Silent Cry: Dalits in Bangladesh
Caste and occupation-based discrimination remains one of the most severe and forgotten human rights abuses of the twenty-first century. Many groups who face this type of discrimination are identified as untouchables and have taken on the identity of Dalits. Dalit” is a Bengali word which literally means “someone trampled under the feet of someone else”.
It is used to identify an outcast minority of oppressed, exploited and deprived people. Dalits in Bangladesh face various forms of discrimination and challenges due to their social status. There are between 5.5 to 6.5 million unseen Dalits in Bangladesh.
The majority of Dalits are usually very poor leading a hand to mouth kind of existence. As an excluded community, they continue to work in some of the most menial, low paid, and dangerous jobs in the country, such as cleaning toilets, sweeping streets, and emptying the septic tanks of others. Sometimes they face severe forms of human rights violations, including abduction, rape, torture, threats, intimidation, as well as the destruction of their houses and eviction from their land.
Despite all the difficulties in their lives, these marginalized people still dream of a better future. Perhaps they dream of a day when their children will not be judged based on their birth identity but on their qualities.
Every day we walk down the clean streets but we never look back and think about who keeps the streets and sewer systems clean. They are the most unseen people. No one listens to their silent cries. I always wanted to deliver their voices to all of you and show you their hidden pains, struggles and anguish.
To do that, I have been visiting Dalit communities all over Bangladesh for the last 4 years and collecting their stories. I have been documenting their everyday lives through my lens to shed light on the suffering of these marginalized people.
I am sharing now some of the real-life stories of these unseen people, whose lives continue with silent weeping…
Featured first on my Facebook page: GMB Akash
I was not born cleaner. I was an innocent kid who would vomit in bad odor. No one from my family ever was a cleaner. But now I have spent seventy years of my life by cleaning filth and dirt of others. I started doing this work to save my family from starvation. The day I started working as cleaner my whole family’s identity was turned into one name ‘Cleaner’s family’. My mother was called cleaner’s mother. In these seventy years, no one ever told me that my work is important or I am important. I have noticed people do not look at me as a human, they do not do eye contact or come very close, and they do not let me to sit inside their house. For everyone I am just a sweaper or cleaner. No one ever asked me, how it feels to wake up in the morning and without having any breakfast just go inside the pile of filth or gutter.
When my mother was very sick, one day I burst out in tears to her and asked for her forgiveness. She asked me why I was asking her to forgive. I told her that because of me for decades she was addressed as a cleaner’s mother. I humiliated her because I was not able to become a mechanic or even a labourer. She touched my head and told me that I have already become someone that no one can become. She told me, only few people can clean other people’s dirt by becoming dirty and the incredible one can do that for family. She told me how proud she is because I gave her food that comes from pure honesty.
After my mother’s death, I continued to do the same work I was doing, cleaning filth. One day I found a gold chain and I quickly hid it before my coworkers saw it. When I was returning home I was clean and tidy but that chain was inside my pocket and I was feeling all over dirty. I could not eat that day and thought how that gold chain can change my destiny, my life. I planned to give it to my sister in her marriage, I planned to sell it and start a business, I planned everything I could plan in my wildest dream but I could not sleep peacefully for the first time in my life. After a few days I sold the chain and took the money. The money was with me for nearly a month. I could not sleep peacefully for a single night. The day before Eid festival I was sitting in the local shop of my slum. A boy arrived there and begged to the shopkeeper to give him some rice so his family could have something to eat during Eid day. The shopkeeper scolded him and he walked away. I was seeing him weeping and going to home.
At night I did bazaar for the poor families of my slum with the money I had. I spent every penny. Everyone was surprised and asked me what had happened. I did not lie to anyone but did not tell the truth too. When I went to sleep at night I was poor again, a poor cleaner on his mattress. But I was able to sleep that night and dreamed my mother for the first time after her death. I saw her very young, in a beautiful saree, She was smiling and proudly telling everyone. ‘I am the cleaner’s mother. My son can be dirty but no one’s heart is as clean as him’.
_Idris Ali (80)
I found out my daughter had an affair with a boy for five years. She never spoke about it as she is always afraid of me. Apart from that, I assumed my children always hated me for the job I have been doing since my childhood. I asked her to bring the boy and his family to our house. I decorated the house like a new bride and bought the best food for them. I have been saving for my daughter’s marriage for twenty years. That day my daughter was the happiest I had ever seen her. When the boy’s family started the conversation they brought out a note of demands. They wanted all the material things a family needs. I was calculating and nodding in agreement with every word they said. After all, it’s about the happiness of my daughter. The last point was that they did not want me to introduce myself in front of their relatives and that I should never go to visit my daughter. The moment they said that, my daughter screamed in anger and by surprising all, she slapped the boy. She angrily said, ‘My father can do the thing that no one else can do. Not everyone can clean the messes of others. I am proud of what he does and if you do not leave my house in one minute, I will beat you all.’ She broke the marriage proposal and ended her five-year relationship in one second. From that day on, I knew how fortunate and happy a person I am.’
