As a child growing up in a district town of Eastern Bangladesh in the 1960s, I witnessed the Dalits (called “Methors” at that time) coming to remove accumulated feces from a huge earthen bucket pulled up from our outdoor pit toilets. The buckets were transported by hand and emptied into large tin cans that sat on the Dalits’ covered carriage. After repeating the same procedure for our neighbors, the Dalits would dump the contents of the cans in a dumping ground – usually a body of water or a place close to the local Dalit colony on the outskirts of the municipality. In a few cases, these collected feces would be buried underground. Today, this practice is mostly a thing of the past, as many houses have sanitary latrines. Due to my own research in the areas of labor and labor practices – generally in regards to unorganized labor – and as an ardent believer in social justice, I came to know of the Garbo Bangladesh Foundation (GBF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with the Dalit community in Natore in the northern part of Bangladesh. My co-author, Nuheen Khan, a graduate of UBC, established the GBF in 2012. One of the major objectives of the GBF is to educate the Dalit children. Unfortunately, Bangladesh remains mired in age-old structural and systemic discrimination against certain groups based on gender, class, religion, occupation, etc.
Of all the groups who suffer structural and systemic discrimination in Bangladesh, the Dalits are one of the most vulnerable; issues affecting them are barely spoken about, let alone addressed either in the public discourse or through governmental policy. This exploratory research was designed to provide an overview of the situation faced by the Dalits in Bangladesh.
This report also presents the work undertaken by the GBF in Natore, and its general impacts in the Natore area. This research was supported by a small grant from the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation during my sabbatical year (Jan-Dec 2016). The funding was later given to the GBF as part of a collaborative arrangement. Nuheen Khan was my co-researcher, and eventually provided me with a draft report. Along with Nuheen Khan, I visited the Dalit colony in Natore in January-February 2016 and spoke with people in the colony. I also visited the GBF’s school in the Dalit colony and the GBF’s office in Dhaka. The GBF has another project focused on supporting children living on the streets in Dhaka city. My visits to Natore and meetings with GBF staff were very helpful in informing my understanding of some of the practical and most pressing issues related to the Dalits in Bangladesh. This report uses some available secondary sources such as the publications of the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative, as well as reports on the activities of NGOs working with Dalits, journal articles, books, newspaper articles, and the GBF’s website. However, my visits and interactions with the Dalit children, and my discussion with GBF volunteers and workers including teachers at the Natore Dalit colony, influenced the analysis. It became apparent that gender issues are not yet at the forefront of the discussion in the literature pertinent to Dalits. Furthermore, most of the reports and literature on Dalits in Bangladesh are in Bangla.
As a result, those who work to advance the rights of Dalits globally are not adequately informed of the miserable conditions and social stigma facing Dalits in Bangladesh. This report will go some way toward helping researchers and activists working to support the Dalits by illuminating the reality of the situation facing this population. Of all the publications in Bangla, we consider that Joyshri Sarker’s book Prantobashi Harijonder Kotha (Stories of the Marginalized Dalits) (2012) is an illustrative documentation of the Dalit situation in Bangladesh.
This report has benefitted immensely from Sarker’s insightful analysis. Sarker (2012) rightfully pointed out the lack of documented history of the Dalits, including the notable absence of their oral stories as well as their intergenerational knowledge and narratives from the country’s official history. Significantly, there is no well-known Dalit academic and researcher in Bangladesh. This invisibility may be partly attributed to the fact that the Dalits do not use surnames, in contrast to the practice of non-Dalits in Bangladesh or those in Western society. Dalits are known instead by the name of their various groups of ancestry, such as Dome, Bashfore, Hari, Rishi and so on – for example, Shashi Bashfore. If they use one of these names in the public domain, however, they are easily identified as a Dalit and thus stigmatized, restricting their access to public institutions. To counter this overt discrimination and exclusion, the Dalits often select to change their surnames to lower caste Hindu surnames such as Das, Jamadar, etc. The common perception in Bangladesh is that Dalits belong to the Hindu community, especially to Scheduled Castes. Dalits, generally, do not have any established religious institutions such as temples, countrywide religious festivals, or congregations that would bring them visibility in the media or the public domain. Instead, they carry out their religious festivals in a communal space that is used for other activities as well. Those temples they do have are localized.
For example, I found one brick-built platform (not a temple) strewn with flowers and petals in the Natore Dalit colony, and was told that this was a place where the community observes religious festivals. Joyshri Sarker (2012) reported that the Dalits do have temples; however, there is not much available information pertaining to their religion and temples. A major objective of this report is to inform the wider community of the structural and systemic discrimination faced by the Dalits in Bangladesh, with the hope of mobilizing support to combat these age-old customary practices of discrimination. Such discriminatory practices are largely based on the Dalits’ occupations, laboring practices, and segregated neighborhoods. Bangladesh is a Muslim-dominated country. It is claimed that Islam, the religion of Muslims, does not preach any discrimination based on occupation, skin color, neighborhood, residence, etc. The reality, however, is that the Muslims in Bangladesh condone and embrace a class-based and segregated society.
Consequently, among other segregations, the demarcation of Dalits and non-Dalits has been crystallized over hundreds of years. Neither the Muslim community nor any progressive social or political figures have ever paid due attention to the issue of the discrimination faced by Dalits in Bangladesh. This report has five parts: the first part briefly examines the meaning and significance of the term Dalit; the second part advances a comprehensive narration of the socio-economic conditions faced by Dalits in Bangladesh; the third part deals with the current situation of Dalits in Bangladesh; the fourth part examines the role of the Garbo Bangladesh Foundation including its strengths as well as its limitations; and the last part makes a number of recommendations in favor of an inclusive society and the recognition of the rights of the Dalits in regards to education, occupation, social inclusion, and politics.
The existing social exclusion and sharply demarcated segregation between the Dalits and the non-Dalits in Bangladesh must be consciously and legally (in both law and in practice) dismantled. Most of all, the Dalits must be respected and treated with the same dignity and honor as non-Dalits.
Dalit: Meaning, Significance, and Variations
This report has used the term “Dalit” as a marker of agency, identity, and community. The term Dalit literally means “crushed,” “broken to pieces,” “ground down,” and thus it conveys a negative description of a citizen, which instigates both exclusion and discrimination when demands for inclusion arise (Rao 2009).
In The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, Anupama Rao (2009) has poignantly elaborated in the context of colonial modernity and anti-caste thinking: “They did not demand Hindu inclusion, but instead conceived the untouchable as a unique political subject, as non-Hindu and Dalit” (p. 2). M. K. Gandhi was against this “untouchability,” and renamed Dalits as Harijans, or “people of god” in 1933 (Rao 2009); therefore, some identify Dalits as “Harijans.” The Natore Dalit colony is, in fact, called Harijan Colony. Indeed, published literature uses Dalit, Harijan, Sweeper, and many derogatory terms synonymously. In The Pariah People: An Ethnography of the Urban Sweepers in Bangladesh, Asaduzzaman (2001) has enumerated these terms, including the derogatory ones, while identifying his studied group as Sweepers. Asaduzzaman (2001) observes: Members of the Sweeper community appear to be a self-conscious people with a glaring sense of dignity and pride. Their background knowledge and present experience of stigma and negative discrimination from Muslim and Hindu societies make them aware of and active in opposing the ideological hegemony of caste hierarchy both in its social and religious senses. (pp. 263-64) Based on his extensive ethnographic research, Asaduzzaman (2001) identified the Dalits as a socially detached and degraded community who continuously live in a “double minority situation”. This report has intentionally used the term Dalit to demonstrate this group’s identity, agency, invisibility, and community. Non-Dalits – for example, the authors of this report – are those who do not belong to this community. Throughout the report, the capitalized term Dalit has been used, with a capital letter, to impart visibility, dignity, and honor to this minority group.
Socio-Economic Conditions of Dalits
Nature of Work: Intergenerational or Formal Training
Possession of Luxury Items
At the Natore Dalit colony, the GBF observed that Dalit households frequently spend money on luxury items such as gold jewelry while their children walk around barefoot. Generally, children may have one pair of sandals, but they are reluctant to wear these due to fear of wearing them out. Additionally, they are not informed as to the benefits of wearing sandals. Most households have a television, and some have a refrigerator as well.
Accompanied by GBF volunteers, I visited the Natore Dalit colony and found the colony and houses to be tidy and clean. One very disturbing issue, however, was the abundance of refuse surrounding the colony. The pictures below demonstrate the unhygienic environment in which the colony is situated, including stagnant water and nearby city dumpsites.
