“What does it mean to be a Marxist?” Hari Sharma and the Marxist tradition.

Jan Myrdal


Dalits in Bangladesh

Habiba Zaman


What does it Mean to be a Marxist?” Hari Sharma and the Marxist Tradition
Jan Myrdal

Professor Hari Sharma was to me a personal and dear friend. We met, talked and discussed during many years in different countries. On the India where he had been born, on China, on the developments in the world.
He visited us in our home in Sweden, I and Gun Kessle also stayed with him in his home here in Vancouver. I was deeply shocked on hearing that he had died as I was coming back from the guerilla zone in Dandakaranya where the Naxalites, the CPI (Maoist), weres leading the struggle for a new India. I had hoped to be able to discuss this development with him.

His death made me look back and reflect, politically and personally. Many have talked and written on his qualities as an individual, as a friend. He was a writer, a photographer, a very fine one. But I will, not quite at random, thus discuss some of the principal political and theoretical questions his life and work raise.

Hari Sharma was a Marxist. I could say the same about myself. But what does this mean? As a label it can stand for anything. That we know. It is not a recent phenomenon. Writing to Eduard Bernstein in November 1883 about the so called “Marxists” in France Engels refered to what Marx had said to Lafargue about them: ” Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste.” If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist. (MEW 35, p.388.)

Hari Sharma took part in the practical – and the ideological – class struggle; all of us in class societies have automatically done so these last 5 000 or so years. That which was important was that when he in practice took sides in the anti-imperialist struggle against the ruling class during the war in Indo-China he thus became politically – socially – conscious: a Marxist.

Does “Marxist” then mean that a Marxist is someone who holds that Karl Marx was right in the way in which he regarded – and thus acted in – the society in which he lived or does it mean that all that Dr. Karl Heinrich Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) did write and say during his lifetime was factually correct?
This is an important point to clarify. Most would agree that what Marx wrote was not inspired in the way the Apostle Paul wrote in II Timothy 3.16 -”All scripture is given by inspiration of God”. But many who have styled themselves Marxists have behaved as if.

This has consequences. To take an example. In the nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties Dr. Karl Wittfogel was a leading Marxist in the German Communist party. In the Germany of 1931 when the Hitlerite demagogy was a growing threat Wittfogel, by citing different quotes were Marx and Engels had used the word “race,” (cf the English lyrics of the Internationale: the “human race”) became the first to formulate a “Marxist” theory of racism. He did that in the first chapter of his monumental work “Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft Chinas, Versuch der wissenschaftlichen Analyse einer großen asiatischen Agrargesellschaft.” (Hirschfeld, Leipzig, 1931): “1. The racial moment in the light of Marxist analysis” (“1. Das Rassemoment im Lichte marxistischer Betrachtung”), page 8.

Now Wittfogel was a very sectarian Communist with a destructive ideological influence also in other fields, and thus not surprisingly he later in the United States became a virulent anti-Communist, a McCarthyist. But fortunately his 1931 construction of a Marxist racism never had any real impact; the thirties were a period when not only Communist but also Socialist and Liberal writers for obvious reasons carried out an ideologically necessary struggle against racism and biologism.

But by erecting a marxist theory of race from different quotes Wittfogel not only went against the very Marxism he said that he represented. He went against academic tradition. When Lawrence Krader 1972 published “The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx” (Assen, the Netherlands, Van Gorcum & Comp, N.V.) he rightly could point out:

“A recurrent theme is Marx’s systematic and uncompromising rejection of race, racism and biologism generally as a determinant without further qualification of social affairs.” (p. 37)
Yes Marx was very forthright: “the devil take this ‘Aryan’ cant!” p. 324 or “The village communities of the Aryan (!again this nonsense!) race …” p. 335.

To construct a marxism, the “Thought of Karl Marx” if you want to put it that way, by adding a quote to a quote to a quote is not possible. You end up with a pile of quotes just like you end up with a pile of potatoes if you add a potatoe to a potatoe to a potatoe. Due to their ideology many bourgeois writers, academic or not , have difficulty in understanding this. Engels explained their difficulty 1894 in his introduction to the third volume of “The Capital”:
“They rest upon the false assumption that Marx wishes to define where he only investigates, and that in general one might expect fixed cut-to-measure, once and for all applicable definitions in Marx’s works. It is self evident that where things and their interrelations are concieved, not as fixed, but as changing , their mental images, the ideas, are likewise subject to change and transformation; and they are not encapsulated in rigid definitions, but are developed in their historical or logical process of transformation.”

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  • “http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/pref.htm”/pref.htm. His original German text is in MEGA 2, II, 15, p.16.)

To this comes that Marx and Engels, not being inspired, always worked from facts as they knew them. When this knowledge changed so they changed. To understand this one can read the beginning of the “Communist Manifesto”:
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Then look to the foot note Engels wrote in 1888 to the English edition after the word “society” which he then included in the last German edition he edited in 1890:

“That is all written history. In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organisation existing previous to recorded history, was all but unknown. Since then …” (See on this MEW 4, p.462.)

In this sense Marx and Engels were always revising their opinions. Revisionism is different. It is a political trend beginning with the Fabian league during the late 1880-ies and developed in the German labour movement from 1894 onwards and thest known representative then was Eduard Bernstein (“The movement is everything; the final goal nothing”) .

The seemingly abstract discussion at that time from these “revisionists” in the socialist parties about the Marxian mistake in keeping to dialectics and materialism and class struggle were not, as many on the “Left” then believed just a sort of “theological” debate but a part of the real internal conflicts. It was an expression of the decay that first led to the collapse of the Second international 1914 and the horrors of that war and then to the emasculation of the mass labour parties in Europe that paved the way for Hitler. These same ideologies today in the deepening crisis of the capitalist system in our countries serve to keep the very real present class struggle of the masses disorganized and leaderless.

Though it is important to keep in mind that Marx and Engels were not inspired. If the facts were wrong so were their conclusions. I remember how Hari Sharma and I in our house in Sweden discussed what Karl Marx had written on the British Rule in India in the “New-York Daily Tribune” 1853. Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi, who not only was a great mathematcian, editor of ancient Sanskrit texts and activist in the World Peace Movement but also a sanskritologist and the first serious Marxist historian in India had shown that Marx was wrong in his signed, by the “New-York Daily Tribune” not edited, key statements on the unchanging nature of Indian society and its lack of history in 1853. They were simply not historically true:

“However changing the political aspect of India’s past must appear, its social condition has remained unaltered since its remotest antiquity, until the first decennium of the 19th century.” (“The British Rule in India. Correspondence of the N.Y.Tribune”, New-York Daily Tribune, Nr. 3804, 25 June 1853. MEGA 2, I, 12, p. 170.)

“Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history. What we call its history, is but the history of the successive intruders who founded their empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society.” (“The Future Results of British Rule in India. Correspondence of the N. Y. Tribune.” New-York Daily Tribune. Nr 3840, 8 August 1853. MEGA 2, I, 12, p. 248.)

This, his opinion, was a general European “truth” at that time. It was not due to a general lack of reading Marx held it to be a factual truth. His long manuscript: “Chronologische Auszüge über Ostindien” was published in Russian by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow in 1947 and then published in English by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow as “Notes on Indian History (664 – 1858)”. I had bought my copy in the People’s Publishing House in New Delhi 1959 or 1960. Marx had as the “Preface to the Russian Edition” stated “read an immense number of books to compile his Notes.” But that preface also in reality states that his sources were defective: ” With regard to the early period of Indian history – from the 7th to the mid-18th century – he drew chiefly on Elphinstone’s History of India.”

