You can feed them, you can clothe them. But how dare you teach them?” thundered the village sarpanch. “Who will work on our farms then? Who would do all the menial labour?” The headman was shouting at my friend John, who had taken on the onerous task of helping Dalit children, and also some of the adults, to read and write. A few days later, a gang of 20-plus men barged into the home where John lived with his wife and threw the couple out on the street. They had to spend the next two days on the corridor of the police station.
I met John, a Travancore Malayali evangelist, eight year back on a train from Delhi to Barauni, a town in Bihar. I was smoking beside the loo and we started talking. That’s when he told me about what he had to face while working in a village near Barauni 16 years earlier. He said he would be visiting the village again and that was enough to pique my curiosity. I decided to go along with him.
The journey to the village was an adventure in itself. We walked and walked, until we found a vehicle run by an engine improvised from a water pump used for irrigation. That, after all, is the thing about the great Indian tradition of jugaad in which anything can be transformed into virtually everything it was not meant to be.
Of the 8,000 people living in the village, most are Dalits, including many who are known as “Mahadalits” in Bihar — the most oppressed among the oppressed castes. The Mahadalits in this village were Musahars, which means “those who eat rats”. Indeed, the Musahars are so impoverished that many of them have no choice but to hunt rats for their food. Traditionally, they were known as people who forage for edible stuff that rats store in their burrows.
The rest of the village hated the Dalits, taking a cue from what they were told about how their gods saw the lower castes. “The gods despise them” is a refrain in their everyday references to the Musahars in particular. No wonder the Dalits were not even allowed to show up in front of Brahmin households.
It was in this caste-ridden village that my friend had set up a school for the Dalits. When he thought of doing something for them, it was not charity he had in mind. True to Christian gospel, he was interested more in teaching people how to fish rather than give them fish to eat. And it was precisely that which infuriated the powers that be.
“There was a government school in the village, but students from the Brahmin and other upper castes alone were allowed to sit on the benches,” he told me. “The Dalit students sat on the floor at the back of the classroom. No teacher would talk to a Dalit student. I knew that only if the Dalits could get an education could they stand up against the oppression and overcome the deprivation.”
John developed a syllabus for the Dalit children and his wife joined him in teaching them. The one-room house the couple lived in doubled as a classroom. So keen were the Dalits to learn how to read and write that even adults started coming in for the classes. John’s wife, a trained nurse, also attended to the medical needs of the villagers. They also tried to impress upon them the need to maintain hygiene for avoiding diseases.
These efforts, obviously, didn’t bring them praise from the powerful men in the village and that is when the backlash started. But they were undeterred even in the face of allegations of converting people to Christianity. John said he knows the people need food and education, not another religion. “I have never converted anyone,” he said. “The powerful men of the village were pissed because when people could read and write, they started refusing to work in the barter system and demanded reasonable wages.”
When we reached the village, more than 500 people were waiting to welcome us with garlands. In the eyes of the Dalits, I saw the joy of waging a battle against oppression. And I saw how much they loved John for helping them initiate it.