In the first instalment of a two-part series, the Dhaka Tribune uncovers how the ‘untouchables’ of Nilphamari are still struggling to end prejudice
The Dalit community in Nilphamari does not have any written history of their own, but they have heard that their ancestors first came to North Bengal in the early 19th century from India – brought here by the British colonial administration to work as cleaners.
Almost 200 years down the line, most of the community are still stuck in the same professions: sweeping, collecting garbage, and cleaning manholes, latrines and pipes.
While locally they are known as the Harijan - a name given to the scheduled or backward castes by Mahatma Gandhi that loosely translates to “children of God” – their identity continues to be defined by a curse that has plagued them for centuries. To many, they are the “untouchables.”
‘They used to serve me food on newspapers’
While the discrimination against the Dalits and the practice of untouchability in India are well known to the world, very few people are aware that most of the estimated 3 to 4.5 million Harijans living in Bangladesh are, to this day, subjected to similar levels of prejudice.
There is no precise figure for the number of Harijan families which live in North Bengal, but Nilphamari district is home to a large community, with around 500 Harijans living in Nilphamari Sadar alone. Almost all of the working age Harijan people are employed in cleaning jobs, mostly in government offices.
“Because of the work that we do, people think we are dirty even though we don’t have to handle garbage or take out buckets of waste from dirty toilets like the Harijan used to long ago,” explains Ripon Bhasfor, a 17-year-old sweeper.
“Things have changed a lot since the old days. People are nicer to us than before, but it is obvious from their behaviour that we are not one of them.”
For Mithun Bhasfor, a Harijan who has worked as a cleaner for over 25 years, the main problems centre around misconceptions over hygiene.
“The barbers still refuse to cut our hair, and most of the hotels here don’t let the Harijan eat on the premises,” he says. “We have to buy the food and take it away. Sometimes we are allowed if we bring our own plates, but even then they don’t always let us share tables with others.
“Once upon a time, when I used to work in houses, they would serve me food on newspapers. At least that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Not all of the Harijans sit idle in the face of such prejudices.
“I always walk into the hotels and drink tea like everyone else,” Noyon Bhasfor says. “I want them to ask me to get out, so I can look them in the eyes and ask why I should be any different.”
In his mid-30s, Noyon studied up to the HSC level and now works as a cleaner at Nilphamari Municipal Corporation. He is also the joint secretary of the Bangladesh Harijan Oikyo Parishad in Nilphamari.
“It doesn’t make any difference if only I can do it,” he says. “People don’t stop me, because I studied, I have a voice and I can argue. For the older Harijan here, who are uneducated and have never known anything but their cleaning, they are still constantly harassed and ridiculed by others.”
‘A matter of confidence’
Noyon’s words are echoed by many in his community, and there is a clear difference between the resigned attitudes of the older Harijan and the bold defiance increasingly being shown be the younger generation.
“It’s a matter of confidence,” says Joy Bhasfor, a good-looking twenty-something who sat his SSC examinations, but had to stop studying and start work as a sweeper when his father died.
“A lot more of us are becoming educated, and with that we are becoming confident, and we are able to stand up for ourselves. But what good is forcing people to let us eat at hotels if we can’t earn? What will we do with educations if we all end up doing the same thing our forefathers did anyway?”
Joy’s cynicism is shared by almost all of the Harijan who spoke to this correspondent.
“None of the seniors here are educated,” explains Pradeep Bhasfor, a student of Class 7. “How can they be? It wasn’t too long ago that they didn’t even touch my copybooks in school.
“When I was in class one, my head sir refused to touch anything I touched, not even my pen. He would trace his pen over my copy and barely touch it. They treated us like dirt.”
The bitterness in this young teenager’s voice is hard to miss, and mirrors his feelings about his future as well.
“I tried so hard to get work elsewhere,” says Joy. “I wanted to be more than this. People keep telling me to somehow continue my studies, but I know that as long as I am a Harijan, I will always be nothing but a cleaner.”
According to Ripon, even that restrained ambition cannot be guaranteed.
“Once upon a time, the Harijan were guaranteed jobs as cleaners, but we are still having to fight to get these positions,” he says.
The guarantee that Ripon speaks of is a quota that reserves 80% of cleaning jobs in government offices for the Harijan. While aimed at ensuring that these neglected communities are able to at least earn a living, Noyon believes that it is time for a change of mindset.
“We are grateful to the government for the quota, but we need it in other places, not just for cleaning,” he says. “In 2012, the prime minister gave an order to reserve quotas for Harijan students in educational institutions, but nothing came of it.”
Noyon is impatient for meaningful progress to be made.
“For so long, almost centuries, we have been standing still (but) now the Harijan are moving forward,” he says.
“We know now that we are not, and have never been, beneath you. But we need society to understand, and to help us take our rightful places in society.”