Hari Sharma and I at that time talked of how the selection of his reading had formed this, his false view of Indian society and history, and the impact that had had on his theoretical works. But this “lack of history” and “unchanging nature of society” not only in the nineteenth century was but still is a vital part of the reactionary class ideology that served imperialism not only in the nineteenth centuru but still does.

Antoine Roger Lokongo, a PhD candidate from the democratic Republic of Congo at the Center for African Studies, Peking University recently pointed this out:

“The West in general and France in particular, cannot do without Africa, especially now that the global financial crisis caused by the corruption of the Western financial system is threatening the economic viability of many NATO countries. /…/ To attain these objectives and maintain its power over its former colonies France has to pursue a global policy that is economic, political and cultural. /…/ Former French president Nicolass Sarkozy went as far as insulting Africa, when in a speech in Dakar the capital of Senegal he said ‘Africa has no history’ and ‘ the African man has not fully entered into history’.” (Global Times 2012-1022.)

That Marx formulated the same idea about the history of India more than hundred and fifty years earlier is explainable. His views about what he had called the “Asiatic mode of production” also changed during his life time. As the anti-imperialist movements and specifically the Chinese revolution developed during the nineteen thirties the theoretical discussion on the subject became very intense.

But due to an “unmarxian” reading of Marx those formulations that coincided with the general view of Asian society in the capitalist countries of Western Europe in the 19th century (they were backward, static since antiquity, had no inherent capacity for change and development) came to carry grave consequences, in theory as well as in practice for both Marxist theory regarding the situation in what used to be called “dependent and colonial” countries and the practical politics in the liberation struggle against imperialism. With the victory of the Chinese revolution and the development of the popular struggle in national liberation movements the discussion one could say then changed colour – it was negated.

There was though a notable dichotomy between this traditional European and reactionary view of Indian society that was reflected im Marx’ writings and the strong, in Europe at that time extremely unusual, sympathy for and solidarity with the struggle in India shown by Marx and Engels.

Marx wrote on 1857 as a “Revolt”, not as “The Mutiny”, and on the Sepoys as the fore runners; implied in what he and Engels wrote was the present expression “The First Indian War of Independence”. That stand has been of importance in the imperialist countries for the development of a Marxist line of support for the national liberation movement against their “own” government. The different revisionist and reformist tendencies in the labour movement have supported their “own” imperialism from the late nineteenth century until today in contradistinction to Marx and Engels . Of great importance was also that at a time when the official line was to depict the sepoys as cruel and barbarian Marx showed in disgusting detail that the British were the real and sadistic torturers and looters.
What Marx and Engels wrote on “atrocities” in India and China and who were the real culprits is important today when the official media in our countries behave in same way as the British press in 1857. The real culprits are the imperialists and their agents now as then.

Of course there are textual problems of a different kind that create obstacles. When you read Marx and Engels you will find that both of them in their writings quote from, refer to, allude to or parody Biblical texts more often than they mention English economists or French socialists. (See the dissertation of Reinhard Buchbinder “Bibelzitate, Bibelanspielungen, Bibelparodien, theologische Vergleiche und Analogien bei Marx und Engels”. Philologische Studien und Quellen. Erich Schmidt Verlag 1976.) The reason for this is in reality self evident. Such was the social environment in the German Rheinland they had grown up in. It is like the way in which they, specifically Engels, from this wine-growing region write about wine. The attempt to “explain” their writings by referring to that they were ideologically influenced by the Jewish or German Pietistic traditions of the region has of course been done, but without any useable conclusions. But still these traits in their texts constitute a difficulty for young readers in a mainly secular country like Sweden or for readers outside Europe.

For many in India who have not gone to a school with some kind of Christian or European affiliation most of such biblical quotes and allusions fail to register. Marxism there can become theoretical in the bad sense. The real movement for independence and liberation have a great history in India. The Communists had early on not only proved themselves heroic but also had a great influence on the development of a progressive popular culture. Though politically the gap between a Marxian and European party language and the verbal Indian popular realty came to have a destructive political influence in the Indian Communist movement. The inability of the leaders of the movement to understand and link up with the “Quit India” campaign is a typical example. The lack of real understanding among Party leaders of the Telengana movement is another.

This becomes evident when you look at the Chinese experience. Mao Zedong not only cinizised a marxian political discussion by referring to Chinese classics and experiences and the great Chinese dialectical tradition; he did so by making it directly understandable to the people, “the old hundred names”. Take a sentence that originally was from his speech in Yan’an December 21 1939 to commemorate Stalin’s sixtieth birthday but that has become – and still is – one of the most well known slogans the world over in social conflicts:

“Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: it is right to rebel against the reactionaries.”

This is in fact a core truth of what Karl Marx stood for from his early student years in Berlin until his death, i.e Marxism. It reads as a re-statement of what Franz Mehring – a founder member of the German Communist Party on New Years Day 1919 (who died later in the month shortly after the murder of his comrades Luxemburg and Liebknecht) – had stated in March 1918 in the preface of his classical biography: “Karl Marx. The story of his life”:

“There is no doubt that the incomparable stature of Marx is due not a little to the fact that in him the man of ideas was indissolubly bound up with the man of action, and that the two mutually complemented and supported each other. Neither is there any doubt that the fighter in him always took precedence over the thinker. The great pioneers of socialism were all in agreement in this respect; as Lassalle once put it, how gladly would he leave unwritten all he knew if only the time for action would come! And in our own days we have observed with horror how right they were. Lifelong followers of Marx, men who had brooded for three and even four decades over every comma in his writings, failed utterly at the historic moment when for once they might and should have acted like Marx. Instead they swung this way and that, like creaking weather vanes in a blustering wind.” (The English version according to:

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Hari Sharma was a Marxist in the Mehring tradition. That is to say that he did not just sit writing behind his desk. Class struggle and Marxist politics are not only, or even mainly, a question of refined intellectual analysis. He took direct part in the concrete social and political struggles of his time both in India and in Canada. Not only those who more or less could be described as Marxist.

He was instrumental in forging broad movements. As did Karl Marx by participating in, and writing on the popular, the lowly some intellectuals would say then as now, struggle. For instance against such discriminatory laws as “The Beer Bill” that shut down all places of entertainment on Sundays for the people while leaving the privileged classes their aristocratic clubs in peace and the “Sunday Bill”. Marx reported to the Neuen-Oder Zeitung Nr. 295 28 June 1855 :

“The last few days of the past week the following poster, put out by the Chartists and affixed to all the walls of London, announced in huge letters:

“New Sunday Bill prohibiting newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all kinds of recreation and nourishment, both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present time. An open-air meeting of artisans, workers and ‘the lower orders’ generally of the capital will take place in Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath and how anxious it is not to employ its servants and horses on that day, as Lord Robert Grosvenor said in his speech. The meeting is called for three o’clock on the right bank of the Serpentine” (a small river in Hyde Park), “on the side towards Kensington Gardens. Come and bring your wives and children in order that they may profit by the example their ‘betters’ set them!”

It should be borne in mind, of course, that what Longchamps [Ed. — A hippodrome in the outskirts of Paris] means to the Parisians, the road along the Serpentine in Hyde Park means to English high society — the place where of an afternoon, particularly on Sunday, they parade their magnificent horses and carriages with all their trappings, followed by swarms of lackeys. It will be realized from the above placard that the struggle against clericalism assumes the same character in England as every other serious struggle there — the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, the people against the aristocracy, the “lower orders” against their “betters.”

