I belong to dhobi (washerman community) caste from Uttar Pradesh which is listed as Scheduled Caste in this state. Nobody in my family or even relatives earns their livelihood by washing clothes but still I am dhobi. Most of my relatives are related to agricultural practices. Either they have very small land holding or they earn their livelihood by working on others fields. Few of us have come up in life through receiving formal education and being benefited by reservation policy.
My parental house is situated in a lower middle class locality which is inhabited mostly by the dikus. We don’t have much social interaction with them. With most of them our relations are limited to saying Namaskar (greetings) and have no other relations. Some of them (mostly male) visit our house during festivals or some ceremonies like marriage.
My parents also never encouraged us to mingle much with their children. It is an unwritten rule in my family that we will not visit or eat in those families which don’t eat in our home. It looked very normal to me then. But when I look back now I understand the caste dynamics in my locality. Now I understand why my parents showed coldness to neighbours, why they were not enthusiastic in developing relations with others. Their behaviour was a response to those who still treated them as untouchables. ‘Though we cannot make you eat in our home but we will also not eat in yours’.
Talk of being dhobi never arises in my family except during marriage of any family member. The consciousness is more of a being an untouchable or lower caste. Now with the reservation the public identity is of SC. The word Dalit is not used much. When asked by some stranger about caste my family members’ stock reply has been “SC”. I have not witnessed any incident where they replied by saying that they are dhobi. It is mostly dikus only who enquire about others caste. For them the reply SC is enough to compartmentalize people. No diku probes further. We also feel comfortable by not giving the name of our particular caste. After this question usually there is no more conversation between us and diku, so no more questions.
Within dhobi caste I have heard of two groups: campua and dehati. Campuas are mainly found in the urban areas and most of them still earn their living by washing cloths and ironing them where as dehatis are mostly engaged in agricultural practices. The irony is that many among the dehatis have come up because of education and government jobs whereas campuas are still stuck up with their caste occupation. The campuas are looked down by dehatis because of their sticking to their caste occupation. No educated dehati will marry to a campua whose family members earn their living by washing clothes even if they own a big dry cleaning shop. I have seen my caste people enquiring about whether any members of the family in which they are going to marry their son and daughter are still engaged in washing clothes. So many time campuas claim to be dehatis so that they can marry their son or daughter in well-educated families. There is a very popular myth among dehatis that campuas are all drunkards including their women who are also of very loose character. So they try their level best not to enter matrimonial relations with campuas. The funniest part is that among campuas if some one takes any other job other than caste occupation it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two groups. I think campuas were those people who were employed in british military campuas as washer men.
In UP dhobis are not very active in the Ambedkarite movement. Most of them may be voting for BSP but there are very few dalit activists from my caste. I have found very few Ambedkarite among dhobis. This is very sad given the level of untouchability and discrimination faced by them like other dalit castes. The reason may be that they feel the Dalit movement to be a Jatava movement because of predominant presence of Jatavas in the BSP. Dhobis should understand that it is quite natural as the movement was started and led by jatavas with great pain and suffering. No other dalit castes came forward. It is the jatavas who took to Babasaheb’s teaching to their heart and left practicing Hinduism which helped them to mobilize politically.
Ambedkarite consciousness made them invest more on education. I feel that the dalit castes who accept Ambedkar’s thought sooner or later become educationally and economically powerful as his thoughts help them to gain confidence and free them from mental slavery of the hindu social order. The upliftment of jatavas in UP should be role model for other dalit castes like dhobis to follow if they are really interested in their upliftment. For dalits there is no other way to come up except treading on the path shown by Babasaheb.
When I joined JNU to do my masters I involved myself with dalit student group United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF). It was a great experience for me as nowhere else a dalit student group was so active and had such an independent existence. Otherwise in most of universities dalit students are not able to organize themselves and are unable to raise their voices. Since the first day I joined UDSF I became very active. Few months later one student approached me. He came to meet me after hearing about me from one of his friends. After some formal talk he told me that he also belong to my caste. Then he started asking about my activities in UDSF. He felt that I was wasting my time and instead I should concentrate on my studies. I tried to reason him by telling how important it is for dalit students to take part in the Ambedkarite movement and it is through this they can gain their self confidence and learn lot of social skills which they generally lack because of their background. He had nothing to say regarding this aspect but I could see that he was not willing to buy this argument.
Later the talk drifted to other topics like Civil services etc. But when he was leaving he said that Dhobis were higher in social status than other dalit castes like jatavas and Balmikis. They were never treated as badly by dikus as jatavas and balmikis. So there was no need for dhobis to participate in the dalit movement. This talk of his shocked me very much. I asked him whether he took reservation. He replied in positive. Then I asked him why he did so? If dhobis were socially higher than other dalit castes and treated well by dikus then why he, being dhobi, was taking benefit of reservation for dalits. Then I told him to leave my room. After that I never had a chance to interact with him as he always avoided me in the campus since then.
[Anoop Kumar is pursuing his MPhil in Russian Studies, SIS, JNU]