|Kalpana Saroj. She acquired Kamani Tubes after clearing a debt of Rs 140 crore and turned it|
around into a profit-making venture. One should not be cowed down by one’s station in life, she says.
Indian woman defies caste, becomes a real-life 'slumdog millionaire'
The Los Angeles Times
Published: 21 April 2012 07:34 PM
Saroj, a dalit, or “untouchable,” epitomizes what was once unthinkable in India: upward mobility for someone whose caste long meant she would die as she was born: uneducated, dirt-poor, doomed to a life of dangerous and filthy work.
The manufacturing tycoon — one admirer called her “a real slumdog millionaire” — is among a legion of dalits embracing new opportunities in business, politics, the arts and academia as prejudices ease and economic reforms open new doors in a culture that traditionally emphasized fate and reincarnation.
“Before, Indians thought the only way up was life after death, assuming they avoided hell,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a dalit researcher and activist. “Now, not having a mobile phone is hell. Dalits can't become Brahmins, but they can become capitalists. Once you become rich, you become free.”
Others counter that a few Horatio Alger bootstrap stories can't sugarcoat the continued suffering of the 17 percent of India's 1.2 billion people facing discrimination under an ancient, complex system that traditionally determined one's occupation and social status at birth, with Brahmins at the top and “unclean” dalits at the bottom shoveling human waste.
|Dalit children looking for opportunity|
Saroj, 51, once hissed at by Brahmins, has built a business empire that employs thousands of upper-caste workers, she said. As she sipped tea in a luxury New Delhi mall, she was wearing gold bracelets, diamond earrings and a traditional salwar kameez worth thousands of dollars. (After her daughter settled on studying hotel management a few years ago, Saroj bought her a hotel. With her son now in possession of a pilot's license, she's shopping for a plane.)
Emerging from extreme poverty and pariah status to a position of strength and wealth has certainly been satisfying, she said. That fact that she is a woman — in a country ranked by the United Nations as among the world's most dangerous places to be born a girl, given high female infanticide, inferior health care and nutrition — made her rise more extraordinary.
And although her ascent hasn't been without its share of speed bumps or caste-related jibes, she said, she has tried to channel anger and frustration into getting things done.
“I'm aware people may still look down on me because I'm a dalit,” she said. “But even when I was very agitated, I never lost my cool, always trying instead to find my way out of difficult situations.”
Saroj was born in Repatkhedha, a tiny village in the western state of Maharashtra, the eldest daughter of a homemaker and a policeman. Dalits were barred from drinking from Brahmin wells, and school for Saroj was an eight-mile walk on dirt paths, interrupted by occasional beatings by upper-caste children.
When she was 8, she asked her mother why, and was told to accept her fate.
“This was my world,” she said. “I didn't really think about it.”
She was married off at 12 to a laborer from Mumbai at the insistence of an uncle who considered girls “little packets of poison.”
“Your daughter's an ugly, dark-skinned kid,” he told her father. “If someone from Mumbai is willing, you'd darned well better marry her off.”
Her husband, his alcoholic brother and wife all beat her. Sometimes her brother-in-law would yell: Whom did her mom sleep with to produce this donkey?
“All my dreams were shattered,” she said. “It was hell.”
After six months, her father rescued her. But the village ostracized her and she ended up drinking rat poison and fell into a coma, barely surviving. Afterward, villagers concluded that she must have a guilty conscience.
“I realized, whether I live or die, I'll get blamed,” she said. “So I might as well go for it.”
|Dalits at the National Conference of Dalits in New Delhi. Photograph: Manish Swarup/AP|
Saroj lobbied to return to Mumbai, threatening to try suicide again when her family balked. Once there, she got a job removing lint from finished garments at a hosiery company for 15 cents a day. During lunch breaks she practiced on the sewing machines and became a tailor for $5 a day.
“It was the first happiness in 15 years,” she said. “I've earned millions. But that initial $5 was the most satisfying.”
When Saroj was in her early 20s, her sister became ill and died because they couldn't afford a hospital. “I realized, if it's all about money, I need to control it,” she said.
She borrowed $1,000 under a lower-caste government program, opening a furniture and blouse-making business that prospered. She learned about some property ensnared in liens and acquired it for $5,000 in savings and an IOU for a fraction of its worth. Eventually she secured the necessary clearances and found a partner to build a shopping complex.
“She is a struggler,” said Madhusudan Anand Batkar, 38, a social worker from Keriveri, a village near Saroj's hometown, “a real slumdog millionaire.”
Her reputation as a fixer led to another disputed property. When goons threatened her, she stared them down. “I wasn't afraid,” she said. “I'd already faced death.”
That too did well, leading to a stake in a sugar company and then to industrial equipment maker Kamani Tubes. The troubled firm was saddled with a $24 million debt and 140 court cases after its workers took over the factory for unpaid wages. The union asked her to run it and within a few years, she'd also turned that around.
These days, Saroj acknowledges being a bit of a workaholic. She starts her day with yoga, often works 12-to-14-hour days and spends several more hours commuting. In her meager free time, she likes listening to music and cooking. Her other passion is gardening at her rambling terrace apartment, which she designed to her taste because she owns the building.
Periodically, Saroj returns to her village to distribute food and clothing, set up schools, offer jobs to abused women. “She's very confident,” said Chaggan Khandare, 36, a dalit social worker in the district. “She tells us to fight for what you want, never give up.”
Although clearly extraordinary, she's not alone in her success. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry now has several dozen millionaires among its 1,000 members.
|“There are two kinds of poverty,” says the CEO of Das Offshore Engineering, Mumbai. “One that brutalises man, and the other which is humane and can be overcome through sheer hard work.” The second is what Khade prevailed over, to preside over a company with a Rs 550-crore turnover. http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?271501|
“We want dalit capitalism,” said millionaire contractor Milind Kamble, the chamber's founder and chairman. “We've been very inspired by black capitalism in the U.S.”
