Surviving Caste Discrimination: Mahender Kumar Roushan

Surviving Caste Discrimination: Mahender Kumar Roushan

When he tried facing the world upfront turning pain into anger, he experienced more atrocities and subjugation. However, today the ‘rebel’ is no longer caught in the clash between morality and violence and is tirelessly working for the progress of the Dalit community.   

Meet Mahender Kumar Roushan. A Dalit born in Mamrejpur, a village in Vaishali district in Bihar.

Mahender was born Mahender Mochi; 'Mochi' was the derogatory reference to his caste. He was born into a family of bonded labourers and was subject to caste oppression and violence from the very beginning. He was keen on studying but every time he went to school he was either picked out by a zamindar to work in the fields or he was bullied, ridiculed and discriminated against in school for being a Dalit.

“Anything a Dalit did was enough to trigger violence against the community. If we defecated in the fields (due to lack of toilets in villages) during rains, the zamindars would ask us to pick it up and throw it across a water stream. They would rather throw the chilies away than let us pluck and use them. For all the work Dalits did in the field, there was no guarantee of wages but if anyone said anything they would be abused and thrashed,” he recalls.

He faced ridicule and discrimination due to his caste at every stage of his life. But the incident that made him gave his surname was when he had gone to take an exam in Patna when he was in the seventh grade. This was a Sanskrit Board Exam, that would have opened up avenues for him as a Sanskrit teacher in future. There were name tags on every table. Though everyone wore the same school uniform, he was teased and taunted all through the exam by other upper caste students because of his name, because of his caste. When he opposed he was slapped by one of the students. He complained to the teacher who accused him of ‘lying’; he was taken to the principal who further beat him up. When he was leaving the examination centre, the guardians of the students who had taunted and teased him threw ink at him, hit him with an umbrella and hurled abuses at him.

“I realised what discrimination was. It was as if being a Dalit meant giving up yourself to all and any kind of abuse.” He dropped ‘Mochi’ from his name that day.

Despite being harassed, Mahender did not give up his studies. His diligence, will power and backing of a very supportive teacher made him not just the first Dalit matriculate in his village but the first ever matriculate in his village.

For a Dalit youth born into an extremely poor family this was just the first hurdle he had crossed. He taught students for a pittance (at times for Rs 5-6 a month), worked part time in a band playing during weddings and funerals, and skipped meals in order save money to get through a Polytechnic College.

It was the college years that shaped this young Dalit mind. Due to his involvement in student politics, he began understanding the history of caste discrimination, reading the works of Babasaheb Ambedkar, and following keenly the politics of leaders like Kanshi Ram. Buoyed by his newfound understanding of Dalit identity, he began protesting against caste discrimination, educating his peers, and spreading awareness in villages.

“Until I attended lectures and political meetings, I never realised that we Dalits were discriminated against. I saw it as way of life. We were victims of our identity and it was necessary to fight it.”

And his fight continued. At places where he was employed, people were uncomfortable to be around a Dalit who was awakened, vocal and would fight back. On one of these occasions, when he was trying to fight for his rights, he was spotted by members of Bihar Dalit Vikas Organisation who took him in their fold. He met several like-minded people who were involved in educating communities about caste discrimination and Dalit politics, and instilling a sense of duty and pride among the Dalit community.

This exposure paved the way for his organisation Dalit Mukti Mission. He has continued working for the identity and upliftment of Dalits. Not only does he work and train them, he even organises inter-caste marriages.

Looking back at his life he says, “First I was Mahender Mochi. When I joined the Dalit Vikas Organisation, they renamed me to Mahender Bodhi to invoke Buddhism in my name. And now my own organisation has added ‘Roushan’ to my name to confer on me the honour of being the ‘light of their lives’”.   

Mahender is one of those few Dalits who managed to tide over barriers of caste discrimination and inequalities to make a mark for themselves. Most are forced to give up by the society we live in. The lack of opportunities and access to education and health facilities, employment opportunities means that Dalit are never able to climb the so-called social ladder.

We at Oxfam India are trying to reach to thousands of Dalits and ensure that they have access to the basic and essential services of life — health, education,  and a free and just society. And we at Oxfam India hope to create many more Mahender’s who can stand and fight for their rights and live discrimination-free lives.

Oxfam India is a movement to end discrimination. You can join this movement too.


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