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Dalit life is excruciatingly painful, charred by experiences. Experiences that did not manage to find room in literary creations. We have grown up in a social order that is extremely cruel and inhuman. Omprakash Valmiki
Who are they?
The Balmiki are one of the largest socially stigmatized Dalit groups numbering nearly 1.5 million in Uttar Pradesh alone and constitute about 16 % of India’s population. They occupy the lowliest position of the caste system. During the colonial period they were brought from villages to remove human excrement and clean the cities. They became an urban community. In time, with the introduction of septic latrines, the practice of carrying buckets of excrement on their heads is gone but they still work to clear blockages in sewers where they are half submerged in filth. The stigma remains as they are still identified with the work they perform and considered untouchable and treated as such. They have always been marginalized and treated as outcasts socially, economically and culturally. Sweepers are now referred to as safai karamcharis or sanitary workers.
The Balmiki make up a cluster of communities – a few of whom are the Bhangi, Mehtar, Chuhra, Lal Beghi and Halalkhor. They have united to form one community and claim a common origin from the saint Balmiki. Balmiki is thought to be the first Sanskrit poet and author of the holy Hindu epic Ramayana and was brought up by a sweeper woman although he was a Brahmin (highest Hindu caste) mendicant’s son.
They were given names contrary to their position to give them dignity despite their lowly status – like Chuhra meaning beautiful and Mehtar, a Persian word meaning prince or leader. However Bhangi, the most widely used name is a Hindi word meaning one addicted to drinking bhang (a drink made from marijuana leaves).
These communities can be found throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat, and the union territory of Chandigarh where they are locally known by various names mentioned above.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Balmiki’s are employed as sweepers in municipalities, hospitals and government offices. Some Balmiki are engaged in agricultural or contract labour. Pig rearing, bamboo basketry, and poultry farming are some ancillary occupations. Some Balmiki, such as the Mehtar men of Bihar, play drums at weddings and festivals, while women are midwives.
Post-independence, the Indian government’s affirmative action policies have seen an increase of Balmiki emerge as political leaders in regional and national levels. A prominent example is Buta Singh, from the Bhangi community in Punjab, who was an MP in parliament from the early sixties and became a Union Minister of Home Affairs. The Balmiki who work at municipalities have formed unions to help them be treated fairly. The Balmiki have also formed an association for their caste at a national level called the All-India Safai Mazdoor Congress with a head office in Bombay and branches in other states. The objectives of the association are to strengthen the economic, social, educational and political status of all sweeper castes in India and to remove all social discrimination.
Literacy rates among the Balmiki are low because they cannot afford it, though they view education favorably. In recent years, especially in urban areas like Delhi, girls are educated. They visit doctors and use traditional medicines as well. They have begun to value and practice family planning. They have started to utilize the government’s developmental programs provided for Scheduled Castes.
A major problem among the Balmiki is debt. A common saying of the Bhangi is that they are born in debt, live in debt and will die in debt. Social customs that require money for dowries, marriages, death rites, help for extended family and poor health all contribute to debt. Money is borrowed from a money lender at very high interest rates. Gambling is seen as a way out of poverty that leads them further in debt.
The Balmiki have a diet that includes wheat, millet and rice. Pork is eaten by all and beef is eaten by Gujarati Balmiki’s. Men drink homemade alcohol and women are allowed to drink at ritual celebrations only. The Balmiki accept water and food from almost all other communities but other communities make it a point not to reciprocate. Wherever they are, the Balmiki live in squalid, overcrowded segregated areas.
The Balmiki practice group endogamy and clan or lineage exogamy. Vermilion in the hair parting, a dot on the forehead and toe-rings are symbols for married women. They believe in monogamy and prefer adult marriages. The custom of dowry, given as cash and goods is given by the bride’s family. Marriages are arranged by parents and elders. Divorce is permissible. Women are slightly better off in comparison to other lower caste women and participate actively in religious and social activities. Both men and women work as sweepers.
What Are Their Beliefs?
Despite the abject position they hold in the Hindu caste system and in society, the Balmikis remain Hindu. The Balmiki worship village and regional deities along with other Hindus. As they are considered untouchable and not permitted entry to Hindu temples, they worship at Balmiki temples. There are some localities that allow them entry. Shiva and saint Balmiki are revered and Balmiki Jayanti (Balmiki’s birthday) is celebrated with a procession. They worship a mother goddess called Masani who is thought to protect children from liver failure (caused by malaria and intestinal infection). Animal sacrifices are offered to appease Masani and Kali (goddess who wears a necklace of human skulls). Some others are Maha Mai (great mother) and Sitala (the smallpox goddess, who is believed to have cured the disease). The Balmiki also believe in spirits and call on a Bhagat (a person who communicates with spirits) to pacify them. The Bhagat identifies the problem and recommends a remedy which usually involves worship, a sacrifice and an offering to be made to the spirit. Witchcraft and evil eye have other solutions. Vows are also made at tombs of Muslim saints.
The Balmiki have tried for centuries to free themselves from the bondage to the degrading caste system by converting to Islam and Christianity. In the 1880s and 1890s there were large scale conversions in western Uttar Pradesh which resulted in a marginal improvement in basic dignity and some economic gain. It did not take long before they converted back to Hinduism on being offered inducements. For example, the Mehtar of Karnataka embraced Islam to escape the stigma associated with their caste and returned to Hinduism in order to receive the benefits extended to Scheduled Castes in newly independent India’s constitution. In the early 1900’s a Hindu organization called Arya Samaj was active in reconverting Balmiki’s to Hinduism.
What Are Their Needs?
The Balmiki need to be given dignity and freed from centuries of discrimination. Poverty and illiteracy has to be eradicated. Material needs have to be balanced with emotional and spiritual growth.