About 34 years ago, Milon Das faced hurtful incidents that made him think his community of Dalit Hindus were nothing less than godforsaken people. A schoolboy in grade five, he and two Muslim friends went to a village eatery in Satkhira district of southwest Bangladesh to have snacks during a break. The eatery owner, also a Hindu, offered his two friends snacks on plates, but Das was given his snack on a piece of torn newspaper. The snacks were spicy, so he asked for a glass of water, but the owner refused. He was told that as he was a Dalit (Sanskrit for “trampled upon”), his touch would make the glass “unholy.” Das grabbed a glass of water and drank from it. Then all hell broke loose in the shop.
“The owner beat me up mercilessly and forced my family to pay 2,000 taka [US$24] for what I had done. Nobody in our locality took our side as if I had committed a grave sin,” he recalled. News of the incident spread to his school and parents of other students called for Das to be expelled, but teachers refused on humanitarian grounds. “Students bullied me and teachers looked down on me as long as I studied there. This incident still haunts me, but I decided I would not give up and get a higher education so that I could fight for the rights of Dalits my whole life,” said Das, now 43 and a father of two. In those days, schools would hesitate to enroll Dalit students, but not anymore. Yet negligence and discrimination toward Dalit students still prevail. “Teachers are less interested in the education of Dalit students. Sometimes teachers ask why children of shoemakers come to school instead of learning shoemaking for their future,” Das said. In the Hindu caste system, Dalits are considered “untouchables” and are excluded from the four primary castes — Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors and princes), Vaishya (farmers and artisans) and Shudra (tenant farmers and servants). Dalits in Bangladesh mainly do jobs considered impure such as street sweeping, sewerage cleaning, tea garden laboring, burying dead bodies, processing oil, gardening, shoe and leather work, drum beating and washing, according to Banglapedia, the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh. During his schooldays, Das met Father Luigi Paggi
, an Italian Catholic missionary who has been working among poor and marginalized communities in the area for decades. “Father Luigi is my mentor and he inspired hundreds of students like me to continue education with his support. He set up four separate schools for Dalits and encouraged us to work hard to develop our own community,” he said. With Father Luigi’s support, Das earned a master’s degree in sociology and is now executive director of Poritran (Salvation), a Satkhira-based NGO promoting the rights and welfare of the Dalit community. He also serves as an adviser to Bangladesh Dalit Parishad, a rights body fighting to end discrimination against Dalits. “From birth to death, Dalits face many forms of discrimination. There were incidents when locals refused to allow funerals of Dalit people in the same funeral ground [where other castes were buried]. We are citizens of this country and we vote to elect governments, but nobody thinks about bringing an end to discrimination against us,” Das said. Widespread deprivation
The case of Das is not unique in Bangladesh. Most Dalits and ethnic minorities face discrimination and deprivation
in accessing services and rights, a study released on March 10 by the Bangladesh chapter of Berlin-based Transparency International revealed. The study was carried out from February 2018 to February 2019 in 28 districts of Bangladesh. Among them, 14 districts have ethnic minority people living side by side with the mainstream Bengali community, while 14 others have Dalits living with the majority community. “Dalits and ethnic groups are deprived of their rights due to their ethnicity and caste, which contravenes our constitution that stipulates equal rights and opportunities to all citizens irrespective of their religious faith, ethnicity and caste,” Transparency International Bangladesh executive director Iftekharuzzaman said at the report launch. “It is also contradictory to the state policy of inclusive development and removal of all forms social and economic inequality.” The report cited that Dalits and ethnic minorities are forced to pay bribes to get treatment in hospitals, access social safety net benefits such as widow, disabled and elderly allowances, and obtain government certificates, trade licenses, land documents and electricity connections. It stated that children of Dalit and indigenous people often face discrimination in getting enrolled in government primary schools and in studying their own religious books. Although Bangladesh’s national education policy stipulates that all children should be allowed to get an education in their own mother tongue, it is often disregarded. “Most children of ethnic minorities do not get the chance to be educated in their mother tongue. Their parents also speak to them in Bangla. Their mother tongue could become extinct,” the report said. The study also made 13 recommendations including constitutional recognition for Dalits and ethnic minorities and changes to existing laws to ensure equal rights and opportunities for them. Bangladesh’s government says there are about 1.5 million ethnic indigenous people in the country, while indigenous activists and researchers say their number is more three million. A 2011 study by the state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics said the number of Dalits in Bangladesh was more than 1.5 million. However, the Bangladesh government’s seventh Fifth Year Plan (2016-20) states there are 5.5 million. Sanjeeb Drong, an ethnic Garo Catholic and secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, agreed with the report’s findings. “The major problem is a discriminatory and negligent mindset among decision-making bodies of the government as well as the majority community. In many places, land belonging to Dalits and indigenous peoples was forcibly taken
, and their villages and homes burned down, but justice was not meted out,” Drong told ucanews.com. “The government should adopt separate policies such as a separate ministry and a separate land commission for Dalits and indigenous people. The government should also recognize the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention 169 for the indigenous and Dalit population.” The government cannot remain negligent to Dalits and indigenous people anymore, said Fazle Hossain, an MP from the Bangladesh Workers Party and a member of the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples and Minorities. “The discrimination and deprivations of Dalits and ethnic minorities have historic roots and these must be removed. We have been working on making constitutional and legal changes so that the rights of these communities can be protected,” Hossain told ucanews.com.
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