Kallu Sethi, a washerman in Orissa, has been running from pillar to post against oppression by the powerful upper castes in his village. He finally approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which has directed his case be taken up in an open court, signalling hope for others similarly facing oppression.
Kalu Sethi’s problems began a few years back when he applied for a piece of land under a government scheme for the landless Dalit community. Since then life has been one long tale of harassment and torture for him and his family at the hands of the powerful upper caste. Hapless, Sethi finally knocked the door of the NHRC for mercy and justice.
“My entire family, including the women, are often beaten up by upper caste henchmen because we mustered enough courage to leave the bondage of washing clothes of the upper caste communities and bought a piece of land to cultivate,” Sethi told reporters at a press meet here Monday.
Sethi, a resident of Shantipur village in Puri district, was a victim of the ‘bartan’ system in which a person belonging to a lower caste can only work as a barber or a washerman, rendering service to the higher caste – not for money, but for just 15 kg of paddy per year. He approached an NGO for help which in turn directed the case to the NHRC.
Sethi said around 60 people of the Dalit community still work as washermen in the village.
“I had filed several FIRs and complaints to various agencies and so did some of the other villagers. But no action was taken against all these atrocities. I approached the NHRC in December 2008 after which it issued a notice to the district magistrate of Puri. But the state simply replied that no such thing happens there,” the 45-year-old Sethi said.
“Then with the help of an NGO, I approached the NHRC again. It has now summoned the Puri district collector, the secretary of the Panchayati Raj tomorrow (Tuesday) at their office for a hearing. I will go and represent members of my village and members of my community. It will be an open court,” he added.
According to Parvinder Singh of ActionAid, the NGO whose partner organisation in Orissa has been helping Sethi, there are around 2,000 similar cases in Orissa pending before various agencies.
“There are 1,000 cases in Puri alone of human rights violations, bonded labour and caste based discrimination, and 2,000 cases in the whole of Orissa. If Sethi’s case goes through successfully with the NHRC help then it will set a precedent for all the others,” Singh told IANS.
While the case that Sethi will be deposing for is related to land, there are numerous other atrocities that he and other people of the Dalit communities are subjected to by the upper caste.
“We are three brothers and ever since we have got the piece of land, we have been boycotted socially and economically. When my father passed away, we were not allowed to carry out the last rites. My home was razed to the ground. Attacks happen often and food is taken away,” Sethi said.
“I hope this will be an end to all our miseries,” he added.