[Harsh Mander talks about his book, Looking Away, with P Sivakami (File Photo)]
New Delhi: As the suicide of Rohith Vemula puts the focus back on the contentious issue of Dalit rights, former IAS officer and author P. Sivakami says that the community is denied even the minimum human rights. The critically acclaimed author and former bureaucrat said she quit in 2008 after being treated like an untouchable.
Sivakami, who was in the Indian Administrative Service for 28 years, told IANS that her decision was fuelled by the realisation that Dalits have no place in nation-building. With more than eight books to her credit, Sivakami is among India's most prominent Dalit writers. Her first book, "In The Grip of Change", had created a stir as it questions patriarchy in the Dalit movement.
"Both the political class and bureaucracy work together against the Dalits. During my service, though my position was next to the minister in the state I was serving in, I had to struggle for basic rights for tribals. I was dubbed as a person who belongs to the community when I was working for their welfare. It amounted to untouchability. I realised that there was an unwritten law against people from the lower community," said Sivakami, whose last posting was secretary of the Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department in Tamil Nadu.
Many times, funds allocated for the tribal community were siphoned off for other projects and filling even a post of a teacher in a school for tribal children needed permission from the cabinet, which never listed it as a priority.
"To fill vacancies, I had to get approval from the cabinet and it was never a priority for them. When I demanded to fill the posts of teachers in tribal schools, I was accused of running a parallel government. The funds meant for tribals were used for other projects," she said, adding that no Dalit has held secretary-level positions in the home or finance departments in the last six decades, which she deemed significant.
"The post of secretary in the industries, finance or home ministry is considered a key position. No Dalit has been given these posts for the last 60 years. The discrimination is felt in all levels," Sivakami said, adding it was her father who inspired her to become a civil servant.
Disillusioned with the system, she quit the service and joined the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2009. A year later, she floated a political party, the Samuga Samathuva Padai to become the voice of the voiceless and the oppressed.
Discrimination, according to Sivakami, is pervasive - whether in educational institutions or the bureaucracy.
Referring to Rohith's suicide, Sivakami said educational institutions harass Dalits in the name of reservations. "There is a feeling that Dalits are not intelligent just because they have reservations. Dalits have a poor image," she lamented.
Flaying theories that Rohith committed suicide under academic pressure, she said that it is shameful to attribute backwardness of intelligence to a certain community.
"The set tone by BJP is that the scholar committed suicide owing to academic pressure and a research scholar needs extra brilliance. What do they mean by extra intelligence? How can you attribute it to backwardness," she asked.
The former civil servant also felt that the brouhaha over Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi's visit to the Hyderabad Central University was unwarranted as any support is vital for the Dalit community.
"Why call Rahul's visit as political? Any support is important for the victims. Why didn't (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi go there ? " she asked.
As Rohith's suicide has brought out the wide gap in India's social system, Sivakami felt that the dominant culture has to introspect on its failures.
"Nation building is not possible without brotherhood. Denying basic rights for the community based on caste is violence," she contended.
A staunch Dalit feminist, Sivakami believed that women have to be brought into the mainstream and she doesn't regret leaving the civil service for activism.
"I was voiceless there. Now I am doing meaningful jobs. My party has a presence in 10 districts in Tamil Nadu," she said.
What is her solution for an equal society?
"Sixty percent of the landless poor are Dalits. They should be given land and treated equally. The government has to strengthen the education system and create jobs in the private sector as well. Old habits never die. To change mindsets, one has to constantly talk about the discrimination the community faces," she opined.
(Preetha Nair can be reached at email@example.com. The writer spoke to P Sivakami on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival)