by a savarna. But now that has been overridden in spite of our many protests. Now they will have valid excuses to snatch lands from Dalits. Here we are fighting so people can get land, and no with this rule, we also have to fight so that those few people who have land do not lose it.
DC: But, Ushaji, taking this land question ahead, do you see a connection between acquiring land and increasing political representation? Until Dalits gain land, and can fend for their children, they will not be able to adequately represent themselves politically.
Usha: I think that the government will always have to be fought, irrespective of who has formed it, be it BSP or SP. All issues will have to be fought for. It is the same people sitting everywhere. For addressing even minor issues, we have to fight hard fights. Without a fight we cannot gain anything. All small government schemes function only as long as we fight for them. The moment the fight slows down, the schemes become defunct.
DC: I was asking this because we met many people who got land under BSP. But as spoke to them, we realized that all the people sitting in positions to implement these schemes belong to dominant caste, who have no intention to implement them at all. Even if Behenji forms the government, the officers in the government do not want these changes. We met a Dalit man who told us that he once went to an officer, one Raja Thakur, who owns 200 acres of land in that area. Out of that land there are many small plots which are owned by the government but he has illegally occupied them. When they go to the SDM- who is also a Thakur- with a problem, the Dalit man is made to squat on the floor and the one with 200 acres of land is given a seat next to the SDM. This made us realize that even if a Dalit woman becomes the Chief Minister, the officers under her are all such people. SO how do we break this system of caste?
Usha: While this is true, what is also true is that with Behenji at the helm there is definitely a change in the issue of respect. For example, under this present government, we face extremely rude behaviour in police stations. We once with a minor issue of fight over land between two brothers. The younger brother bought some land with his own money in the name of his wife. The elder brother, who works in Mumbai, came to the village and claimed his stake in this land. So the two of them went to police. Now the policemen keep going and harassing their father, who is extremely ill, and one day pushed him around. The daughter, who works, with us called me and told me about this. I went to the station and asked these people to write an application The SI got agitated and asked us to sit outside. We sat outside for a while and then went inside. We are for the SO and were told that he is not available. We charged them about pushing around an old man. We asked if this whole issue was supposed to be addressed by the SDM or the police. The SI agreed that it was the SDM’s issue. We asked then why are these people being summoned to the station? I threatened to call the SP regarding this. A home-guard standing next to us told us that they had been trained to first abuse, and then proceed to beating up. I responded that I have been trained to file complaint against even those who abuse. And the one who hits, should also be investigated. Earlier, under Section 4, only a savarna could be implicated but now the same section is applicable for Dalits as well as savarnas. What used to happen earlier was that the Dalit SI would be made the scapegoat for the savarnas. Now that cannot happen. And the one talking to me was Chamar. I told him that I was also trained to physically tackle someone like him. I demanded that this matter should be resolved right away and be sent to the SDM. The SI then called the two brothers and gave it in writing that the parents’ land would be equally divided between the two and the elder brother had no right to claim land bought by the younger brother. Additionally, the two brother were asked to pay for their parents’ maintenance and medical expenses. I told the SI that if it were up to me I could still get him investigated since this very settlement taking place in the station was illegal. But these were poor people and could not do much. When I left, he asked about me and was told that this is a woman who has gotten many things done. He was new then and now whenever there is case he asks if the people know me. At least now things work a little better.
DC: You were saying that there are three levels to the oppression faced by Dalits and it is only at the bottom that we find the issue of the Dalit woman’s self-respect. In this fight for self-respect, where do you think that your struggle has reached? This question is in the context that this is the only state in India where a Dalit woman has been the CM. While Behenji is hailed by many people, there are those who say that she takes advice from people like Satish Mishra, gets her speech written by people like him. These people cannot digest the fact that Behenji herself is capable of speech like this. A claim like this reveals that these people cannot tolerate a Dalit woman as a leader. They think that if she speaks she takes the help of people like this. Even our people make such claims.
