Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | October 21, 2020 1:07:40 am
At Karera village in Ghaziabad. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)
When Sunita, 45, a household help, asked her employer for a glass of water, she was reluctantly handed a steel tumbler and asked to use only that. “It was kept in a corner of the kitchen, marked aside for me to use — for everyone entering the kitchen to know that I am a Valmiki…. This incident repeated in most houses I worked in,” said Sunita, seated outside her house in Ghaziabad’s Karera village, near Hindon residential area.
In 2009, when her eldest son Pawan went to a luxury apartment complex in Ghaziabad to apply for the job of a peon, his surname — “Valmiki”, a Scheduled Caste community — was enough for the employer to say he could only work in the cleaning department. “I didn’t apply for a cleaning job (but) I took it because I needed the money. However, I recognised the discrimination. We are facing this for generations,” Pawan said.
In a bid to ensure that his two children don’t undergo the same discrimination, Pawan converted to Buddhism on October 14, along with his family members and several neighbours. He said 236 people from Karera embraced Buddhism in the presence of Rajratan Ambedkar, the great grandnephew of Dr B R Ambedkar.
Among them is Inder Ram (65), who worked as a mechanic in east Delhi’s Shahdara until a few years ago. “After what happened in Hathras with the 19-year-old Dalit woman, we decided to convert,” he said. “There is no caste in Buddhism; no one is a Thakur or a Valmiki there. Everyone is a human being, everyone is just a Buddhist.”
The Hathras victim was allegedly gangraped and assaulted, leading to her death, by four upper-caste men last month.
“We thought of converting in the past as well but this (Hathras) incident shook us up — the way state machinery is grilling the victim’s family, the way she was cremated at 2.30 am without her family’s permission,” Pawan said. He said people in Karera took out a candlelight march in the area a few days after she died. Soon after, Pawan said, he began pitching the idea to convert to Buddhism.
Kamlesh, 50, who used to collect scrap before the lockdown, said, “The Hathras incident was the tipping point for most of us. Converting to another religion is not an easy decision. It means leaving behind old rituals, but we are now tired… aaj se hum Valmiki nahi, Buddhist hai (from today, we are not Valmikis but Buddhists).”
Talking about rituals, Sunita said this is the first time in years that she isn’t fasting on Navratri. Tara Chand, 70, who worked as a sweeper, said, “In Buddhism, there is no fasting, no idol worship. We have embraced it fully. My father was discriminated against, so was I, so are my children, and their children… When will this stop? When will we progress?”
Recalling a conversation with his children about their classmates, Kamal said: “Upper-caste children don’t want to sit with our children; teachers want our children to be backbenchers. Why? Because of their surname: ‘Valmiki’. So we will change it. This is for our future.”
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