At three o’clock approximately 50,000 people had gathered at the spot announced on the right bank of the Serpentine in Hyde Park’s immense meadows. Gradually the assembled multitude swelled to a total of at least 200,000 due to additions from the other bank. Milling groups of people could be seen shoved about from place to place.
But meanwhile, Finlen, a member of the Chartist executive, rushed to a tree some distance away followed by a crowd who in a twinkle formed so close and compact a circle around him that the police abandoned their attempt to get at him.

“Six days a week,” he said, “we are treated like slaves and now Parliament wants to rob us of the bit of freedom we still have on the seventh. These oligarchs and capitalists allied with sanctimonious parsons wish to do penance by mortifying us instead of themselves for the unconscionable murder in the Crimea of the sons of the people.”
The spectacle lasted three hours. Only English lungs could perform such a feat. During the performance opinions such as, “This is only the beginning!” “That is the first step!” “We hate them!” and the like were voiced by the various groups. While rage was inscribed on the faces of the workers, such smiles of blissful self-satisfaction covered the physiognomies of the middle classes as we had never seen there before. Shortly before the end the demonstration increased in violence. Canes were raised in menace of the carriages and through the welter of discordant noises could be heard the cry of “you rascals!” During the three hours zealous Chartists, men and women, ploughed their way through the throng distributing leaflets which stated in big type:
“Reorganization of Chartism!

A big public meeting will take place next Tuesday, June 26th, in the Literary and Scientific Institute in Friar Street, Doctors’ Commons, to elect delegates to a conference for the reorganization of Chartism in the capital. Admission free.”

Most of the London papers carry today only a brief account of the events in Hyde Park. No leading articles as yet, except in Lord Palmerston’s Morning Post.

It claims that “a spectacle both disgraceful and dangerous in the extreme has taken place in Hyde Park, an open violation of law and decency — an illegal interference by physical force in the free action of the Legislature.” It urges that “this scene must not be allowed to be repeated the following Sunday, as was threatened.”
(Original German text MEGA 2, I, 14, p. 442 – 447. English in

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These two faces; the theoretical work and the practice, often unglamourous and sometimes violent but necessary for the development of the theory, in this case the participation in a popular struggle against an oppressive law, form a logical unity for anyone working in the tradition from Marx. The theory is practical and down to earth.
The “systematic and uncompromising rejection of race, racism and biologism” by Marx together with how the Chinese revolution and liberation struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America led to the present day clarification of the view of peoples “without history” was of decisive importance for Hari Sharma in his work as an activist for rights of oppressed minorities and aboriginal peoples and groups. For Hari Sharma this led him to Naxalbari and to the defence of the Muslims massacred in Gujarat for which he was denied a visa to go to his native India. But he did not neglect his intellectual responsibility.

I want to take another example to illustrate this. What Marx and Engels wrote for the more or less official press on the Crimean war and the political situation in Europe 1855 when Karl Marx was correspondent for “New-York Daily Tribune” and “Neuen Oder-Zeitung” was outstanding. It was reportage on the very highest order. But more than that; these articles serve to uncover political roots of present day conflicts. The general impact of their words in the public discussion at the time was great. Greater than what is now usually realized. This aspect of their political work is still mainly hidden away. I want to take an example of what this implies.

Both Marx and Engels believed that Plon-Plon, prince Napoléon Joseph Charles Paul Bonaparte, was the direct author of the pamphlet on the war published in Brussels in february 1855. The article written by Engels published (with minor variations) in first “Neuen Oder-Zeitung” 17 March 1855 and then in the “New-York Daily Tribune” Nr 4353, 2 April 1855 (“Fate of the great adventurer”) states:

“We published the other day some interesting extracts from the pamphlet lately issued by Prince Napoleon, which, we doubt not, were duly considered by our readers. That pamphlet reveals the striking and most important fact, that the Crimean Expedition was an original invention of Louis Bonaparte himself; that he elaborated it in all its details, without communicating with anybody; that he sent it in his own handwriting to Constantinople in order to avoid the objections of Marshal Vaillant.” (MEGA 2, I, 14, p. 195.)

In fact the authorship seems to be another than they believed. In 1920 David Borisovich Ryazanov edited and published the texts on international politics 1852 to 1862 by Marx and Engels. He pointed out that the conflicts of that period had shown themselves acute during the recent World War but that the texts by Marx and Engels analyzing them had remained unknown by most marxists. In his comments on what Marx and Engels wrote on the memoire Ryazanov wrote that the author was probably a French journalist Tavernier. But what is truly interesting is his comment in the notes:

“In places the pamphlet reads as a resume of his (Marx) and Engels’ articles. The editorial staff of the Neuen Oder-Zeitung later wrote, ‘the criticism against the previous warfare by the author of the Memoire is essentially that of our London correspondent.” ( D. Rjassanoff, “Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Gesammelte Schriften 1852 bis 1862″, Stuttgart 1920, second volume, page 514.)

The role that Marx and Engels played in the general political discussion around the Crimean war by writing in what then could be called “the mainline press” should thus be researched more.

I quoted the introduction of Franz Mehring to his “Karl Marx. The story of his life”. I did choose Mehring for another reason. In the obituary written for Hari Sharma his close friends and comrades in IPANA (Indian People’s Association in North America) wrote:

“Political ideas remain steadfast. However, there has naturally been, divergence of opinion on the strategy and tactics of achieving these ideals. During the course of long political activity of more than 50 years, Hari made many friendsc and comrades. It is natural that among these comrades there also arose disagrements ion many issues. Nevertheless, Hari remained a comrade or a friend of all of them and they all are deeply saddened by his pasing away.”

This is very important. Why did I quote Franz Mehring? His biography of Karl Marx is still the most useful and best written introduction to Karl Marx, his life, work and time. As Engels has pointed out he was a writer who used historical materialism as it should be used. He knew his subject, he had published the Marx-Engels manuscripts 1841-1850 as well as other documents. He was a marxist also in the sense of being a revolutionary who at the end of his life not only fought against the German imperialism in the First World War but he was also among the founding members of the German Communist Party just before his death.

More important that that is that he was Like Marx himself “critical and revolutionary”. He was a marxist, not a marxologue. In his biography of Marx he thus also gave those with whom Marx disagreed what he considered their due. In the quote I took he mentions Lassalle. Marx was, as is well known, critical of Lassalle’s policies but he has his given place in the history of the labour movement. This Mehring correctly sees. Mehring did not really know the correspondence between Bismarck and Lassalle as it was only published ten years after his death by Gustav Mayer. After that publication Marx’ arguments have become still more valid and we can better than Mehring see the strong negative influence of Lassalle in the labour movement. But he remains a major figure.

When it comes to our own friends, comrades and even classics we do not write hagiographies; we see them as Cromwell said when he was to be portrayed: “With warts and all.”

All of us who on any level have had some years and decades of activism in popular and so called “left” movements have experience of individuals either changing colour, becoming renegades or in fact having been placed among us by the ruling class. (Remember that Mussolini was once a well known socialist.) But that is not so interesting. Above all there always are discussions. Sometimes they tend to be acute. There have been and are many political conflicts among those that have considered themselves as marxists. How are they to be seen and handled? The relations between Friedrich Engels and Franz Mehring give an answer. Franz Mehring who was working on his text “On the historical materialism” had asked Karl Kautsky some questions. Kautsky sent them on to Friedrich Engels who then wrote to Franz Mehring from London on September 28 1892:

“Dear Mr Mehring
Kautsky sent me a part of one of your letters with a query addressed to me. If you believe you cannot very well write to me because many years ago I once left two of your letters unanswered, I have no right to complain on that score. At that time however we were in different camps, the Anti-Socialist Law was in force and this compelled us to act according to the rule: he who is not for us is against us. Besides, if I remember rightly, you yourself said in one of the letters that you could not expect an answer. But that was a long time ago. Since then we have come to be in the same camp and you have published excellent works in the Neue Zeit and I have been by no means stingy in my appreciation of them, in letters to Bebel for instance. It is therefore with pleasure that I take the opportunity of answering you direct.”

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  • “http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1892/letters/92_09_28.htm”.htm. German original; MEW 38 p 480.)

Engels was able to on the one hand point out that he and Mehring had been “in different camps” in a situation where necessarily “he who is not for us is against us” and at the same time note “that we have come to be in the same camp.” This an important statement (like when Mao Zedong made the distinction between the different types of contradictions).

In his letter to Karl Kautsky 16 March 1892 Friedrich Engels discussed the work of Franz Mehring on Preussian history and summed up: “The work is really excellent. /…/ It is a true joy to see how the materialistic view of history after it – usually – has since 20 years had to serve in the work of the younger party people as loud mouthed phrase, at last begins to be used as that which it really is, a guide to the study of history.” (MEW 38, p 308.)

Engels thus viewed Franz Mehring and his work comprehensibly. This is important. I have here referred to both Franz Mehring and David Ryazanov. But they engaged in sharp, very sharp, polemics against each other. It is not only possible but necessary both to evaluate these polemics and see what in them was correct and what not and at the same time regard and use both Mehring an Ryazanov as important marxist scholars.

I will take a personal example. Per Meurling was aprominent marxist critic in Sweden during the thirties. His articles ment much for me. When I worked in the Swedish party paper “Ny Dag” in 1946 I met him. Later on he became a renegade and wrote some really vicious books. But when he was old and ill and dying I took part in re-editing his texts from the thirties. They were good and should be read. Besides before his passing away he regretted his renegade writings.

To take a different personal example: The book “India Today” by Rajani Palme Dutt opened my eyes when I read it as a teenager during WW2. I still find it to be a marxist work of major importance. This despite his mistakes and his wrong evaluation of 1857. I continued to do so also later on in the sixties and until his death in 1974 at a time when I did not just disagree with him but he was in a politically hostile camp. I still have the same high regard for “India today”.

It is the same with Franz Mehring. A decade after his death when there were sharp line struggles in the party that he had been one of the founders of also his writings were critizised. At that stage his collected works were published by his close friend and comrade Eduard Fuchs who 1928 had left the Communist Party of Germany during these line struggles and from 1929 was supporting the Communist Party Opposition of Brandler and Thalheimer with heavy monthly subsidies. In the “Soziologische Verlagsanstalt” of the opposition Eduard Fuchs published collected works by Franz Mehring and August Thalheimer wrote the introduction.

Two years later , on May 12 1933, the nazi paper “Völkischer Beobachter” could gleefully report what had happened to these volumes. Hitler had been in power for five months and now, in the middle of Berlin, his followers had made a great bonfire of revolutionary, democratic and liberal books:

“The associations then took positions around the bonfire and threw heaps of books into the flames. Students stepped forward, piles of books in their arms, and shouted:

Against class warfare and materialism, for the community of the people and an idealistic way of life!”
Joseph Goebbles then as the books by Franz Mehring turned to ash told the book burning students: “You do well, in these midnight hours, to consign the unclean spirit of the past to the flames.”

Twelve years later as Germany and the German people had been freed from the Nazi tyranny – though not by the German people itself but by the Red army and the Allied forces – it became a prime necessity for the progressive forces in the different parts of occupied Germany to see to it that the works of Franz Mehring were republished. The sharp discussions on him in the pre-Hitler years were relegated to notes and Engels’ view of the importance of his work prevailed.

It is the same with Hari Sharma. Of course we can, and intellectually must, discuss his specific policies in a specific stage. For instance that he, as well known a generation ago, was influenced in his view of Indian reality by Satanarayan Singh who was – and remains – a controversial figure among marxists in India .

But if I go back thirtytwo years I too met, talked with (and wrote about) Satanarayan Singh though I was in practice more influenced by Chandrapulla Reddy (both of them now dead) whom I did not only clandestinely, as the authorities were at that time searching for him, meet and discuss with, but who then sent me with my wife Gun Kessle and my daughter underground to the armed squads of his ML-faction in Andhra Pradesh. Something that I know gave me a better understanding of India.

Hari Sharma was a fascinating and loveable person. For that he is and should be remembered. But on the general level it is above all the work and life of Hari Sharma that remains of importance. In India, in Canada and for us all.


Dalits in Bangladesh: A Review Report

Habiba Zaman, PhD

Professor, GSWS, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC

Associate Member, Labour Studies Program, SFU

Email: hzaman@sfu.ca

Nuheen Khan, BA (UBC) and MA (UBC)

Lecturer, North South University, Dhaka, and Founder of Garbo Bangladesh Foundation

Email: nuheen@gmail.com


As a child growing up in a district town of Eastern Bangladesh in the 1960s, I witnessed the Dalits (called “Methors” at that time) coming to remove accumulated feces from a huge earthen bucket pulled up from our outdoor pit toilets. The buckets were transported by hand and emptied into large tin cans that sat on the Dalits’ covered carriage. After repeating the same procedure for our neighbors, the Dalits would dump the contents of the cans in a dumping ground – usually a body of water or a place close to the local Dalit colony on the outskirts of the municipality. In a few cases, these collected feces would be buried underground. Today, this practice is mostly a thing of the past, as many houses have sanitary latrines.

Due to my own research in the areas of labor and labor practices – generally in regards to unorganized labor – and as an ardent believer in social justice, I came to know of the Garbo Bangladesh Foundation (GBF), a non-governmental organization (NGO) working with the Dalit community in Natore in the northern part of Bangladesh. My co-author, Nuheen Khan, a graduate of UBC, established the GBF in 2012. One of the major objectives of the GBF is to educate the Dalit children. Unfortunately, Bangladesh remains mired in age-old structural and systemic discrimination against certain groups based on gender, class, religion, occupation, etc. Of all the groups who suffer structural and systemic discrimination in Bangladesh, the Dalits are one of the most vulnerable; issues affecting them are barely spoken about, let alone addressed either in the public discourse or through governmental policy. This exploratory research was designed to provide an overview of the situation faced by the Dalits in Bangladesh. This report also presents the work undertaken by the GBF in Natore, and its general impacts in the Natore area.

This research was supported by a small grant from the Dr. Hari Sharma Foundation during my sabbatical year (Jan-Dec 2016). The funding was later given to the GBF as part of a collaborative arrangement. Nuheen Khan was my co-researcher, and eventually provided me with a draft report. Along with Nuheen Khan, I visited the Dalit colony in Natore in January-February 2016 and spoke with people in the colony. I also visited the GBF’s school in the Dalit colony and the GBF’s office in Dhaka. The GBF has another project focused on supporting children living on the streets in Dhaka city. My visits to Natore and meetings with GBF staff were very helpful in informing my  understanding of some of the practical and most pressing issues related to the Dalits in Bangladesh. This report uses some available secondary sources such as the publications of the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative, as well as reports on the activities of NGOs working with Dalits, journal articles, books, newspaper articles, and the GBF’s website. However, my visits and interactions with the Dalit children, and my discussion with GBF volunteers and workers including teachers at the Natore Dalit colony, influenced the analysis. It became apparent that gender issues are not yet at the forefront of the discussion in the literature pertinent to Dalits. Furthermore, most of the reports and literature on Dalits in Bangladesh are in Bangla. As a result, those who work to advance the rights of Dalits globally are not adequately informed of the miserable conditions and social stigma facing Dalits in Bangladesh. This report will go some way toward helping researchers and activists working to support the Dalits by illuminating the reality of the situation facing this population.

