A story of a new beginning and with it, the age-old hope for change. On 14 October, as many as 236 members of the Valmiki community in Karera village of Ghaziabad read out 22 pledges and changed their religion to Buddhism, all under the guidance of Rajratna Ambedkar.
The day was significant and emblematic. On that very date, 64 years ago, Rajratna’s great grand-uncle B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with 3,65,000 of his followers who all pledged the same. The running theme in both events — an “escape from caste oppression” and a common tipping point.
The Valmikis, who are Dalits, alleges discrimination on the part of the ‘upper-caste’ Chauhans, who are the majority in the village. Karera, according to its residents, has a population of about 9,000, of whom 5,000 are Chauhans, while 2,000 are Valmikis. The rest are outsiders who have settled here.
The Valmikis who converted told News18 that the alleged gangrape incident in Hathras and the Uttar Pradesh administration’s handling of the case was the final straw along with the financial woos they faced for long which no one paid any heed to. They said they lost all faith in the Yogi Adityanath administration after how the police carried out the cremation of the victim’s body in the dead of the night.
“The Hindus don’t accept us as their own, the Muslims will never accept us,” said Pawan Valmiki, the 27-year-old who helped facilitate the mass conversion. “After the Hathras incident, we have come to realize that the state won’t accept or help us either. What options are we left with?”
Rajjo Valmiki, a 65-year-old ragpicker, was angered by the brutality meted out to the Hathras woman. “Nirbhaya was given the best treatment in the hospitals of Delhi and her caste was never brought up in the media,” a visibly agitated Rajjo vented. “Our daughter was treated badly, the police and the doctors did not show any sympathy towards her body. Why is the media harassing her family? We have been made to believe that we are ‘others’, you keep bringing up our lower caste status in everything.”
Tailoring assistant Veer Singh, 64, said caste discrimination in the village had become subtler over the years but the Chauhans “don’t miss an opportunity” to openly take jibes at them since the Hathras incident.
Talking to India Today, he recalled an incident from the night of 30 September, when the UP Police cremated the Hathras woman’s body. “An upper caste man who was walking by said that night: ‘Fasi lagwa di hamare beton ko? Mil gayi shanti? (Our sons are going to be hanged. Are you happy now?)’”
Bir Singh, one of the people who took to Buddhism, said, “236 people from 50 families of our village have converted to Buddhism, including women and children. Also, no fees were taken for this. After adopting Buddhism, we have been told to undertake good activities like social service.”
“The state machinery lacks representation from Scheduled Castes and hence their apathy is natural. The Valmikis haven’t been able to come out of their previously set identity of being a sweeper or leather maker,” Rajratna Ambedkar, the great-grandson of B.R Ambedkar, who runs the Buddhists Society of India, told ThePrint. “Converting to Buddhism is a means to help them come out of the vicious circle of poverty and the inferiority complex they live in,” said Ambedkar, who facilitated the conversion.
According to Pawan Valmiki, the conversion event had taken place with the administration’s approval. However, Vijendar Singh Chauhan, the Nagar Nigam councilor who has been in charge of the village for the last 20 years, said no such event had taken place.
Geographically, Karera is a small village in Ghaziabad close to the Hindon Air Base operated by the Indian Air Force under its Western Air Command. Not much stands out but if there is one thing that stands out that is, the caste divide – which is visible at the very first glimpse in the stark difference in the standard of living. Localities, where the so-called upper caste members live, are segregated and are characterized by large houses, cleans alleys, and a shiny temple, in contrast, the land allotted to the Valmikis is characterized by shoddy two-room houses, open drains, and a temple that has seen better days.
The Chauhans do not visit the so-called lower caste area and the Valmikis are not permitted to enter the temple in the so-called upper caste area. This divide percolates right down to the children as well, with apprehension and cautious warnings from the parents.
Fourteen-year-old Ishika Verma says that she does not venture into the area where the Valmiki community stays. The shy teenager says that her mother started teaching her embroidery during the lockdown so that she doesn’t venture out too much. “My parents have asked me and my brother to not go to that side of the mohalla because it is not safe. We usually don’t interact with the children of the Valmiki community here or in school,” she added.
On the face of it, the Chauhans insist there is no caste divide in the village. Probed further, however, they reveal the fault-lines. Jyoti Chauhan, 43, who runs a beauty parlor in the village, at first insisted there was harmony between both communities in the village. “Women from the Valmiki community come to my parlor for haircuts and beauty treatment. We treat them as we treat everyone else,” she said. However, she then threw in a clause — Chauhans don’t go to the Valmiki part of the village, although the reverse is true.
Manju Chauhan, a 28-year-old woman who runs a kirana store in the better part of the village, denied having any knowledge regarding the conversion of the 236 Valmikis, which occurred at a venue not even 100 m from her shop. “Humne kuch suna toh tha magar hum uss taraf jate nahi hain, toh hume pata nahi (I heard of an event, but I don’t go that side … so I was unaware about it),” she said.
A few minutes into the conversation, she mentioned the treatment doled out to the lower castes. She confesses that the Valmiki men and women were not allowed in their lane. “We don’t even let them open the doors of their houses if it faces us,” her husband added. “They are lower castes and they should know their place.”
Another resident of the village P.V. Chauhan, who has lived here his entire life, also said that he had not heard of the event held on the 14 October. “The Arya Samaj in our village is very active and we accept the Valmikis,” he said. “Why would they want to adopt Buddhism? These are ridiculous claims and no such conversion has happened.”
Vijendar Singh Chauhan, the Nagar Nigam councillor, says the whole issue is political. He says that all of it is a part of the Congress’ political ploy to gain Dalit votes.
“Wait for 2 November, all this nautanki around Hathras will get over soon. Congress wants to make a vote-bank out of Dalits, which is why all this is happening,” he told ThePrint. “I have no knowledge of such an event taking place. I am sure some Bhim-affiliated party must have given them money and convinced them to take this step. If the Dalits are really concerned about their daughters why didn’t they rage against Balrampur rape or the brutality of the Muslims against the Hindu community.”
Talking about why the Valmikis are not permitted into the Chauhan temples, he said, “See if a person is a rag picker you won’t go socialize with them will you? Why should others in this village do it? Similarly, the temples have been made personally by these communities and they have their own rituals that they follow. The Chauhans don’t drink or eat meat like the Valmikis. Hence, everyone has their own temple and doesn’t go to the other community’s temple.”
However, it is not as simple as it seems. Discrimination has been the underlying current in the caste-based oppression. 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 to The Indian Express, 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 recognized the discrimination. We are facing this for generations,” Pawan said.
However as Pawan, along with his relatives and neighbors turned to Buddhism after a lifetime of oppression and injustice meted out in every aspect of life, one hopes they are finally treated as equals in life – as a fellow human being.