Untouchability, the abhorrent social evil which is a product of the ancient and archaic caste system, has prevailed through the ages in India.
While the country has been charting greater heights across various spheres, there is no ignoring the fact that it has failed to treat all its citizens equally.
Dalit communities continue to be denied fundamental rights, guaranteed to every citizen, by the constitution.
As we confront the dark realities of caste, we must also recognise people who have condemned and resisted it, by putting up a fight and going the extra mile.
Sanjeev Kumar is one such remarkable person who gave up the comforts of a privileged urban upbringing as well as a cushy job to fight for the emancipation of untouchable communities in his village and nearby areas in Bihar for the last 14 years.
Originally hailing from the Parbatta village in the Khagaria district, Sanjeev had lived most of his life in Delhi and was an MBA graduate, pursuing a modelling career.
However, a trip to his hometown would forever change the course of his life and its purpose.
“The year was 2005. My eldest sister’s mother-in-law had passed away, and we had all come to the village for the last rites. In the memory of the deceased, we organise a bhog (feast) for the entire village after the funeral. This was all relatively new to me so, imagine my surprise when I heard two dogs fighting over the leftovers in a pit and saw 2-3 people stowing away the same leftovers in a basket. I was stunned by what I had witnessed,” says Sanjeev to The Better India.
Upon enquiring, his brother in law informed him that the people trying to collect the leftovers, belonged to the Dom community who were labelled untouchables by the society.
“While I knew that untouchability existed in our country, I was shocked when I observed the discriminatory practice, first-hand, and even argued with my brother in law. How could they spend almost a lakh to feed the entire village, but be fine with people eating food that had been thrown away? He reprimanded me and asked me to mind my own business,” he recalls.
But Sanjeev couldn’t forget what he had seen.
The next day, he tried tracking the people he saw and found them by the Block Campus selling bamboo soops (a basket-like item). He tried talking to them to understand more about their lives and found that these folks were only allowed to carry corpses. Forget basic rights; they weren’t even allowed to take water from the Ganga river that flowed by the village.
“Then, I saw something which would forever change me. Three tiny beings—two children and a pup—were hovering over a dona (vessel) containing the leftover food from the bhog,” he says.
Sanjeev could not comprehend that he lived in a world that was so unkind to a specific group of people for no fault of theirs.
With a heavy heart, he returned to Delhi with his parents. There, in a conversation with his father, he gathered information about the history of the Dom community, and their caste-based persecution through the ages.
“He told me that’s how our society and the caste system functioned. We were all a part of it, and there was nothing any of us could do,” Sanjeev recalls.
Sanjeev was deeply affected by all this, and for the next six months, there was little else on his mind—to the point where he couldn’t focus on anything, including his modelling career.
One fine day, he put his foot down and declared to his parents that he wanted to go to their hometown and work for the emancipation of the Dom and other ostracised communities.
“My parents threw a fit. They told me that I had no idea about the extent of caste oppression in Bihar and anything I would do would be politicised and even come at the cost of my life. Disillusioned, I spent the next six months brooding, and refused to speak to them. They eventually gave in, and I set out to Khagaria with only one goal—to empower the Dom community and help them lead dignified lives,” he says.
The year was 2006, and Sanjeev moved into his sister’s marital home under the pretext that he was getting to know his roots better.
“I would tell them that I was visiting the village and interacting with people, but my real motive was to earn the trust of the Doms. I would visit the block campus every day, and talk to them. They were surprised with this attention—as never before in their lifetime had anyone from upper caste even given them a little more than a fleeting glance,” Sanjeev says.
Sanjeev’s persistence didn’t go unnoticed, and he was soon called upon by the Block Development Officer (BDO), who was rather impressed with him.
“I told him that I wanted to help the community break free from caste oppression and to do that, it was imperative to educate children as it would make them aware and prevent their young minds from the corruptive ways of caste oppression,” he says.
The BDO helped him by providing a two-room structure, and Sanjeev took the responsibility of bathing and grooming 25 kids. He also utilised this space to teach them.
The officer also helped Sanjeev rehabilitate many of the Doms who were living illegally on government land as well as the fringes of villages.
“By then, rumours—that I was a Naxalite, CBI official and even a murderer on the run—began spreading across the village. This information eventually reached my sister’s household, and everyone was furious. They asked me to stop whatever I was doing, or leave the house. There was no way I could stop my work, so I left and sought shelter at my uncle’s place in the neighbouring village,” he says.
Even here, his problems continued, and a cunning scheme was hatched by the villagers to incriminate him.
“These villagers poisoned a meal and roped in my cousin to eat it. Their agenda was to implicate me, in case he passed away. While this, unfortunately, did happen, I was saved by the BDO in the nick of time. I was asked to leave my uncle’s home after this incident. By then, I’d become one amongst the Doms. I would eat and bathe as well as teach them—so much so that the villagers started addressing me as Sanjeev Dom,” he adds.
The next year was especially testing for Sanjeev as he had to deal with insults, social ostracisation, political hooliganism and even death threats.