Of all the publications in Bangla, we consider that Joyshri Sarker’s book Prantobashi Harijonder Kotha (Stories of the Marginalized Dalits) (2012) is an illustrative documentation of the Dalit situation in Bangladesh. This report has benefitted immensely from Sarker’s insightful analysis. Sarker (2012) rightfully pointed out the lack of documented history of the Dalits, including the notable absence of their oral stories as well as their intergenerational knowledge and narratives from the country’s official history. Significantly, there is no well-known Dalit academic and researcher in Bangladesh. This invisibility may be partly attributed to the fact that the Dalits do not use surnames, in contrast to the practice of non-Dalits in Bangladesh or those in Western society. Dalits are known instead by the name of their various groups of ancestry, such as Dome, Bashfore, Hari, Rishi and so on – for example, Shashi Bashfore. If they use one of these names in the public domain, however, they are easily identified as a Dalit and thus stigmatized, restricting their access to public institutions. To counter this overt discrimination and exclusion, the Dalits often select to change their surnames to lower caste Hindu surnames such as Das, Jamadar, etc.

The common perception in Bangladesh is that Dalits belong to the Hindu community, especially to Scheduled Castes. Dalits, generally, do not have any established religious institutions such as temples, countrywide religious festivals, or congregations that would bring them visibility in the media or the public domain. Instead, they carry out their religious festivals in a communal space that is used for other activities as well. Those temples they do have are localized. For example, I found one brick-built platform (not a temple) strewn with flowers and petals in the Natore Dalit colony, and was told that this was a place where the community observes religious festivals. Joyshri Sarker (2012) reported that the Dalits do have temples; however, there is not much available information pertaining to their religion and temples.

A major objective of this report is to inform the wider community of the structural and systemic discrimination faced by the Dalits in Bangladesh, with the hope of mobilizing support to combat these age-old customary practices of discrimination. Such discriminatory practices are largely based on the Dalits’ occupations, laboring practices, and segregated neighborhoods. Bangladesh is a Muslim-dominated country. It is claimed that Islam, the religion of Muslims, does not preach any discrimination based on occupation, skin color, neighborhood, residence, etc. The reality, however, is that the Muslims in Bangladesh condone and embrace a class-based and segregated society. Consequently, among other segregations, the demarcation of Dalits and non-Dalits has been crystallized over hundreds of years. Neither the Muslim community nor any progressive social or political figures have ever paid due attention to the issue of the discrimination faced by Dalits in Bangladesh.

This report has five parts: the first part briefly examines the meaning and significance of the term Dalit; the second part advances a comprehensive narration of the  socio-economic conditions faced by Dalits in Bangladesh; the third part deals with the current situation of Dalits in Bangladesh; the fourth part examines the role of the Garbo Bangladesh Foundation including its strengths as well as its limitations; and the last part makes a number of recommendations in favor of an inclusive society and the recognition of the rights of the Dalits in regards to education, occupation, social inclusion, and politics. The existing social exclusion and sharply demarcated segregation between the Dalits and the non-Dalits in Bangladesh must be consciously and legally (in both law and in practice) dismantled. Most of all, the Dalits must be respected and treated with the same dignity and honor as non-Dalits.

Dalit: Meaning, Significance, and Variations

This report has used the term “Dalit” as a marker of agency, identity, and community. The term Dalit literally means “crushed,” “broken to pieces,” “ground down,” and thus it conveys a negative description of a citizen, which instigates both exclusion and discrimination when demands for inclusion arise (Rao 2009). In The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, Anupama Rao (2009) has poignantly elaborated in the context of colonial modernity and anti-caste thinking: “They did not demand Hindu inclusion, but instead conceived the untouchable as a unique political subject, as non-Hindu and Dalit” (p. 2).  M. K. Gandhi was against this “untouchability,” and renamed Dalits as Harijans, or “people of god” in 1933 (Rao 2009); therefore, some identify Dalits as “Harijans.” The Natore Dalit colony is, in fact, called Harijan Colony. Indeed, published literature uses Dalit, Harijan, Sweeper, and many derogatory terms synonymously. In The Pariah People: An Ethnography of the Urban Sweepers in Bangladesh, Asaduzzaman (2001) has enumerated these terms, including the derogatory ones, while identifying his studied group as Sweepers. Asaduzzaman (2001) observes:

Members of the Sweeper community appear to be a self-conscious people with a glaring sense of dignity and pride. Their background knowledge and present experience of stigma and negative discrimination from Muslim and Hindu societies make them aware of and active in opposing the ideological hegemony of caste hierarchy both in its social and religious senses. (pp. 263-64)

Based on his extensive ethnographic research, Asaduzzaman (2001) identified the Dalits as a socially detached and degraded community who continuously live in a “double minority situation”. This report has intentionally used the term Dalit to demonstrate this group’s identity, agency, invisibility, and community. Non-Dalits – for example, the authors of this report – are those who do not belong to this community. Throughout the report, the capitalized term Dalit has been used, with a capital letter, to impart visibility, dignity, and honor to this minority group.

Socio-Economic Conditions of Dalits

Demographic Features

Dalits live dispersed all across Bangladesh. They exist in cities, towns, and municipalities. Overall, there are approximately 3 million Dalits in Bangladesh (Sarker, 2012). Some sources claim that there may in fact be as many as 5 million Dalits in the country (Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Women’s Federation, n. d.). There exist no accurate statistics or segregated data on the Dalits. Asaduzzaman (2001) rightfully states: “In the statistics of Bangladesh government, Sweepers [Dalits] have not yet been categorized separately as a single occupational group” (p. 4). In other words, the Bangladesh government has never made any conscious efforts to enumerate the Dalit people. In Dhaka City and its outskirts, the number of Dalits totals around 35 to 40 thousand (see, Islam & Nasir Uddin, 2008).

Generally, the Dalits work in the areas of cleaning, maintenance, and sustaining public properties; this may include cleaning and maintenance of drainage facilities, cleaning septic tanks not connected with sewerage, manual removal of accumulated human feces in private houses as well as in public and government offices, manhole cleaning, and removal of unaccounted dead bodies. In some cases, they are employed in carrying out unsavory tasks such as dog culling, upon the directive of local municipalities. Historically in the sub-continent, “Domes,” a subsection of Dalits, under instruction from doctors, have carried out autopsies on dead bodies. Broadly speaking then, the Dalits perform dangerous and dirty work.

Nature of Work: Intergenerational or Formal Training

When Dalits work, they rub their bodies with mustard oil to fight or minimize the odor often associated with these difficult jobs. Many Dalits are killed when they attempt to clean septic tanks and manholes, due to poisonous gases. The only safety precaution undertaken in these cases is to open the lid of the septic tank or manhole and keep it open for some time to make sure poisonous gases escape. From an early age, Dalit men perform these tasks based on accumulated knowledge and experience gleaned by helping their fathers, brothers, and uncles as teens, but without any formal training. In short, the structure of the system builds in the intergenerational transfer of these jobs. Due to the absence of any formal training, Dalit workers forego basic safety procedures and succumb to death from inhalation of poisonous gases such as carbon monoxide, methane, hydrogen, and sulphate. Given their below average levels of education, the Dalits’ incomes are on par with or higher than the incomes of average Bangladeshi workers, because few people other than Dalits are willing to perform these unsafe and unsavory tasks. This historical trend still exists outside Dhaka. More recently, however, non-Dalits in Dhaka are also entering into these kinds of professions due to the high level of unemployment in Bangladesh and better levels of payment for this kind of job.