Health and Wellbeing
The Dalits in the Natore colony generally eat rice, fish, vegetables, dal, and meat. The GBF considers that the main challenges facing the Dalits are: lack of education including health education, and systemic and structural discrimination from non-Dalit society. Further, alcoholism and drug use are pervasive among the Dalits for various reasons. Joyshri Sarker (2012) claims that pork meat and indigenous liquor are indispensable parts of their diet.
However, the GFB in Natore found that the community is divided into two groups when it comes to alcohol consumption. One group – largely seniors/elders – is accustomed to consuming liquor on a frequent basis, while the other group – mostly middle-aged individuals – perceives excessive liquor consumption/alcoholism as a social evil, but is not able to prevent the in-flow of alcohol to the colony. The local administration does not try to prevent this in-flow, although public bars are strictly prohibited in Bangladesh and alcohol sales are permitted only to foreigners and those with special permits from the government. It is commonly considered that Dalits cannot do the jobs they do without alcohol, and historically every colony had an adjacent local bar where indigenous liquor/Indian liquor were sold. This tradition has continued on, and it seems it would be difficult to break. Although the bars are meant for Dalits only, many of the visitors to these establishments are influential non-Dalits from the surrounding areas. While some Dalits are vocal against having bars adjacent to their colonies, community leaders and influential non-Dalits want the sale of alcohol to continue. The fact that the Dalits are commonly associated with alcohol/alcoholism causes this population to be even more ostracized from society, and the general population is all too willing to ignore the role played by non-Dalits in perpetuating the status quo. Here lies the contradiction inherent in Bangladeshi society. Non-Dalits avoid Dalits in regard to social interactions, marriage, birth, and death rituals, consequently ostracizing them; at the same time, some members of non-Dalit society are eager to visit Dalit liquor shops for the purposes of consuming the very alcohol that exacerbates this social ostracism.
The Current Situation of Dalits in Bangladesh
Historically, there is a correlation between the establishment and growth of a city, such as Dhaka, the oldest city in Bangladesh, and the migration of the Dalit population (for details, see Asaduzzaman, 2001). Since the reign of the Moghuls, when Islam Khan established Dhaka as the capital of Bengal in 1608, the Dalits have been employed. The British colonization of Bengal in the mid-18th century created many new townships that required the hiring of many laborers for public sanitation services and street cleaning. The British colonizers used agents or brokers to bring this labour force for designated tasks from poverty-stricken areas in colonized India. According to Asaduzzaman (2001), historically these were either agricultural laborers or were engaged in diversified occupations. Prior to migration to East Bengal (i.e., Bangladesh), many of these laborers assumed they were going to be employed in construction firms, railways, or hospitals. In addition, the assumption was that East Bengal was an economically better region than the regions from which they were migrating. The Dalits’ settlement pattern in any city/municipality is temporary, because they don’t own the land upon which their houses are built. The colony is always built on municipality or city corporation land and located on the outskirts of the city. The location of Dalit settlements has led to the Dalits being segregated, isolated, and detached from non-Dalits, as part of an orchestrated city and municipality plan that has crystallized over hundreds of years.
In Dhaka, there are six “Sweeper colonies”: Ganaktuli, Dayaganj, Dhalpur, Sutrapur, Agargaon, and Gabtoli embankment. Non-Dalits hardly ever visit or interact with Dalit colonies. In my youth, I never visited a Dalit colony. My first-time setting foot in a Dalit colony was when I visited the Natore Dalit colony in 2016 for research. The Dalit colony in Natore was adjacent to Nuheen Khan’s grandfather’s land. The segregation and discrimination Nuheen saw after his return to Bangladesh from UBC motivated him to explore and examine the Dalit issue. As a young and concerned citizen, Nuheen Khan established the GBF to aid and support Dalit children’s education in Natore.
Case Studies and Examples of Everyday Humiliation
The Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative have documented a number of case studies in Equity Watch that demonstrate how Dalits regularly encounter systemic and structural discrimination, humiliation, and eviction throughout the country.
