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Dalits change lives, politics

'Earlier, we used to say, ‘beat the upper castes with shoes’ but now our attitude towards them has slightly softened,' says a Dalit farmer. Neelesh Misra reports.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2007 04:37 IST

Until some years ago, Dalit farmer Dinesh Kumar did quick mental mathematics when someone came to his door: the guest’s caste would decide who sat where. “If they were from the upper castes, they would sit on the cot and I would squat on the ground,” Kumar said. “But now, I offer him a cot only if I feel like it, if he is someone I like or an elder. It is not a matter of right any more.”

Kumar lives in Chhilgawan village in Barabanki district, which will vote on April 23. In small and big ways, life has changed in this Dalit-dominated village alongside the rise of Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party. Overt caste discrimination has ended. Most Dalit children, including girls, go to school, and the community is far more assertive politically and socially.

And now that Mayawati is reaching out to the upper castes, villagers say it is spilling over into personal lives as well. “Earlier, we used to say, ‘beat the upper castes with shoes’,” said Ram Chander, referring to a slogan Mayawati used for years. “Now we don’t. Our attitude towards Brahmins has changed slightly, and I think they have softened as well. It cannot be one-sided. But let us see if it lasts.”

Social change was slow, but it has set in.

“I was using my spade in the old times, and I am doing the same thing now… we are still poor, but much else has changed,” said farmer Kashi Ram, standing near a makeshift temple where statues of Bhimrao Ambedkar and his wife loom over a statue of the Buddha. The temple is the epicentre of a new version of religious life in the village. Everyone — including Muslims — pitched in to build it, and donations are now being taken to beautify it.

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