The Dalits have sub-castes and marry within their sub-castes. For example, Domes marry Domes in Natore. They generally don’t marry within the same Dalit colony they inhabit, or outside their sub-caste. For example, Dalits in Natore marry Dalits in Naogaon. Generally, girls are married off at the age of 15 or 16, while boys get married at the age of 18 to 21. The wedding is held within the bride’s colony, with the groom’s party renting a bus and visiting the colony of the bride for the celebration of the wedding.

Death Rituals

Rituals related to death are located in the neighborhood of the deceased, and may vary from one group to another and based upon affordability. The neighbors do not touch the food or water belonging to the deceased person’s family for one month. An individual Dalit may perform rituals related to death before the funeral. Bangladeshi Dalits usually cremate their dead, although some sub-sections of Dalits perform burials.


Nature and the local environment provide the source of the Dalits’ religion. For example, they worship the Sun. The Dalits’ religion is localized and community-based. It is a version of an ancient religion (Sanaton) that is a form of Hinduism, but its emphasis is on different deities than those of the mainstream Hindu religion.

In the school system in Bangladesh, the government curriculum enforces the teaching of four major religions (Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism) from Grade 3 onward. This policy has an adverse effect on the Dalits because their children are forced to learn Hinduism, which has the most commonalities with their traditional/ancient religion; the fact that educational institutions train the Dalit children to learn rituals of Hinduism often directly or indirectly causes them to accept last names such as Das – a lower caste Hindu name – rather than their traditional last names. This practice helps Dalit children mask their identity and reduces the potential of facing discrimination in their life, and hence is popular among Bangladeshi Dalits. The requirement to disown their own ancestral heritage, traditions, customs, and identity is a testament to the amount of discrimination they face in their daily lives.

Gender/Women’s Issues

Farzana Islam and Mohammed Nasir Uddin (2008) have demonstrated in an ethnographic study that due to the intensity of exclusion and deprivation that encompass all Dalit people irrespective of gender, it is almost impossible to explore women’s and gender issues per se although the authors initially set out to examine such issues. Islam and Nasir Uddin consequently argued for further examination of the processes that marginalize and deprive the Dalits.

It is recognized that Dalit women don’t have any formal education, and thus are unable to read and write. In the Natore Dalit colony, however, the GBF noticed that women demonstrated a higher level of interest in adult education. On questioning, it was revealed that this was the effect of Dalit mothers’ desire to teach their children at home prior to the children starting school. The GBF classes for women are held between 6-7 pm, and 5-6 Dalit women would show up religiously to the school with their books and notebooks, foregoing entertainment such as television in order to learn in the evenings. At the Natore Dalit Colony, there are also a number of microcredit agencies targeting women. The GBF noticed that the loans are usually taken for the purpose of consumption smoothing rather than setting up new businesses. The discrimination faced by Dalits constricts their target market to the community they live in, discouraging any business initiative by Dalit women. In the Natore Dalit colony, the GBF didn’t find a single Dalit man who showed interest in leaving his job and taking up traditional transport sector work (e.g., pulling rickshaws, vans, etc.), which are common for the general population taking microcredit loans. This is partly due to the higher payment they receive for the work they do with less effort, and partly to preserve their identity within the community.

Possession of Luxury Items

At the Natore Dalit colony, the GBF observed that Dalit households frequently spend money on luxury items such as gold jewelry while their children walk around barefoot. Generally, children may have one pair of sandals, but they are reluctant to wear these due to fear of wearing them out. Additionally, they are not informed as to the benefits of wearing sandals. Most households have a television, and some have a refrigerator as well. Accompanied by GBF volunteers, I visited the Natore Dalit colony and found the colony and houses to be tidy and clean. One very disturbing issue, however, was the abundance of refuse surrounding the colony. The pictures below demonstrate the unhygienic environment in which the colony is situated, including stagnant water and nearby city dumpsites.



Health and Wellbeing

The Dalits in the Natore colony generally eat rice, fish, vegetables, dal, and meat. The GBF considers that the main challenges facing the Dalits are: lack of education including health education, and systemic and structural discrimination from non-Dalit society. Further, alcoholism and drug use are pervasive among the Dalits for various reasons. Joyshri Sarker (2012) claims that pork meat and indigenous liquor are indispensable parts of their diet. However, the GFB in Natore found that the community is divided into two groups when it comes to alcohol consumption. One group – largely seniors/elders – is accustomed to consuming liquor on a frequent basis, while the other group – mostly middle-aged individuals – perceives excessive liquor consumption/alcoholism as a social evil, but is not able to prevent the in-flow of alcohol to the colony. The local administration does not try to prevent this in-flow, although public bars are strictly prohibited in Bangladesh and alcohol sales are permitted only to foreigners and those with special permits from the government. It is commonly considered that Dalits cannot do the jobs they do without alcohol, and historically every colony had an adjacent local bar where indigenous liquor/Indian liquor were sold. This tradition has continued on, and it seems it would be difficult to break. Although the bars are meant for Dalits only, many of the visitors to these establishments are influential non-Dalits from the surrounding areas. While some Dalits are vocal against having bars adjacent to their colonies, community leaders and influential non-Dalits want the sale of alcohol to continue. The fact that the Dalits are commonly associated with alcohol/alcoholism causes this population to be even more ostracized from society, and the general population is all too willing to ignore the role played by non-Dalits in perpetuating the status quo. Here lies the contradiction inherent in Bangladeshi society. Non-Dalits avoid Dalits in regards to social interactions, marriage, birth, and death rituals, consequently ostracizing them; at the same time, some members of non-Dalit society are eager to visit Dalit liquor shops for the purposes of consuming the very alcohol that exacerbates this social ostracism.

The Current Situation of Dalits in Bangladesh

A local proverb says: “A Methor’s (Dalit’s) household also has money.” The proverb suggests social stigma attached to Dalits, while simultaneously asserting that they are not subjects of extreme poverty. One question raised in this report is: Why are the Dalits considered the most marginalized people in Bangladesh? In this section, we provide some illumination by focusing on settlement and case studies.


Historically, there is a correlation between the establishment and growth of a city, such as Dhaka, the oldest city in Bangladesh, and the migration of the Dalit population (for details, see Asaduzzaman, 2001). Since the reign of the Moghuls, when Islam Khan established Dhaka as the capital of Bengal in 1608, the Dalits have been employed. The British colonization of Bengal in the mid 18th century created many new townships that required the hiring of many laborers for public sanitation services and street cleaning. The British colonizers used agents or brokers to bring this labour force for designated tasks from poverty-stricken areas in colonized India. According to Asaduzzaman (2001), historically these were either agricultural laborers or were engaged in diversified occupations. Prior to migration to East Bengal (i.e., Bangladesh), many of these laborers assumed they were going to be employed in construction firms, railways, or hospitals. In addition, the assumption was that East Bengal was an economically better region than the regions from which they were migrating.

The Dalits’ settlement pattern in any city/municipality is temporary, because they don’t own the land upon which their houses are built. The colony is always built on municipality or city corporation land and located on the outskirts of the city. The location of Dalit settlements has led to the Dalits being segregated, isolated, and detached from non-Dalits, as part of an orchestrated city and municipality plan that has crystallized over hundreds of years. In Dhaka, there are six “Sweeper colonies”: Ganaktuli, Dayaganj, Dhalpur, Sutrapur, Agargaon, and Gabtoli embankment. Non-Dalits hardly ever visit or interact with Dalit colonies. In my youth, I never visited a Dalit colony. My first time setting foot in a Dalit colony was when I visited the Natore Dalit colony in 2016 for research. The Dalit colony in Natore was adjacent to Nuheen Khan’s grandfather’s land. The segregation and discrimination Nuheen saw after his return to Bangladesh from UBC motivated him to explore and examine the Dalit issue. As a young and concerned citizen, Nuheen Khan established the GBF to aid and support Dalit children’s education in Natore.

