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‘Our caste won’t change, that doesn’t mean we can’t progress’

Anjali Chanakya, young Dalit woman from Agra, will vote for a political party that can enact stricter laws for women’s safety.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2019 16:21 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times
my first vote,lok sabha elections,Dalit votes
Anjali Chanakya, a young woman from Agra, derives inspiration from the architect of India’s Constitution, BR Ambedkar. She says his influence has shown her dignity in the life of a Dalit. (Biplov Bhuyan/HT Photo )

In the span of a month, Anjali Chanakya appears to have aged years. Until as recently as December, she was a girl of 18, spending the bulk of her time chatting with friends in college without a care in the world, playing badminton, and challenging her siblings to a round of antakshari in the evenings.

But that was before her younger sister, Sanjali, was attacked by a group of men as she was cycling back home from school, about 20km outside Agra in western Uttar Pradesh. They poured petrol on her, set her on fire, and left her to die.

The 15-year-old succumbed to burn injuries hours later on December 18, sending ripples of anger through what is often called the cradle of Dalit politics in the country; her death plunged the family into grief, and turned her elder sister and closest friend, Anjali, into an adult overnight.

“I remember her often. We would cycle to the nearest town together, but I was unfortunately not with her that day. Maybe if I was…” her voice trails off.

Education, job, a new life

Anjali, her three siblings and her parents live in an unfinished brick house on the fringes of Lalau village. Most of the family sleeps in three folding cots in a big room inside. The house is flanked on either side by those belonging to her father Harendra Singh’s brothers.

The brothers are leather workers in shoe factories in Agra. The hours are back-breaking and the salaries rarely breach R15,000 a month even after double shifts.

But Anjali is determined to pull them out of poverty. “I have focused on studies. I teach tuitions every day at 8am to earn some money, then go to college at 11am, and come back to help Maa,” she said, shuffling through a large pile of dirty clothes and rinsing them in soapy water.

“I want to stand on my own feet, become a nurse or a doctor because biology is my strength, and take my parents elsewhere, give them a life of comfort,” said the BSc student.

Anjali is an idealist; she doesn’t believe any of her friends in college believe in caste, or have any bias in their mind, but admits that her close friends don’t come from upper-caste backgrounds. She adds that most of the upper-caste politicians lined up outside their home after her sister’s death made national news had nothing but platitudes to offer, while Dalit groups helped them lobby the police and gave them confidence.

Her father is afraid that what happened to Sanjali might happen to her sister. “You know we spent everything to educate our daughters but now sometimes I think maybe I should get Anjali married. Yes, it will hurt her studies, but at least she will be safe.” Anjali says she is determined to not marry until she graduates and gets a government job.

Ambedkar is our heartbeat

Anjali first heard of BR Ambedkar when she was six or seven years old from her father, and over the next decade voraciously read about India’s first law minister who is often called the architect of India’s Constitution and is an icon to the country’s 250 million Scheduled Caste population.

“That I am getting to study today is because of him. He wrote the Constitution that gave us these rights. He said we have to fight for our own rights and not be dependent on others. That is what I try to do every day,” she says.

The 19-year-old has read about several important leaders since, but no one has influenced her as much as Ambedkar. Anjali says this is because Ambedkar showed her that a life of dignity is possible, and gave her the strength to be proud of who she is. “He taught us that there is nothing to hide about who we are. If someone calls me Dalit ki beti [daughter of a Dalit], I am not ashamed. I tell them, that is me, and I am proud.”

The general elections in 2019 will be her first as a voter, and she is gearing up to exercise her constitutional right. When she casts her vote, women’s safety will be on her mind. “Ambedkar was the first to talk about women’s rights and dignity. That is why I love him. He is not our god, he is our heartbeat. Our hearts are filled with pride because of him.”

Her sister’s death jolted Anjali to the reality of India’s largest state, which is notorious for crimes against women. She says her vote will go to the political party that can ensure greater safety for women, and enact stricter laws.

Not BJP again

Unlike most people in her generation, she doesn’t own a smartphone, underlining the still deep gender and caste divide in India’s otherwise burgeoning digital access. She does spend a few hours with her father’s phone, going through newspaper clips and videos sent over WhatsApp.

She has heard of the two regional heavyweights -- Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati -- but has little interest in politics outside the state.

The only national leader she has an opinion on is Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and it is not an entirely favourable one. “In the 2019 elections, the BJP shouldn’t come back. No one in my family likes Modi. I don’t either because I think he didn’t do enough for women’s safety.”

Like many in her generation, Anjali says she doesn’t trust most politicians, but for her there is one exception: Four-time chief minister Mayawati, known to her supporters as Behenji (elder sister).

“I have seen her on TV and think she is great. Behenji is also a woman. A woman can understand another. That is why I think Maywati’s sarkar (government) is better than Modi’s sarkar.”

Of course, the last time Mayawati was in power in the state, 2007 to 2012, Anjali was much younger, but she says she remembers that the law-and-order was tighter. She has also heard her father say frequently that when the BSP was in power, her community could live peacefully without hesitation or fear.

The long shadow of caste

Caste discrimination only makes headlines when people die, or riots wipe out entire villages. But as Anjali, and her father, Harendra, explain, caste throws a long shadow on the everyday life of Dalits that often goes unreported.

Anjali’s family proudly say they are Jatavs, the Dalit sub-caste that comprises roughly 11% of UP’s population and is considered a rock-solid support base of the BSP. In their village, the upper-caste Jats outnumber the Jatavs 9:1, and Anjali’s family claims they battle a daily volley of taunts and slurs, some of them sparked off by the ambition of the Chanakya sisters: Anjali wants to be a doctor, while Sanjali had dreams of joining the Indian Police Service.

“Our girls did better than anyone in the village, and this gave rise to resentment. We cannot even keep photographs of Ambedkar in our home because we fear it will anger the Jats,” said Harendra.

It is this anger, he argues, that led to Sanjali’s death. The police have arrested her cousin and a friend of his, claiming that Sanjali was murdered by them because she had rebuffed the advances of the cousin. But the family is united in rejecting this theory, and say the police hurried to frame the young Dalit man in the face of immense public pressure. “The police have not shown us any proof that they did the investigation credibly,” he said.

Won’t step back

If she fulfils her dream of becoming a doctor, Anjali would like to move to a city and take her parents and siblings with her. She hopes there will be less caste discrimination in a big city, where no one will know her background and where she will not live in fear of being attacked some day. “Our caste is not going to change, but this doesn’t mean that we cannot progress.”

In the past few months, life has turned upside down for her, and the family, but it has also seen an outpouring of support for them, especially from local Dalit groups such as the Bhim Army. The protests last year against the dilution of the SC/ST act, which the government reversed after angry protests by Dalit groups, have also helped in spreading awareness. Anjali, and her younger sister Khushboo, say that now they know more about who they are and what their rights are. Anjali often hears about reservation from her friends and acquaintances, and how the eradication of reservation would end all forms of casteism. But she is not bothered by it. “ We are right and we are here, and we won’t step back.”

Her sister’s memories keep her focused, and she says she will never be the same until her sister gets justice. “She may be gone but she has left a message to the government and society, to enact stricter laws so that no one is harmed like her ever again.”

First Published: Feb 04, 2019 14:35 IST