Her family was ostracized in Kalaburagi after her father didn’t allow her oldest sister Vijayalakshmi Deshmane to be made a devadasi, a tradition among some castes in North Karnataka. Vijayalakshmi went on to become one of the first woman oncologists in Asia and worked at Kidwai Institute of Oncology for many years.
She may be a successful sociologist today but Prof Samata B Deshmane, 51, knows how difficult it is for a dalit to shrug off the hidebound notions of caste. She sold vegetables even as she attended school but she says education can change everything. TOI caught up with her after the release of her book Matangi Devatige, the first autobiography of a dalit woman in Kannada. Excerpts:
You are a well-known social worker. But your journey has not been easy with roadblocks like caste-based discrimination. Can you elaborate?
Sadly, several people in Kalaburagi and the Hyderabad-Karnatak region are still facing discrimination. The devadasi system still exists. My own family was ostracized for not making my oldest sister a devadasi. My parents sold vegetables and we had to pitch in to supplement our income. I used to work for 25 paise and walk 10km just for water. All my siblings hold respectable positions today. That was possible only because our father never let us drop out of school. My husband, a scientist, also understood the value of freedom and never stopped me from doing anything. It helps to have a like-minded spouse. In fact, we married in front of an Ambedkar statue in Kalaburagi and moved to Bengaluru.
How reservation has helped dalits and other weaker sections…
I’ve never benefitted from reservation. None of my siblings has. My father was a comrade (communist). But I think reservation is needed in a country like ours where discrimination is rampant. It is unfortunate, however, that it never reaches the right beneficiaries. You will not believe the ground reality in places like the Hyderabad-Karnatak region. People are still illiterate and unaware of government schemes.
Your surname, Deshmane, is not a direct reflection of your caste…
My fa ther was a freedom fighter and his surname is Baburao Deshmanya. Deshmanya was a title given to him by the government for having done work that has made the country proud. Not a single Independence Day or Republic Day has gone by without him being honoured by the governor of Karnataka and the President of India. We are among the few who have the right to hoist the Tricolour on our terrace on these days.
Almost every cabinet in Karnataka has had representation from the Hyderabad-Karnatak region. Has that impacted the lives of people there?
We’ve even had two chief ministers (Veerendra Patil and Dharam Singh). But the ground situation has not changed. I blame it on the lack of will among dalit leaders. They have made no efforts in encouraging and grooming the second generation of leaders on the basis of merit. They just want their families and relatives to benefit.
What got you to write a book?
That I’m able to achieve so many things is because of my hunger for knowledge and an undying commitment to education. I think education is the only way out of discrimination. I hope my work will influence many more to work hard and help others.