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A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)
A student studies on the hallway floor at the Prerna Residential School for Mahadalit Girls in Jamsaut, in India's eastern Bihar state. (Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail/Candace Feit for The Globe and Mail)

Breaking Caste: Part 1

Remarkable school gives girls from the bottom of India's caste system new hope Add to ...

But in rural India – where 70 per cent of the country's population lives – the great majority of Dalits are landless workers; they make up the bulk of the population in bonded labour. A national survey in 2006 found that in more than half of the villages, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit houses, to enter places of worship, to share non-Dalits' food or use the same barbers or laundry services.

So it is hard to overstate how bizarre Sister Sudha's arrival seemed to the people of the tola – this young woman in her crisp, clean sari, who did not shrink from their gaze or their touch, but stepped inside their settlement and asked to stay.

In a pattern of generosity that would last for decades, they gave her a home – first, she shared a tumbledown hut, but when more children came and the family needed the space, she slept in a grain storage shed. “I got used to curving my body around the circle of the bins,” she recalls.

The largest adjustment was learning to wake at 4 a.m. so she could go with the women into the fields to relieve themselves: There were no latrines, and modesty dictated that women could make this trip only in the dark.

Much of village life shocked her: Everything was grimy, muddy, covered in flies that feasted on the animal waste and food scraps tossed in the lanes, and no one had the habit of washing.

“But slowly, slowly,” she says, “these things moved away and I began to see the children.” She started with simple things: gathering women in the evenings around a small fire and talking to them about hygiene and the health of their bodies and their children. She taught the alphabet to children who couldn't go to the school in the dominant-caste section of the village.

Still, she saw herself as the student. “I was a beginner with regard to being in this community and being with the people, learning their culture, learning to accept them and also to really fashion my life so that I will become part of them.”

Only very slowly did she set out to pass an idea back – that, as excluded as the people of the tola were, they had rights.

When they worked all day in the fields of a landlord who then scoffed and refused them the 30 cents they were promised, she led them back to sit, silently and peacefully, in his yard, until they were paid. She gathered children and took them to school, and went back every day to make sure they were allowed to sit on benches, not confined to windowsills or the floor, and to touch books like other children.

She told her neighbours that their children were entitled to a government stipend to pay for school books and uniforms, and that they could insist that police investigate the dominant-caste village-council members who had pocketed the funds.

She stayed for 21 years.

It was not a religious mission. “It's a purely humanitarian exercise,” she says. “Wherever I see there is something lacking in them being a fully human being, I like to support them and see that they reach their full human good – so that is my purpose.”

This philosophy places her in a tradition of Indian public service that is often called Gandhian, but with a respectful tilt of her head to the Mahatma, Sister Suhda rejects that label. Instead, like many of the Dalits, she holds as her inspiration Bhimrao Ambedkar, a Dalit who became a lawyer in the 1920s, led the fight against untouchability and drafted India's constitution.

Ambedkar nearly succeeded in setting up a separate electoral system for Dalits, arguing they could never have real political power in a system privileged castes would inevitably dominate. But Gandhi foiled that, threatening a fast unto death if Dalits were given their own system. Many still begrudge him that, and his larger failure to do more to end caste inequality.

There are others in India who practise Sister Sudha's style of integrated grassroots activism, such as Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the anti-corruption Right to Information movement; her husband, Bunker Roy, who founded the Barefoot College to educate poor, rural women; and Murlidhar Amte (“Baba”), a social worker who spent decades living with and advocating for lepers.

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