_Sweeper Monu lal
Why do you want to take my picture? No one will like me. For everyone I am a sweeper’s daughter. At childhood I used to go to a field near by us, I wanted to play with girls of my age. Their parents never allowed them to play. One day I asked one of the girl why they were not taking me to play. She said, ‘Don’t you know you are a sweeper’s girl?’ I have never gone to that field since then. Do you know what our people do? We clean your dirt, we pure you but for you all, we are the dirtiest people who do not even deserve your two minutes attention. I am sure you are wasting your time, no one is going to like this picture, and by standing outside garbage no one has time to appreciate a sweeper or his girl.
_A sweeper’s girl (that’s what she wanted to use as her name)
I had never seen any love or care for us in anyone’s eyes. When I work people give me a feeling that I came out from Hell. We cannot sit anywhere to have a cup of tea. People look at us like they look at dirt. There were days when I hid my tears after being insulted by strangers for no reason. I was sure there was no love left in this world for poor.
Ten years ago, I was working beside a children school. My job was to clean the drain and repair the site. We blocked the road and it was taking a few days. So the children had to walk to their school. I attentively did my work every day without noticing anyone who could again insult my job. One day a little girl arrived, smile widely at me and said, ‘Why are you so dirty?’ Before I could say anything, her father dragged her away by saying, she should never talk to strangers. I felt horrible, imagined he must be telling her daughter how disgusting workers like me were. And then for a week, she came to me every time with same question, why was I so dirty. I never got chance to speak as her father was always there to drag her away. I could not sleep those nights by thinking about a beautiful reply, ‘why I am dirty’. Poor cannot be clean all the time, we are born in dirt, raise in dirt and die in dirt and no one care when a dirty thing left the world. I could not say any of this to her. I wanted to quickly finish the job and never wanted to see the girl ever again.
At last day when we were finishing the work, it was Ramadan afternoon. I was very tired and down. The school was close and the baby girl did not arrive. I felt relieved, packed everything and was about to leave, suddenly I saw the little girl coming to me by running. She could not breathe properly when she arrived. I was waiting to hear the same question, but she did not say anything except smiling. Then I asked her, where her father is. She showed me a car standing far from us. I waited to hear the same thing. And then she opened her mouth, ‘Uncle, do you like red color?’ By bringing a packet behind from her she handed it in my hand. Her father gave horn and she quickly said, ‘I cannot clean drain, but I can help you to be clean. This shirt is for you, Uncle.’ I could not say a word and she rushed when her father gave repetitive horns. The girl left me on tears. She proved me, human still cares for human. I do not know where she is now, what she might be doing. I pray to God everyday, wherever that little angel is, may God clean all dirts from her life.
I never told my children what my job was. I never wanted them to feel ashamed because of me. When my youngest daughter asked me what I did, I used to tell her hesitantly that I was a labourer. Before I went back home every day, I used to take a bath in the public toilets so they did not get any hint of the work I was doing. I wanted to send my daughters to school, to educate them. I wanted them to stand in front of people with dignity. I never wanted anyone to look down upon them like the way everyone did to me. People always humiliated me. I invested every penny of my earnings for my daughters’ education. I never bought a new shirt, instead I used the money for buying books for them. Respect is all I wanted them to earn for me. I was a cleaner. The day before the last date of my daughter’s college admission, I could not manage to get her admission fees. I could not work that day. I was sitting beside the rubbish, trying hard to hide my tears. All my co-workers were looking at me but no one came to speak to me.
I had failed and felt heartbroken. I had no idea how to face my daughter who would ask me about the admission fees once I got back home. I was born poor. I believed nothing good can happen to a poor person. After work all the cleaners came to me, sat beside me and asked if I considered them as brothers. Before I could answer, they each handed me their one day’s income. When I tried to refuse everyone; they confronted me by saying, ‘We will starve today if needed, but our daughter has to go to college.’ I couldn’t reply to them. That day I did not take a shower; I went back to my house like a cleaner. My oldest daughter is going to finish her University very soon. Three of them do not let me go to work anymore. My oldest girl has a part time job and the other three of them do tuition. Oftentimes, my oldest daughter takes me to my working place. She feeds all my co-workers along with me. They laugh and ask her why she feeds them so often. My daughter told them, ‘All of you starved for me that day so I can become what I am today, pray for me that I can feed you all, every day.’ Nowadays I don’t feel like I am a poor man. Whoever has such children, how can he be poor?
I lost my mother when I was very young. I always tried to please my stepmother. But for unknown reasons, she could not even tolerate my shadow. She had beaten me a lot as a child. I used to stand silently during the times she had beaten me. I could not cry, because she told me that if I cried, she will throw me out of the house. After silently suffering all of this violent abuse, one day finally, she threw me out my home anyway. I cried loudly all night while standing in front of the closed door, but not even my father came out to take me back. I came to Dhaka from Chadpur. I used to roam around all the streets and sometimes ate from dustbins. Then one day I got this job; a job of a sweeper. But the sad thing is that everyone hates us and no one talks to us. Today I am very happy, brother, because nobody ever took my photo; no one ever wanted to know if I have something to share. When you tell my story to people, please tell them not to hate the sweepers. If we stop cleaning, you will die. We are your servants; we go into your rubbish. By becoming dirty, we cleanse you. Please tell the people to not look at us with hatred.
_Md. Rabbi (18)