Case Studies and Examples of Everyday Humiliation

The Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative have documented a number of case studies in Equity Watch that demonstrate how Dalits regularly encounter systemic and structural discrimination, humiliation, and eviction throughout the country. The following are only a few excerpts mostly related to Dalits’ education and employment:

Example # 1: Sumita Rani was a student of Grade 3. When she attended school, students in her class not only neglected her, but also explicitly said: “Do not sit with us.” When she informed the teachers, they took no action and asked her to remain silent. (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 36)

Example # 2: Binoy Rani, from the Gabotoli Sweeper Colony in Dhaka, mentioned: “When we went to school the teachers often discouraged us by negative comments. They used to say that Dalit children do not need education because in future they have to take their parents’ profession.” (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 37)

Example # 3: Nirmal Chandra Das, a Dalit activist, stated: “What is frustrating is that [many educated youths] do not get jobs according to their educational qualifications.… As a result, many unemployed [educated] youths are found in the Dalit community. Seeing this frustration, parents are no longer interested in the education of their children. This enhances the negative attitude towards education among [the] Dalit population.” (Equity Watch, 2014, p. 41)

Example # 4: In Satkhira, an employer yelled at Dalit job applicants and asked them to leave the office, saying: “You son of a [Dalit], how dare you ask for a decent job?” (The Daily Samakal, 2011, 15 November, as cited in Equity Watch, 2014, p. 41)

Example # 5: A BDERM member stated: “I hid my identity because our family faced so much discrimination and torture. Since then my life has been better I no longer want to hide myself. Now I am proud to say what I do and who I am – this is the success of this movement.” (“Work Statement of Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement,” BDERM and Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative, October 2011, p. 26)

The above case studies demonstrate what Dalits and their children encounter in their daily lives. In addition, many public spaces such as tea stalls and small restaurants refuse to serve them food and drink.

Dhaka: The Capital City

There are six Dalit colonies in Dhaka. They are on municipal lands. Where there is no municipality or pourashava, no Dalit colony exists. Dalits generally do not rear any form of poultry or livestock other than pigs. This is likely because people will not buy livestock from them for eating purposes; Dalits themselves do not eat cows, goats are expensive, and there is not enough space for poultry in a Dalit colony. An occasional goat or pig can be seen in a Dalit colony.

In Dhaka, most households are connected to the sewage line linked to the sewage treatment plant, thus the pattern of laboring practices is different. In Dhaka, Dalits are often employed in manhole cleaning, cleaning of drains, removal of dead bodies, and assisting the medical examiner to perform autopsies. In practice, the medical doctors give the Dalits instructions as to where to cut the dead body. This mostly happens to unidentified dead bodies, and practices vary from case to case.

One can’t recognize Dalits in Dhaka. Outside Dhaka, it is easier to discriminate. Dalits are economically better off in Dhaka city because job opportunities are better due to the size and expansion of the city. However, many Muslims have started taking up these same jobs in Dhaka, for example, in government institutions including the pourashava/municipality. Currently, about 30% of recent Dhaka city corporation jobs are taken up by Dalits (A Study on Occupational Health and Safety of Scavengers in Dhaka City, July 2013). Given the huge population of the city, it is difficult to identify who is working in this sector and therefore it is difficult to discriminate against those who hold these jobs. In fact, such tasks are appealing in Dhaka city due to the relative lack of stigma and ostracism attached to them. Outside Dhaka, it is much easier to identify someone working in these professions, and Dalits thus encounter more widespread discrimination.

In Dhaka city, the job of cleaning (particularly drainage systems, manholes, septic tanks, etc.) is given to a contractor according to municipality procurement practices, and Dhaka-based Dalits informed us that often such contractors hire heroin addicts instead of Dalits to cut costs. To be awarded a contract for cleaning a particular number of drains and manholes, one has to apply through an institution with proper documents under Dhaka City Corporation. Dalit workers and leaders, due to their lack of adequate education opportunities, do not have the capacity to compete for these contracts. The contractors who win these contracts (either through political affiliation or by unethical means) seek to maximize their profits and thus often employ drug addicts (e.g., heroin addicts) who are willing to perform any task at a low cost in order to finance their next drug purchase. If this situation can be remedied and Dalits can win these contracts, their unemployment situation can be alleviated to some extent. Outside Dhaka, these types of contracts are awarded to political affiliates who still hire Dalits to perform these tasks due to an absence of other groups/people interested in this work. In Natore Pourashava, where the GBF works with the Dalit/Harijan colony, only Dalits are employed in these kinds of jobs. One example would be when the pourashava assigns a contractor to cull the stray dog population in Natore. The contractor then hires Dalits to actually kill the stray dogs. Dalits engaged in this work told the GBF that the contractor receives a certain amount per dog culled, and then hires Dalits at less than half the amount received by the contractor. This means the contractor as a “middle man” receives Taka 300 without doing any part of the job. Thus official institutions have established a brokerage system wherein Dalits receive only half or less than half of the real wage offered for a given job. The culling of dogs is a well-cited example of this system in action.

The Dalit Colony in Natore

The name of the colony that I visited is Natore Harijan Colony. Approximately 700 people with children live in the colony. There are 350 voters. The land on which the colony is situated belongs to Natore Pourashava/Municipality. Residents live there because at least one of the members of each family works for the municipality. Laboring practices include: cleaning drainage systems, washrooms, office spaces, and railway stations; cleaning septic tanks meaning removing feces (including for private firms and rural households); remove decomposing dead bodies; assisting doctors to prepare deceased bodies for post mortem examination; and culling dogs and other animals. The majority of laborers are male. While the colony seemed clean and tidy overall – a fact that challenges general negative perceptions about Dalits – it is surrounded by several dumpsites and stagnant water. There is an open brickfield adjacent to the colony. The dumpsite surrounding the Dalit colony has created a polluted environment for the colony’s inhabitants. While the colony itself is kept neat and clean, poverty is pervasive among its residents.

The Role of the GBF as a Change Maker

In Bangladesh, NGOs are involved in a vast number of activities including advocacy. There are NGOs run by Dalits who are not even identified, and there are NGOs run by non-Dalits. With very few exceptions, NGOs generally don’t work with Dalits directly. Thus NGOs have, for the most part, not managed to engage Dalits in their own growth and development process. The GBF is one of the few NGOs that work directly with Dalits. However, GBF activities are located only in Natore, a district town. The mission of the Garbo Bangladesh Foundation is defined as follows:

“We work alongside extremely marginalized groups in Bangladesh but we do not advocate for their missing human rights….We arm them with education, we ask them to lay claim to the basic human rights they are generally deprived of, and we help with them as they fight to claim their status as humans in a developing society.” (Garbo Bangladesh Foundation, 2016)

As part of their mission, the GBF established a school in January 2013. Historically, Dalit children in Natore were denied access to schooling. In cases where they were admitted into public schools, they encountered outright discrimination and maltreatment both by students and by wider society. There was a public elementary school for Dalit children near the colony, where only Grade 1 and Grade 2 children would go. After completing Grade 2 at that school, when they moved to another school for Grade 3, most of these children would be readmitted in Grade 1. This inconsistent educational structure would eventually force them to be downgraded and withdrawn from the school. Thus, the objective of the GBF is to provide children with quality education so that they are not either downgraded or forced to drop out at the primary level.

