Ruth Manorama – Winner of the “Alternate” Nobel
DVD on her 30 year activism: The Untouchables (available in Toronto Public Library)
There are 2 Indias – one with all the glitz and glamour of the 21st century. Yet many journeys in India are never completed. Each city in India has its own slum or shanty.
The director focuses on Ambedkar Nagar, a Bangalore slum, where many employees of the city offices are housed. Their routine includes long commutes. Most of the residents are dalits – the class of humans known as untouchables.
Note: There are 200 million Dalits in India and 60 million more in other South Asian nations like Sri Lanka. This caste stratification is essentially a Hindu tradition and conversion to a less discriminatory religion like Christianity or Islam may facilitate some relief. Unfortunately, being Christian did not help former slaves in America. Patriarchy and gender inequality persist across all religions.
Ruth herself was born a privileged Dalit child to an educated Christian couple of Madras. Her parents sent her to university. In spite of her “privileged” upbringing, she soon realised that the entire Dalit population was being systematically being humiliated and exploited.
Today’s Dalits are the unfortunate inheritors of centuries of exclusion and exploitation. Gandhi called them “Harijans” (“Children of God”). The Indian Constitution was drafted by a Committee chaired by a Dalit lawyer (Ambedkar) and provides many provisions for full access for all its citizens to human rights. It also provided for reservation of jobs for the downtrodden groups.
Note: The castes were listed in a schedule of the constitution and hence called “Scheduled Castes”. The indigenous tribes were listed as Scheduled Tribes. The state is involved in the SC/ST certification process. The constitution guaranteed 25% reservation (positive affirmation) for 30 years. Successive politicians have pushed the percentage as well as the time frame.
The castes number 5,000 and are based on occupation. The menial and dirt tasks are left to the Dalits. The Dalits rejected the SC tag as well as the Harijan tag and are revolting at the system. They are mostly in the unorganised sector like construction and agricultural labour.
In 2006, Ruth was awarded the “Right to Livelihood” prize which is sometimes termed an Alternate Nobel Prize. This recognises 30 years of work.
Ruth knows she is personally somewhat lucky compared to her sisters. Her husband is a Trade Union leader. They have two daughters.
Ruth knows that human rights will come when hearts and minds change. Legislation alone will not sole the issue. The Dalit issue is Social as well as Economic.
Thanks to her efforts, the Dalit issue has been put forward in Europe and Asia.