The following are only a few excerpts mostly related to Dalits’ education and employment: Example # 1: Sumita Rani was a student of Grade 3. When she attended school, students in her class not only neglected her, but also explicitly said: “Do not sit with us.” When she informed the teachers, they took no action and asked her to remain silent. (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 36)
Example # 2: Binoy Rani, from the Gabotoli Sweeper Colony in Dhaka, mentioned: “When we went to school the teachers often discouraged us by negative comments. They used to say that Dalit children do not need education because in future they have to take their parents’ profession.” (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 37)
Example # 3: Nirmal Chandra Das, a Dalit activist, stated: “What is frustrating is that [many educated youths] do not get jobs according to their educational qualifications.… As a result, many unemployed [educated] youths are found in the Dalit community. Seeing this frustration, parents are no longer interested in the education of their children. This enhances the negative attitude towards education among [the] Dalit population.” (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 41)
Example # 4: In Satkhira, an employer yelled at Dalit job applicants and asked them to leave the office, saying: “You son of a [Dalit], how dare you ask for a decent job?” (The Daily Samakal, 2011, 15 November, as cited in Equity Watch, 2014, p. 41)
Example # 5: A BDERM member stated: “I hid my identity because our family faced so much discrimination and torture. Since then, my life has been better I no longer want to hide myself. Now I am proud to say what I do and who I am – this is the success of this movement.” (“Work Statement of Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement,” BDERM and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative, October 2011, p. 26)
The above case studies demonstrate what Dalits and their children encounter in their daily lives. In addition, many public spaces such as tea stalls and small restaurants refuse to serve them food and drink.
Dhaka: The Capital City
There are six Dalit colonies in Dhaka. They are on municipal lands. Where there is no municipality or pourashava, no Dalit colony exists. Dalits generally do not rear any form of poultry or livestock other than pigs. This is likely because people will not buy livestock from them for eating purposes; Dalits themselves do not eat cows, goats are expensive, and there is not enough space for poultry in a Dalit colony. An occasional goat or pig can be seen in a Dalit colony. In Dhaka, most households are connected to the sewage line linked to the sewage treatment plant, thus the pattern of laboring practices is different.
In Dhaka, Dalits are often employed in manhole cleaning, cleaning of drains, removal of dead bodies, and assisting the medical examiner to perform autopsies. In practice, the medical doctors give the Dalits instructions as to where to cut the dead body. This mostly happens to unidentified dead bodies, and practices vary from case to case. One can’t recognize Dalits in Dhaka. Outside Dhaka, it is easier to discriminate. Dalits are economically better off in Dhaka city because job opportunities are better due to the size and expansion of the city. However, many Muslims have started taking up these same jobs in Dhaka, for example, in government institutions including the pourashava/municipality. Currently, about 30% of recent Dhaka city corporation jobs are taken up by Dalits (A Study on Occupational Health and Safety of Scavengers in Dhaka City, July 2013). Given the huge population of the city, it is difficult to identify who is working in this sector and therefore it is difficult to discriminate against those who hold these jobs. In fact, such tasks are appealing in Dhaka city due to the relative lack of stigma and ostracism attached to them.
Outside Dhaka, it is much easier to identify someone working in these professions, and Dalits thus encounter more widespread discrimination. In Dhaka city, the job of cleaning (particularly drainage systems, manholes, septic tanks, etc.) is given to a contractor according to municipality procurement practices, and Dhaka-based Dalits informed us that often such contractors hire heroin addicts instead of Dalits to cut costs. To be awarded a contract for cleaning a particular number of drains and manholes, one has to apply through an institution with proper documents under Dhaka City Corporation. Dalit workers and leaders, due to their lack of adequate education opportunities, do not have the capacity to compete for these contracts. The contractors who win these contracts (either through political affiliation or by unethical means) seek to maximize their profits and thus often employ drug addicts (e.g., heroin addicts) who are willing to perform any task at a low cost in order to finance their next drug purchase. If this situation can be remedied and Dalits can win these contracts, their unemployment situation can be alleviated to some extent. Outside Dhaka, these types of contracts are awarded to political affiliates who still hire Dalits to perform these tasks due to an absence of other groups/people interested in this work. In Natore Pourashava, where the GBF works with the Dalit/Harijan colony, only Dalits are employed in these kinds of jobs. One example would be when the pourashava assigns a contractor to cull the stray dog population in Natore. The contractor then hires Dalits to actually kill the stray dogs. Dalits engaged in this work told the GBF that the contractor receives a certain amount per dog culled, and then hires Dalits at less than half the amount received by the contractor. This means the contractor as a “middle man” receives Taka 300 without doing any part of the job. Thus, official institutions have established a brokerage system wherein Dalits receive only half or less than half of the real wage offered for a given job. The culling of dogs is a well-cited example of this system in action.