But even as millions of lower-caste Indians climb into the middle class with the help of affirmative action policies, progress for the vast majority of dalits is incremental, at best.
“There are success stories,” said Damodar Manohar, a 68-year-old villager in Repatkhedha. “But the overall situation hasn't changed much.”
There are still thousands of attacks on dalits annually and hundreds die. A dalit was stabbed to death recently for hitting a bull, considered holy by Hindus; a dalit was beaten to death for filing a lawsuit against an upper-caste member; and a dalit widow was beaten and reportedly paraded naked after her son eloped with his upper-caste girlfriend.
Dalits, caste activist Kancha Ilaiah says, should take a cue from the social upheaval that helped African-Americans battle racism.
“A sprinkling of millionaires, some top politicians won't change people's thinking,” he said. “We need a civil war.”
But for Saroj, owner of “five or six” cars, including a $200,000 Mercedes S-Class, it's been quite a ride.
“I was treated as something lower than a person,” she said. “But I'll die a human being.”
“Every hour two Dalits are assaulted,
Every day three Dalit women are raped,Every day two Dalits are murdered
& two Dalit houses are burnt in India….”
Recasting Hinduism for the 21st century
"It is important that Hindus take the lead in acknowledging the
damage that caste discrimination does and resolving to tackle it."
In a newly published report, the Hindu American Foundation tackles the issue of caste discrimination, and of the immediate and urgent need for Hindus to acknowledge that caste is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism; that continuing caste-based discrimination is a major human rights problem; and only Hindus, through reform movements, through an activist agenda, and through education can rid Hindu society of the scourge of caste-based discrimination.
While there will be naysayers in the Hindu community, who wish to get into their bunkers and fight a rearguard battle to "defend" Hinduism from what they see as a concerted campaign of vilification by Christian missionaries, Muslim fundamentalists, Marxist Hindu haters, and a global-capitalist-western hegemony, it is important that Hindus bell the casteist cat themselves. In this regard, the HAF report points out that caste-based discrimination is a serious human rights issue in the Indian subcontinent, and that over 160 million people, whom the Indian government categorises as "scheduled castes" (SCs), suffer from discrimination by not only a variety of Hindu caste groups but even by "upper caste" Christians and Muslims after they have converted to Christianity or Islam.
The Indian constitution, whose chief architect, BR Ambedkar, was himself a member of the scheduled castes, outlaws "untouchability" – the act of segregating and ostracising a social group by literally prohibiting physical contact with members of the SCs. Alas, India is hobbled by a weak and sometimes dysfunctional judicial system, and therefore acts of discrimination against the SCs (or Dalits, as many of them prefer to call themselves) either go unpunished or ignored.
Other lawlessness in India goes unpunished but the challenge of dealing with caste-based discrimination has been the most disheartening. This is especially so in rural areas where caste dynamics continues to play havoc. In 2008, for example, according to the Indian government, there were 33,615 human rights violations of various types – from the denial of entry into temples to denial of service in wayside restaurants, and from bonded labour to the exploitation of women.
HAF's report therefore begins with an important point: that Hindus must acknowledge that caste arose in Hindu society, that some Hindu texts and traditions justify a birth-based hierarchy and caste bias, and that it has survived despite considerable attempts by Hindus to curtail it. It notes that caste-based discrimination represents a failure of Hindu society "to live up to its essential spiritual teachings," that divinity is inherent in all beings, and that caste is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism.
Sure, untouchability is practiced not just by Hindus in India and Nepal but by non-Hindus in Yemen, Japan, Korea, France, Somalia, and Tibet. But the sheer number of people who are discriminated against in India makes this a uniquely Indian and Hindu problem. Fishing in India's troubled waters are therefore missionaries who for long have sought to make India Christian, and the left/Marxist forces in India who see only Hinduism as a problem but not religion per se. In recent decades, and especially after George W Bush became president, there was a surge in monies funneled into India for planting churches and converting Hindus. Organisations like the Dalit Freedom Network, led by and catering to mostly Christians, have gone on overdrive and sought to categorise SCs as non-Hindus and therefore arguing that they are not converting Hindus to Christianity.
HAF's report, a first of its kind by a modern Hindu advocacy group, provides readers a handy but grand sweep of the problem of caste – from its origins to its role in the past and at present, its use and abuse, and reform movements from the earliest by the likes of Basaveshwara to the great 19th- and 20th-century reform movements like the Arya Samaj movement, and reformers like Jyotiba Phule, Narayana Guru, Mahatma Gandhi, and others.
Noting that there are defenders of the caste system, not just the curmudgeon and cruel among Hindus, but the likes of Voltaire and Diderot who fought against the monotheistic intolerance of Christians and Muslims, to sociologists like Louis Dumont who argued that the "distribution of functions leads to exchanges", to the great Indophile, Alain Daniélou who argued that caste does not equate to "racist inequality but … a natural ordering of diversity," the HAF report argues that a birth-based hierarchy is unacceptable, that inequities against and the abuse of the Dalits/SCs is a human rights issue, and that the solution to this social ill is available within Hindu sacred texts themselves, and that Hindus should be at the forefront of putting an end to the system of birth-based hierarchy as well as taking the lead in energising the Dalit community to fight discrimination.
As the British seek to draft a new bill of rights, and from what one hears, equate caste with racism, similar to what was sought at the United Nations Durban conference on racism and racial discrimination, as western Europe and US-based missionary groups ratchet up the calls for actions and sanctions against India, and as we move into a new era of global interaction, it is time for Hindus to act.