Dhaka, Bangladesh – Rickshaw-pullers in Dhaka will take their passengers inside almost any residential colony. But one loyal customer was surprised when a puller refused to enter Ganaktuli City Colony, a dilapidated area housing more than 3,000 members of the Dalit population. The Dalits were once known as “the untouchables” in many parts of South Asia.
This sort of ongoing discrimination has taken a toll on more than 6.5 million Dalits in Bangladesh. Due to their profession and identity, the Dalits – the term comes from the word dalita or “oppressed” – are still not allowed to rent houses outside their communities.
Although younger generations of Dalits are increasingly educating themselves, many say they are not able to get jobs commensurate to their training, due to discrimination.
But a draft anti-discrimination law, which could be approved by June, has the potential to improve life for members of the marginalised community, human rights activists have said.
The Ganaktuli Colony originally housed a tuberculosis hospital, but after the institution relocated to another area, members of the Dalit community were moved into the abandoned buildings.
Three or four families are residing in each of the 260 rooms. “We are fortunate, as we have nine people living in our room,” said Sunayana Rani, a 37-year-old housewife. Her husband works as a cleaner at the Ibrahim Cardiac Hospital and Research Institute in Central Dhaka. Dalit populations across South Asia are mostly confined to low-level service jobs as cleaners, corpse bearers, leather workers, or cobblers.
“Besides my husband and kids, I share the room with my father-in-law, mother-in-law and the family of my brother-in-law,” she said. “At night, my husband and I sleep in the kitchen while his parents sleep on the balcony.”
None of the rooms in the five old buildings have attached bathrooms. “On each floor of the buildings, we have two washrooms at the staircases, one for male and another for female,” Moni Rani Das, president of the Dalit Women’s Forum, told Al Jazeera. Water for domestic use needs to be dragged in buckets from the two water tanks.
“Women and men have to bathe under the open skies in water from the tanks, which is very unhealthy,” said Sunayana. “But we have no alternatives as we cannot get water from other areas nearby.”
Jony Das, a 35-year-old resident, said: “Despite informing the government authorities time and again, they have not repaired any of the broken water and sewerage pipes.
“We do not like this lifestyle, but there is no option. Nobody will rent us houses in other areas,” he added. Das and others from his generation are now daring to pursue studies, some even achieving degrees in law and other prestigious fields. “But this does not help much, as we mostly reach the interview level in public organisations. After that, we are never even called,” he said.
Although discrimination has decreased in Dhaka, it exists full-scale in the rural areas still.
The discrimination often occurs through the address that the recruiters find on the CVs of Dalits, he said.
Mukul Ranjan Sikder, president of Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM), said members of the community were still struggling to be recognised as human beings.
“Despite having education, most of the youths have to stick to their father’s and grandfather’s professions, which are looked down upon by the society,” he said.
On the education front, Moni Rani believes things are improving, if slowly. “We did not have this privilege [to go to university] even ten to twelve years back,” she said. “We were not even allowed into the Hindu temples for worship back then.”
Besides mostly Hindu families, one building of the six in Ganaktuli houses Muslim Dalits who also perform menial work.
Dalits residing in nine other areas of Dhaka are in a far worse state than those in the Ganaktuli neighbourhood, said people of the community. “Although discrimination has decreased in Dhaka, it exists full-scale in the rural areas still,” said Moni Rani.
The roots of the Dalit populations found in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal – as well as in the US, the UK and other European countries – can be traced to Uttar Pradesh, India.
Dalits, a fairly new term that the population now uses to self-identify, were previously known as Namashudras, among other names. The names acted as labels that excluded the population from the four recognised castes of Hinduism in India – Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (military), Vaishyas (business) and Shudras (artisans and labourers).
The caste system in India stemmed from the division of occupations, which were stratified to signify social esteem, with the Brahmins being the most esteemed and the Shudras the least.
At the time, the Namashudras [now Dalits] were called “the untouchables”. According to studies on migration in South Asia, after facing cruelty in their homeland, Dalits began migrating from India to other South Asian countries as far back as 1605.
A considerable number migrated into what is now Bangladesh between 1835 and 1940, during a British-sponsored urbanisation plan. They worked in jobs such as road sweeping, clearing sewage, shoe repair and tea harvesting. This historical legacy of working in low-paying, difficult jobs continues today.
To improve the lives of Dalits, rights groups have been pushing for legislative changes, particularly the proposed anti-discriminatory law.
“We have been researching on the law for the past two years and we launched it in January through a seminar,” Dr Shah Alam, a member of the Law Commission of Bangladesh, told Al Jazeera. “The law will be an umbrella law which will address not just discrimination faced by Dalits, which is discrimination due to profession and identity, but also other forms of discrimination including religion, race, gender, physical disabilities,” he said.
Zakir Hossain, chief executive of Nagorik Uddyog, a rights group, added: “Even if it is an umbrella law, it will still be a great development for the Dalit population.”