In Purani Chandrawal in north Delhi, 20-year-old Vikas Gahlot proudly displays a sacred thread (janeu) peeping out from under the collar of his shirt.
This thread is traditionally reserved for Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, but this Valmiki boy — whose caste of scavengers is at the bottom of an unforgiving caste hierarchy — wears it with glee.
“Ever since I wore it, I feel as if I have become a Pandit,”he says. There are shades of imitation of caste Hindus, but also a perception of liberation.
A day earlier a Valmiki Mahapanchayat protested at Jantar Mantar over the use of derogatory words against the caste in the movie Delhi-6. Unconstitutional words of caste abuse are used in the movie against the Valmiki character Jalebi, which is deeply insulting, says Akhil Bharatiya Valmiki Mahapanchayat general secretary Vijay Prakash.
A sense of darkness persists for this marginalised community — who were 5 lakh in number in Delhi alone in 2001 — but there is a ray of light too.
An NGO called Swaraj —which has doctors, lawyers, engineers and also Safai Karmacharis as members —conducts public ceremonies in North Delhi slums where Valmikis are publicly invested with the sacred thread, made to pray to Shiva or Krishna and also wash the Shiv Ling with water.
“Initially there were murmurs of protest from upper caste people, but they have slowly fallen in line. We feel that these pujas are crucial to give these marginalised cases democratic access to religion,” Swaraj founding president Dr Sambit Patra told HT. He also holds free medical camps for the Valmikis.
Many may see this as Sanskritisation: a term coined by sociologist M.N. Srinivas for a tendency among low castes to imitate the upper castes to rise in the hierarchy. This often ends up giving legitimacy to upper castes and the hierarchy, rather than allowing the low castes construct alternative traditions of their own.
But ask the Valmikis in the slums near Chandrawal, and they are happy. “The programme gives us free access to religion and publicly breaks caste barriers. We want a society where we don’t have to face public insults on caste lines,” says Valmiki advocate Virendra Kumar.
“In the last two years 400-500 of our children have been invested with the sacred thread. Our women folk are also allowed to pray in these ceremonies. It boosts our self-respect,” says Vimala Tank.
“We were not allowed to enter temples. So these ceremonies make us feel that we are free. But true freedom will come the day we get a Prime Minister from our community,” says Prithvi Singh.