Usha: I want to add some more points to this. Speaking about myself, the place where I work from- we work in 5 districts- I am the most vocal woman. Most of the people working there are men, I am the only woman. They have many issues about my leadership. I have had to hear many things. I have been rebuked for leaving home, that I would influence other women into mavericks, that I talk to many different men. So I have also faced these things. I have been accused of many things. When there is the question of the leadership of a Dalit woman, this is what I have had to face. I have been broken many times, especially because even the women did not support me. But I still didn’t give up. Even today I have to face these things. Those very people who I have worked with have provoked other women against me. The place for which I had contributed my blood and sweat, I had to leave that. In November, I left that place and came here and established this office on my own.
DC: You were saying that Dalit women are easily accepted as workers but not as leader. Why?
Usha: When we talk about brahminism, we must also talk about patriarchy. If patriarchy exists in the society, it also exists in our homes. When Dalit men are beaten up by the dominant castes, they don’t utter a complaint but they come back home and dominate their wives, lecturing them. But where they really should be raising their voice, in front of the police and the non-Dalits, they keep silent. When there is a fight, the Dalit men claim that they are denied equal status. But these men deny this very equality of status to their wives. The way in which they are regarded by the savarnas, they regard women in a similar way. So our fight is two-fold. Women have to fight at home for their self-respect and identity, and similarly outside in the society. Men only have one fight. And women are fighting. Today, among the people we have worked with, there are many women who may not be educated, but have the awareness, and show capabilities of leadership. Earlier women would not leave without permission, they hesitated to talk to others, to talk to the police. But today, women do not shy from entering police station aggressively.
When we started our work with domestic violence, I used to wonder how long will these women live in fear. There was a girl in a village, Baranpur, who was married to someone from another place. She had 2 children. She was killed by her in-laws and her body was dumped in a well. This girl’s relatives were looking for her. Then someone found her dead body floating in the well. The body was taken out. Almost everyone knew that there was dispute. She used to escape to her parents’ house and was sent back to the in-laws. The body was taken to the police station but an FIR was not being filed. There was woman who was the SO. I was called by the women to come there. I thought how long can I can run around and how long would these women keep silent? I told them to talk to the SO, and I would be reaching soon. I coaxed the women to pressurise so that the girl’s dead body was sent for post-mortem, and FIR is lodged. The women managed to get an FIR filed and 7-8 women also went along to get the post-mortem done. These women got all this done and went back home. The next day I met about 20-30 of these women in the office and I realized there were all in anger. They all accused me of deserting them and refused to be a part of the organisation. I told them that till now all the cases that I have gone for, I was the one who gained recognition. Do you want to live by my identity or create one for yourselves? Today because you all went and fought, the women of Baranpur will be recognised for it. Now if any one you goes to that station, you will be known. I told them that it was their capability that all an FIR was lodged, that the post-mortem was done and that the accused were arrested. It is my job to motivate you to do what should be done. You can abuse me, but today you have created an independent identity for yourself. If you want to depend on my identity, I am ready to accompany you. This encouraged them and they apologized. But I told them that was unnecessary and I want them to stand up for themselves. You should protect yourself and stand up for each other.
DC: If women have to come out, they can only come out under the leadership of a Dalit woman or else they will not be able to appropriately fight both patriarchy and casteism.
Usha: I was asked exactly this, that when one has to work among Dalits, what will be a better, if non-Dalit women go ahead or if Dalit women go ahead, since both understand the issues? I told them that understanding the issues, working for them, and being a Dalit, all of them are different things. The difference is because you may know about the issue but you cannot see it from within. When you go to a village and introduce yourself as, say, Sharmila Pandey, the Dalit woman will immediately back off. She will not be able to say what she wants to say. This is Sharmila Pandey, she will think. The one whose family has exploited us for ages, has now come to help us. How can she bring herself to complain about another Pandey to this person? But when Dalit women go there, she will be able to tell about all her issues.
DC: Ushaji, you have stated that irrespective of the hurdles you face, your struggle continues and will continue. Let us end with this thought.