The Dalit Colony in Natore
The Role of the GBF as a Change Maker
Current School Composition and Activities of the GBF:
- Three batches of students attend the GBF school every day, six days a week. These consist of: Pre-school KG (8:00 am to 9:30 am); Grades 1 & 2 (9:45 am to 12:30 pm); and Grades 3, 4, and 5 (12:45 pm to 4:30 pm). Structurally, there exist only two classrooms. To accommodate Grade 5, the verandah is currently being used as a classroom. When I visited the classrooms, I found that there was hardly enough light in the classrooms because daylight is the only source of light available; due to the small windows and the structure of the building, daylight barely enters the classrooms. As of 2016, the GBF school’s total student population was 85.
- The teachers follow the national educational curriculum. Thus, it is expected that when children complete Grade 5, they should be transferred to Grade 6 in public schools attended by non-Dalit children.
- There are five teachers at the school; these teachers are all educated to second- or third-year Honors level at local colleges.
Impacts of the GBF School and Projects in the Colony
- The culture of education has been brought into the colony; there wouldn’t be this same impact if the school were outside the colony. The fact that the school is adjacent to the colony has made it easily accessible to Dalit children.
- Dropout rates among the younger students have been reduced.
- Students understand and follow the rules of the school and are being prepared to move to the next stage of their education (i.e., entering into high school).
- Cursing/swearing by children has been significantly reduced since teachers are always present in the colony during the day. It is considered that swearing among children will be significantly reduced overall due to their receiving formal education in a Dalit setting.
The GBF wishes to launch a number of further projects in cooperation with the Natore Dalit community. Their goals include:
- Building a strong sense of trust within the community through monthly meetings with parents of school-going children and community leaders and taking steps to encourage a healthy turnout at meetings and events held by the GBF. This makes it easier to implement development processes and ensures that the Dalit community members feel involved and have a sense of ownership over projects in their community.
- The GBF envisions that the impacts of monthly meetings will include increased regular attendance at school. The Natore Dalit colony has a religious festival every month, and thus, children miss school frequently, often missing several days in a row in the name of celebrating religious festivals.
- Elimination of gambling in households as one of the community development sub-projects.
The immediate impact of setting up a school adjacent to the Dalit colony is praiseworthy. Most of the volunteers are very young, many of them under 30. Among the greatest strengths of the group/volunteers are their commitment, vision, and ability to overcome stigma and societal stereotypes. The GBF has connections with a number of NGOs in Bangladesh that work with the excluded/marginalized/Dalit community.
An Evaluation of the GBF
Dalits’ Agency: Education and Benefits
- The place they live should not be called the Sweeper colony.
- The colony should not be treated as a garbage dumpsite.
- The Dalits should have ownership or long-term lease of the land on which they live. They should not be evicted under any circumstances.
- Dalit children should be sent to better quality public schools. Schooling should be offered both privately (i.e., by private contractors) and through public partnership (i.e., with infrastructure provided by the government). The quality of education available to Dalit children must be improved to help elevate the Dalits’ social status.
- Pre-primary school should be introduced for Dalit children in the colony.
- Children who are older (i.e., those who have completed Grade 5) should go outside of the colony for schooling. Those who do well in school should receive monthly stipends from the government. This added incentive would encourage students to stay in school longer, rather than entering the workforce at an early age.
- It is evident that there are fewer secondary schools than primary schools. Because there exists a shortage of high schools (starting from Grade 6), when Dalit children pass Grade 5, it is extremely difficult for them to enter into Grade 6 because of a severe lack of space, fierce competition, lack of motivation, and so on.
- Each and every colony should have adult schools so that adults know how to read and write.
- It should be ensured that the cleaning jobs in Dhaka city are going to Dalits.
- Funding and infrastructural support should be provided to members of each Dalit colony to carry out the development projects they propose themselves.
- Development must come from within the colony and outsiders’ support should be complementary. Dalits should be the ones who implement the changes, with cooperation from non-Dalits.
- It should be ensured that no bars are situated adjacent to Dalit colonies.
- The Bangladesh government must adopt lawful and meaningful measures that facilitate the alleviation of structural and systemic discrimination. An inclusive society must be the goal.