Impact: A Family Celebrates, A Community Wins

Community Correspondent Lambodar from Odisha narrates how his video got a man back his job and simultaneously scored a big goal for Dalit rights in Odisha. 

“Bolangir is a district in Odisha which comes with an unfortunate history of Brahmanical hegemony. Thinly disguised monarchy ensures an unjust system of governance. Laziness is encouraged in administration. To be born Dalit is a curse – we’re born into a life which allows us no dignity, no rights, and no justice. We have seen Lathor.  Actually, why don’t you just Google search (sic) ‘caste discrimination, Odisha.’ You’ll read what we live. And that’s not even half of it.

This country claims to be secular. How then, does an idol symbolizing Hinduism find its way into a government institution? How does a person lose his job for touching it? How does no one respond to his family’s appeals for more than 6 months? A lot of you might believe that this vile system of ‘Untouchability’ has been abolished. Having spent 27 years of my life as a Dalit, I can confidently claim, that it’s still present. Right here, right now. Every day of my life.

If you are imagining a life where people refuse to touch us, forget it. It’s not that way anymore. It’s far more covert; far more cunning. You won’t know it unless you’ve lived it. Think of a life without water. Without a home. Without land. Without rights. Without sleep. Without work. Without money. Think grinding, crushing poverty. Think devastating humiliation.

Debraj Barik had been employed at Rajendra Autonomous College as a sweeper. On 10th October, 2012 Debraj was doing his daily chores around the college premises, when the Principal of the College, Rajlaxmi Mishra began yelling at him. Apparently he belonged to the wrong caste, and hence, had no right to be anywhere near the idol which had been recently installed. Debraj tried explaining that his only intention was to do his job i.e. sweep the premises. However, the Principal continued yelling and so, to avoid further confrontation, Debraj left the premises. The Principal sent for him a few days later, made him sweep the 2nd floor & then handed him a suspension order (sic). She later claimed he had attempted to attack her. Some of my neighbours study in this college. I’d just successfully finished filming my first video for IndiaUnheard, and when they told me about Debraj, I knew this would be next.

By the time I met Debraj, he had already filed a complaint via the SC/ST Atrocities Act on the 26th of October 2012. Obviously the Police had paid absolutely no attention to this case. I took long, elaborate interviews of both Debraj & his wife. Once I knew the story, I got in touch with our colleague Saroj (Kumar Suna, Bargarh). Did you know he’s an advocate? He helped me so much. He advised me through every step – whom to approach, how to ensure written complaints are submitted at every level. We even went to meet the District Collector (DC).

It’s strange how years of being marginalized has conditioned our thinking. Even as I approached the DC, I knew he would pay us no heed. I knew screening the video I had made would never make any difference to him. Even administration is conditioned into sidelining us. Ignoring us. Like we don’t exist. All the DC said was that the ‘offending’ principal has retired & we should now approach the District Welfare Officer. We submitted a written application to the Superintendent of Police.

P.L. Punia (Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes) had also come to Bhubaneshwar to inaugurate the homes being provided to survivors of the Lathor case. We submitted him a written application at that time (31st March, 2013).

One thing I’ve learnt in my time with Video Volunteers is that if we allow ourselves to be ignored, we shall be ignored. I wasn’t going to let this happen this time. I started subversive tactics against the administration. I loaded the video on to my friends’ phones. I made them promise to share it with others. It’s funny now in retrospect, but at that time, I kept telling them, ‘You share Bollywood & pornography, now share this also.’

Initially some of them were skeptical, but when they saw the content, the interviews I had, they started helping me. The video went viral in the student activist circles. Luckily we use social media. I shared this footage on Facebook. My friends from rights groups across the country started sharing this story. We simultaneously began a rally here in Bolangir. You should have seen how many people turned up – it was amazing! There were a lot of students of course, from all the Dalit Rights Groups I am associated with. Then all the local social workers turned up in full force, writers, lawyers, teachers, professors, poets, artists, they all came.

I started screening the video in multiple locations – there was one in Ravidas Colony, where the majority of the residents are Dalit. Over a 100 people turned up for the screening. Then there was a Youth Conference in Bolangir on the 31st of December 2012 & 1st of January 2013 where I showed them a rough cut of the video. Then the Dalit Foundation Professional Consultancy Program which took place in August also screened this video. Over 500 people have seen this video across Bolangir at least – I hope hundreds more have seen it across India. An investigation was initiated. A new Principal had taken over the college, I went to meet him, and he re-instated Debraj on 28th April 2013.

Working on this story was incredibly challenging. I remember when we’d gone to speak with the Principal who had suspended Debraj, the mainstream media was also there. The media actually told me not to make this video. Instead, they all asked the Principal ridiculous questions. It was obvious they were going to support her. I was so disheartened, I left without interviewing her myself. I just took visuals of the media’s presence & left.

Perhaps leaving then wasn’t the best idea, but I’m only human. I did return later to interview her, but by then she had retired. The new Principal refused to be interviewed on camera because of an official ban on him to give the media any interviews at least for the next 6 months. He however, immediately re-instated Debraj, for which, I am thankful. Debraj is yet to be compensated, Rajlaxmi Mishra is yet to be arrested. But, at least the Bariks will not starve.

Life’s come a full circle for me. A few years ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by the state of my people. Generations have been denied the basic means of survival. And yet, we have struggled, fought & died. I almost gave up my life. I had been working with a student Dalit group from my college, and every single day we met or heard of our people being brutalized in some way or the other, all in the name of caste. I wasn’t able to see a way out. I just wanted to end it. This is when Video Volunteers came to Bolangir & gate-crashed (sic) my plans! About a month after the training was complete, I took up this story. It was only my 2nd video. But I’ve really planned this story well. I wanted the world to see what hell my people were living. It was tough to not get overcome with emotion. But we’re a country wholly caught up in caste-based chaos. Fixing this problem is a complete conundrum. We can’t indulge in emotion. The only option is to speak out.

Wherever, whatever can be changed, will be changed. I will change it. With this video, I’ve made a huge difference directly on only one man’s life. But along with him, his family celebrates, our community wins. I’ve sensed my people getting tired of this constant struggle for survival. I sense a time for change. It’s exciting that I can be a part of this change, lead it, by being a Community Correspondent.”

Interview compiled by Radhika

Note: Lambodar has worked on a longer documentary on caste atrocities in Bolangir – Mlechha Sanhaar. This film is in the process of production.

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