By Aishwarya Chordiya:
About 7 months ago, I applied and got selected into a social leadership program called India Fellow. The year-long fellowship promised me the opportunity doing rigorous work with nonprofits, with solid training and mentorship inputs. What it gave me, was much more.
With the fellowship, I got placed with an organisation called Jan Sahas, which works to empower manual scavenging communities in Madhya Pradesh. I was assigned to one such tribal belt, Bagh, about five hours away from Dewas in MP. A quick walk around the place, and I understood that “unexplored” is sometimes just a nice word we use for a place which has no resources and infrastructure whatsoever. Bagh is a place where students are forced to go home barefoot during a ten-minute break to get more books to study, because they can carry only so many at a time, without a bag. Despite being so poorly sourced, Bagh serves as the biggest and only market for bare necessities for the surrounding dozen villages.
Visiting Bagh forced me to question if this place was unexplored, or simply ignored. But it was during Ganesh Chaturthi there, that I was forced to confront another reality. Having grown up in Pune, Ganesh Chathurthi to me, has always been what Pujo is to Bengalis. I have always looked forward to the festival, and love every single thing about it. At Bagh, however, it was celebrated very differently from how it was done back home.
It was during an organised free distribution of Ganesha idols to Bagh’s residents, that my colleague commented: “Inko hamare bhagwan se bhi dikkat hai!”
My confusion at this was probably evident, because my colleague took cue and explained what he meant. According to him, this distribution of idols happens every year. Yet, the locals in Bagh know nothing about Lord Ganesha or the essence of the festival itself. They are merely handed out the idols and the festivities are arranged for by unknown ‘organisers’. None of these ‘organisers’ are seen during the worshiping of the deity in the locality, and sadly, those left behind ‘celebrating’ are from a community that doesn’t even know the meaning of the rituals. Bagh’s scavenging community was forced to be part of the festival in name only.
Underneath a cloud of disbelief, I realised then, fully, that caste discrimination in India is very real. It happens. Yes, even today in the 21st century, and not just in remote villages, but also in ‘urban’ towns and cities. True, most are probably unaware of the situation, since it’s not always as evident as instances of ‘lower castes’ having to tie brooms to their waists to prevent their shadows falling on the streets, or wearing jugs to ensure their saliva does not reach the ground.
But that doesn’t change the fact that discrimination is still practised. It has become subtle, but its repercussions are just as sharp and piercing as they were before. The locals at Bagh have nothing, but their faith. And now, we’ve managed to snatch that too, by refusing them the privilege of ritual. My visit to Bagh opened my eyes to the reality of subtle caste discrimination in India. A part of me has changed, forever. Those colourful, happy memories that are triggered within me the moment I hear ‘Bappa’, now share space with a grimmer reality.
With the fellowship, however, this dark reality is something I work to change. Today, as children belonging to the Indian middle class, we enjoy the privilege of choosing careers of impact and meaning, a luxury our parents had to forgo. With fellowships like India Fellow, that nurture social leaders of tomorrow by exposing them to the realities of the grassroots, the possibility of beginning such fruitful careers is becoming a reality. For me, the journey has been extremely impactful and eye-opening, a launch-pad for a career in the development sector.