Current School Composition and Activities of the GBF:

  • Three batches of students attend the GBF school every day, six days a week. These consist of: Pre-school KG (8:00 am to 9:30 am); Grades 1 & 2 (9:45 am to 12:30 pm); and Grades 3, 4, and 5 (12:45 pm to 4:30 pm). Structurally, there exist only two classrooms. To accommodate Grade 5, the verandah is currently being used as a classroom. When I visited the classrooms, I found that there was hardly enough light in the classrooms because daylight is the only source of light available; due to the small windows and the structure of the building, daylight barely enters the classrooms. As of 2016, the GBF school’s total student population was 85.
  • The teachers follow the national educational curriculum. Thus, it is expected that when children complete Grade 5, they should be transferred to Grade 6 in public schools attended by non-Dalit children.
  • There are five teachers at the school; these teachers are all educated to second or third year Honors level at local colleges.

Impacts of the GBF School and Projects in the Colony

  • The culture of education has been brought into the colony; there wouldn’t be this same impact if the school were outside the colony. The fact that the school is adjacent to the colony has made it easily accessible to Dalit children.
  • Dropout rates among the younger students have been reduced.
  • Students understand and follow the rules of the school, and are being prepared to move to the next stage of their education (i.e., entering into high school).
  • Cursing/swearing by children has been significantly reduced since teachers are always present in the colony during the day. It is considered that swearing among children will be significantly reduced overall due to their receiving formal education in a Dalit setting.

The GBF wishes to launch a number of further projects in cooperation with the Natore Dalit community. Their goals include:

  • Building a strong sense of trust within the community through monthly meetings with parents of school-going children and community leaders, and taking steps to encourage a healthy turnout at meetings and events held by the GBF. This makes it easier to implement development processes, and ensures that the Dalit community members feel involved and have a sense of ownership over projects in their community.
  • The GBF envisions that the impacts of monthly meetings will include increased regular attendance at school. The Natore Dalit colony has a religious festival every month, and thus, children miss school frequently, often missing several days in a row in the name of celebrating religious festivals.
  • Elimination of gambling in households as one of the community development sub-projects.

The immediate impact of setting up a school adjacent to the Dalit colony is praiseworthy. Most of the volunteers are very young, many of them under 30. Among the greatest strengths of the group/volunteers are their commitment, vision, and ability to overcome stigma and societal stereotypes. The GBF has connections with a number of NGOs in Bangladesh that work with the excluded/marginalized/Dalit community.

An Evaluation of the GBF

The GBF is a non-governmental organization that works in a local setting. Critics argue that this kind of effort is merely a band-aid solution. The Bangladesh government lacks effective initiative and effort to remove barriers for the Dalits both structurally and systematically. A nation-wide effort at the government level, such as changes effected through laws, policies, and institutions, is essential to overcome age-old stigma and segregation between the Dalits and non-Dalits. In addition, government agencies should be supportive to local level projects and initiatives, both institutionally and financially. The Dalits should also be encouraged and supported in taking leadership roles at all levels so that their language, heritage, customs, surnames, and culture are preserved with dignity and honor. In short, the local, national, and global organizations that aim to mitigate the barriers faced by the Dalit community should work cooperatively; only then will real change be feasible. Recently, Nagorik Uddyog/The Citizen’s Initiative, a human rights organization in Bangladesh that focuses on assisting people in understanding their rights and creating conditions for marginalized people including Dalits to set up institutions and mobilize themselves, has made a number of efforts to eliminate structural and systemic discrimination. In April 2008, Nagorik Uddyog and Bangladesh Dalit Human Rights (BDHR) jointly organized a consultation meeting in Dhaka. One of the outcomes of this consultation meeting was the formation of the Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM) as a national platform.

Dalits’ Agency: Education and Benefits

Rezaul Hoque and Andrew Eagle (2017) recently published a report in the Daily Star titled “Harijans Take it Upon Themselves.” In it, they reported that Rajesh Basfore, a Dalit, has established a school for Dalits in an abandoned tin shed near Bonarapara railway station in Shaghata Upazila, Gaibandaha. The Dalits work in Gaibandha as sweepers, and encountered discrimination, prejudice, and humiliation when they sent their children to school. Rajesh studied up to Grade 9, and faced severe social barriers including stigma, discrimination, and abject poverty. The school established by Rajesh currently has 27 students enrolled up to Grade 5, with Rajesh as the sole teacher. Hoque and Eagle (2017) report: “In the classroom, [students] sit on jute sacks in place of chairs. Nonetheless, the students feel at ease.” Riya Basore, a student of the school, remarks: “Nobody hates us here. We feel comfortable to learn our lessons and play games” (Hoque & Eagle, 2017). According to Rajesh, the school’s founder, “With proper education our children can establish themselves well in this society and overcome all social barriers” (Hoque & Eagle, 2017).


  • The place they live should not be called the Sweeper colony.
  • The colony should not be treated as a garbage dumpsite.
  • The Dalits should have ownership or long-term lease of the land on which they live. They should not be evicted under any circumstances.
  • Dalit children should be sent to better quality public schools. Schooling should be offered both privately (i.e., by private contractors) and through public partnership (i.e., with infrastructure provided by the government). The quality of education available to Dalit children must be improved to help elevate the Dalits’ social status.
  • Pre-primary school should be introduced for Dalit children in the colony.
  • Children who are older (i.e., those who have completed Grade 5) should go outside of the colony for schooling. Those who do well in school should receive monthly stipends from the government. This added incentive would encourage students to stay in school longer, rather than entering the workforce at an early age.
  • It is evident that there are fewer secondary schools than primary schools. Because there exists a shortage of high schools (starting from Grade 6), when Dalit children pass Grade 5, it is extremely difficult for them to enter into Grade 6 because of a severe lack of space, fierce competition, lack of motivation, and so on.
  • Each and every colony should have adult schools so that adults know how to read and write.
  • It should be ensured that the cleaning jobs in Dhaka city are going to Dalits.
  • Funding and infrastructural support should be provided to members of each Dalit colony to carry out the development projects they propose themselves.
  • Development must come from within the colony and outsiders’ support should be complementary. Dalits should be the ones who implement the changes, with cooperation from non-Dalits.
  • It should be ensured that no bars are situated adjacent to Dalit colonies.
  • The Bangladesh government must adopt lawful and meaningful measures that facilitate the alleviation of structural and systemic discrimination. An inclusive society must be the goal.


Asaduzzaman, A. (2001). The “pariah” people: An ethnography of the urban Sweepers in Bangladesh. Dhaka, Bangladesh: The University Press Limited.

Equity Watch. (2014). Challenges and prospects for Dalits securing their right to education in Bangladesh. Nagorik Uddyog and Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM).

Equity Watch. (2015). Access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for Dalits in Bangladesh: Challenges and ways forward. Nagorik Uddyog and Bangladesh Dalit and Excluded Rights Movement (BDERM).

Garbo Bangladesh Foundation. (2016). Can you be just a side-kick? Retrieved from http://www.garbobangladesh.com

Hoque, R., & Eagle, A. (2017, April 28). Harijans take it upon themselves. The Daily Star News.

Islam, F., & Nasir Uddin, M. (2009). Intricate tale of social exclusion: Dalit women’s experience of caste, class, citizenship and gender in Dhaka City. The Jahangirnagar Review, Part II: Social Science, Vol. XXXII, 15-32.

Rao, A. (2009). The caste question: Dalits and the politics of modern India. Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: The University of California Press.

Sarker, J. (2012). Prantobashi harijonder kotha. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Adorn Publication.