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Finding it difficult to change Dalit mindset for better prospects, 'respected' lifestyle

A Gujarat Dalit women's demonstration 
By Shantanu Singh Yadav* 
Even after 75 years of independence, India, along with significant macro and microeconomic issues, is dealing with a problem that lies at the very heart: Casteism. The first thing an individual associates to, right after being born, is their caste. This is a critical factor during admission to a school, marriage, renting/buying a flat in society, and even the rights performed during cremation. The result of casteism is heavily skewed with only selected individuals enjoying power at the helm of everything while the masses still facing the brunt.
Many leaders and activists throughout the last 75 years who have fought against this evil of casteism. One of those is a human rights activist and lawyer, Manjula Pradeep, a women rights leader dedicated to the Dalit movement in Gujarat. She was born to a Dalit family in Vadodara district which had recently migrated from Uttar Pradesh.
Being from a Dalit family, Manjula knows and closely understands the abuse and misery Dalits, especially Dalit women, are subjected to due to the trinity of gender, class, and caste deep enshrined in the Indian societal hierarchy.
Pradeep, right after graduating from the MS University, Baroda (Vadodara), joined as the first female employee of the Navsarjan Trust, one of the largest organizations for Dalit rights addressing issues of discrimination on the basis of gender and caste. While being associated with the Navsarjan Trust, Manjula got a deeper and more holistic experience of the lives of Dalit women in India and the atrocities committed against them.
Pradeep decided to study law while dealing with an elderly Dalit woman whose son was killed in custody after being brutally beaten up by police. She realized that in order to drive change, one needs to fight not only in the streets but also in the courts of law.
After becoming director of Navsarjan Trust in 2004, Manjula made attempts to bring caste and gender in the Dalit rights framework. Currently, she is involved in State and national-level programmes of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Additionally, she is also a member of the International Dalit Solidarity Network. During the UN World Conference Against Racism, South Africa, she garnered visibility for Dalit rights.
Working in Gujarat, Pradeep realized that though there has been infrastructure and industrial development in the State, the situation of the marginalized communities has only deteriorated. Deep inside the state is very much casteist, with the upper caste communities reaping the benefits of employment and a better standard of living coming from the development.
She says that caste identity is the sole reason behind the sexual abuse of women in the villages and even in developed cities like Vadodara and Ahmedabad. And this is the reason behind the high dropout rate from schools among Dalit students.
Manjula Pradeep
Despite being banned in India since 1993, manual scavenging is pretty common in the state of Gujarat, with the scavengers from just the Dalit communities stepping inside the drains and sewers for this inhuman task. Dry toilets used by upper caste communities and cleaned by Dalit women were common in the Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. Pradeep worked on a documentary named “Gandhi ka Gujarat” for submission to the Supreme Court on a petition filed against manual scavenging, which demolished makeshift dry toilets.
The most shocking incident she came across was the 2008 Patan Gang Rape case where a 17-year-old Dalit girl student was gang-raped by six male teachers multiple times. In the absence of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, Pradeep took custody of the student and fought the case on her behalf.
After one year long, resulting in life imprisonment for all the six accused, she won the case. In addition, there are other cases on the grounds of sexual trafficking, sexual abuse, murder of Dalit women, etc., that Pradeep has dealt with during her work as an activist.
Driving change in the mindset of people, both upper and lower caste, has been an extremely difficult task for her. While upper caste communities leave all the degrading work for lower caste communities, people from lower caste communities also accept it as their fate. Since these communities have been employed in such demeaning jobs for generations, to drive a change in their mindset for better prospects of job and hence a respected lifestyle is also difficult.
Pradeep believes that during the last 30 years of her work, she has observed some change in the mindset from both ends and expects it to continue for the future to come.
---
Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, PGP 2020-22

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