In rural India, education symbolizes hope and progress, a fundamental right ingrained in the Constitution. Yet, beneath this promise lies a persistent issue - untouchability. Despite societal advancements, caste discrimination continues to hinder education, especially for the Valmiki community. "Guthlee Ladoo" addresses this challenge head-on, shedding light on the discrimination faced by Valmiki students. This narrative journey draws parallels with history and contemporary incidents, revealing an ongoing battle against untouchability.
Sweepers in India are known as Bhangis or Valmikis. The Valmikis are believed to be the most oppressed Dalit community in India. They have been subjected to the work considered most ignoble. Owing to the nature of their work, they have been ostracized from society and deprived of education.
Guthli Ladoo is a film based on the struggle of two Valmiki students, Guthli (Dhanay Seth), and Ladoo (Heet Sharma), who yearn to study in school but are deprived because of their caste. The film sheds light on the discrimination faced by the community and how it prevents children from the sweeper community from attaining education.
Babasaheb Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, the messiah of the downtrodden and the Father of the Constitution, himself had to suffer immense discrimination in the pursuit of education. In Mhow, he was made to sit separately in the class. He had to take the help of a peon to drink water as he was not allowed to touch the container. Even at Elphistone College in Mumbai, he was not free from the shackles of untouchability. Fellow students used to remove their tiffins whenever he came near, fearing pollution of their food. Ambedkar overcame these obstacles to get educated and went on to secure degrees from the most prestigious colleges in the world, like the University of Columbia and the London School of Economics. Furthermore, his greatest achievement lies in securing the rights for millions of people considered untouchable.
Various other ideologues and academicians had to face the scourge of untouchability in education, but they managed to overcome these hurdles.
Om Prakash Valmiki was a pillar of Dalit literature and belonged to the Valmiki community. Joothan (leftover) is his autobiography, a heart-rending account of his experiences as an "untouchable bhangi." The book describes the harsh realities of rural India in western UP at that time. Valmiki's portrayal of his school experiences in Joothan underscores the pervasive caste-based discrimination that has historically existed in India's educational institutions and the immense struggle that Dalit students had (and still have) to endure to receive an education.
Narrating an incident from his everyday life, Valmiki recounts, "One day, Headmaster Kaliram called me inside his room. He asked for my name, 'Omprakash,' I said trembling. His next question was, 'Chuhde ka hai (Are you the son of a sweeper)?' to which I replied, 'yes.' The headmaster then asked Valmiki to make a broom out of the twigs of the Sheesham tree standing outside and clean the school like glass. After cleaning the classrooms and the corridors of the school, he was asked to clean the field also. 'The field was bigger than my existence; the dust had covered my face and head and had entered inside my mouth.' The rest of the students in my class were studying, and I was sweeping the floor. The headmaster was sitting in his room but had his gaze fixed on me; I was not even allowed to drink water." Recalls Valmiki in his memoir.
Om Prakash further recounts that he was asked to do this work consecutively on the second day as well. On the third day, he furtively sat inside the classroom in an attempt to study. But his expectations were deflated by the roar of the headmaster: "Where has the son of a Chuhda gone? Mother... where have you gone?" The headmaster caught him by the neck and pulled him outside the class, asking him to sweep the ground. "I picked up the Sheesham twig; its leaves were drying like myself. I swept the ground while crying at the same time." Reads the autobiography of Omprakash Valmiki.
Such harrowing experiences at school are also responsible for the high dropout ratio in rural areas. Students are subjected to verbal abuse, taunts, and humiliation by both teachers and fellow students. Discrimination extends beyond the classroom, affecting their access to textbooks, school facilities, and even clean drinking water. Although these incidents in his memoir date back to the 1960s, not much has changed in recent years.
In an interview with The Mooknayak, Dhanay Seth, who plays the title character of Guthli in the film Guthli Ladoo, said that he was not aware of the discrimination faced by lower castes in rural areas.
Professor Tulsi Ram is another ideologue belonging to the Chamar community of the Scheduled Caste for whom caste harassment made the task of attaining education a Herculean task. If Joothan throws light on the caste-based cruelties in western Uttar Pradesh, in his memoir Murdaiah, Professor Tulsi Ram narrates several instances that paint a very stark picture of school life in a village in Azamgarh, the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh.
Tulsi Ram recalls that they were not supposed to touch the container to drink water, and upper-caste students used to pour water from a raised platform. "They used to serve us little and spill more, due to which we used to get drenched. Drinking water was a big issue. These incidents date to the time when the constitution had provided everyone with the right to drink water," says Tulsi Ram. Narrating a harrowing experience, he says, "In class 4th, I touched the embankment surrounding the well out of curiosity while one 'Misir (Mishra)' was drawing water from the well. Mishra ran towards Munshiji and complained that Chamra (Chamar) has touched the well. Munshi abused me profusely that day, and after that day, I could not muster the courage to ask someone to serve me water."
Tulsi Ram also mentions in his autobiography that the teacher used to address students from the Chamar community as "Chamarkit." However, it is pleasing to learn that a determined Tulsi Ram overcame these heavy odds to get an education and went on to become a professor at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. He passed away on February 13, 2015. Caste discrimination still ripples through rural schools.
Despite remarkable abatement in the cases of untouchability, some recent cases highlight the fact that caste harassment remains a persisting issue in the schools of rural India:
July 2022: Indra Meghwal was beaten to death in the Jalore district of Rajasthan after he allegedly drank water from the pitcher kept in the school premises.
March 2023: A scheduled caste student studying in class 3 was severely beaten by a teacher in Devpura village of Jalaun district in Uttar Pradesh after he drank water from the bucket kept with the teacher.
Aug 2023: A girl belonging to the Valmiki community studying in class 4th had to drop out of college after she faced discrimination at the school. She was not allowed to use the toilets and drink water from the pitcher.
Kuldeep Kumar Baudh, an activist from Bundelkhand, says, "Because of these incidents, children from the Scheduled Castes have to drop out of school, and this has an indirect impact on the vision of Dr. Ambedkar, who exhorted everyone to attain education."
Guthlee Ladoo seeks to highlight this issue. It can be hoped that this film creates awareness in society towards abolishing untouchability in schools. The film, which releases on the 13th of October, also stars veteran actor Sanjay Mishra in the role of a sympathetic school teacher and is directed by Ishrat R. Khan.