But he was relentless in his pursuits, as he was slowly finding support amidst not just the Doms, but also other untouchable communities like the Chamar and Musahar.
In 2007, he formed a collective comprising these communities and named it Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan (BHS).
His daily routine involved walking at least 16 km across 40 villages, speaking to the inhabitants, observing their issues, and work on empowering them.
Under the collective, he helped establish grassroots level governance through panchayats, where membership was restricted to the people from backward castes.
They elected their Sarpanch and other office bearers and held meetings to discuss various issues.
“Earlier, Doms were supposed to pick up the waste of others and take care of dead bodies. People used to force these jobs upon us. But from the day we joined the Sangathan, our condition has improved significantly, and there is less pressure to perform these jobs,” says Ghuro Devi, who is the block president instated by BHS in the Themtharakha village.
“My idea was to unshackle these people from the vicious circle that forced them to do inhumane jobs like manual scavenging, dry toilet cleaning and disposing corpses. They had the right to do proper jobs and not depend on leftovers. Through our organisation, we wanted to end this—for once and for all,” he adds.
Sanjeev’s next revolutionary initiative was a padayatra to the Ganga—the holy river that is out of bounds for these communities.
“They are not allowed to bathe in, or even drink the water. Does the river discriminate amongst people? It doesn’t; then who are we, as mere mortals, to make such inhumane rules? Equipped with their pots, 75 women joined me in this march to the river. What was even more heartening that, before the march, we went around making a noise about this initiative, because of which women, irrespective of their caste or creed from near and far villages joined us,” he proudly remembers.
Their paths were ambushed by upper caste villagers, who laid it down with thorny leaves but Sanjeev and his army didn’t stop. Seeing such a vast congregation marching on with unshakable conviction, many of them fled in terror.
The march culminated with an event graced by the District Magistrate (DM), who upon being encouraged by Sanjeev, hugged a Dom youth to send out a message.
“I wanted people to know that we are all humans and if someone in a post as eminent as the DM could do it, then it was high time for the caste politics to be abolished,” Sanjeev adds.
Radha Mirda, who was one of the Dom women from Parbatta who drew water in her pot from Ganga hails Sanjeev as their champion.
“We had no one to fight for us until Sanjeev ji began his campaigns. He helped us realise our rights amidst other things, and never before had anyone done that for us. His vision and persistence in abolishing untouchability has brought meaning to our existence and has paved the way for a progressive society,” she says.
His work slowly began getting noticed across the state, and even leaders in important posts reached out to see if he needed any support.
But trouble was far from over for Sanjeev, and this time, he was confronted by the Naxals.
“Most of these villages were Naxal affected, and the insurgents weren’t happy with the way I was functioning—without arms and ammunition. This was slowly shifting the support from oppressed communities that they once enjoyed—it was obvious that people didn’t want to be involved in bloodshed when there was a way out. I was threatened directly quite a few times but to no avail. Finally, in 2010, they abducted and tortured me for an entire night. When my people heard about what had ensued, they threatened the insurgents saying that if anything were to happen to me, the consequences would be dire. It was their love and support that saved me then,” he recalls.
For the last few years, Sanjeev has been living in a rented house, for which he pays an amount of Rs 300. His parents in Delhi continue to help him out with a paltry allowance, for he has dedicated his life for the betterment of these communities and doesn’t have a job that can bring a steady income.
“I care about these people, and they return the sentiment. I cannot cook, so they send food over. I save what they send and consume it over three days,” Sanjeev says.
In his fight for justice and equality, Sanjeev’s personal life has greatly suffered. His wife left him two years into the marriage in 2010, upon learning that he wouldn’t change his ways.
Sadly, she was pregnant when she left, and Sanjeev has never met his son.
“All I know that he is out there somewhere, but I don’t regret the choices that I’ve made. I’ve wiped my tears and come to terms with my fate,” he says.
While he couldn’t be there for his son, Sanjeev adds that he has become a father figure for hundreds of kids, whom he has helped get in schools and colleges over the last decade.
Some are even junior engineers now!
“Many of these kids would once sell eggs. When I see them today in their positions, I feel like I have been showered with crores of rupees,” he proudly adds.
Currently, Sanjeev is focusing on empowering the Musahars and is closely working with them in the 150-odd villages they inhabit. The political, as well as Naxal threat, always remains, but Sanjeev is unperturbed.
“To be honest, I do live in constant fear, and it is a strange thing to say, but perhaps that keeps me going. The fight that I chose to wage is akin to swimming upstream alone, despite knowing the devastating strength of the current. But I have managed to survive so far, and I will go on for as long as I can. We were a slave country that fought for independence, and now we are an independent country that is fighting for independence. If I don’t live to see that happen, I’m sure my efforts will be taken forward by the people,” he concludes, hopeful about the future.
For the downtrodden in Bihar, Sanjeev is a true hero, whose indomitable spirit and years of efforts amidst death threats and physical abuse, surely deserves widespread recognition.
We hope he finds more support in his pursuit and realises his dream of a world that is stripped of these social evils.
You can reach out to Sanjeev Kumar at 6204911130.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)