Letters from India No 7.2

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Marko Ulvila

Two types of activism

When I was told I would take part in an activist exchange programme and go to Finland some questions came to my mind about activism. In India, I think there are two kinds of activism:

  • First by the people of the elite classes, who have a lot of facilities like education, opportunities to develop and rich family background. They address WTO, environment and such issues. They get easily funds from India and outside. No problem of food, no problems of house.


  • The second type of activists in India are the tribals, indigenous people, dalits and muslim minority. Especially among the socialist movements JP-movement, communist (ML) movement and ambedkarites there are lots of people from these backgrounds. I do not know if it is activism or not, but these persons are also struggling. From their struggles they get the knowledge - about problems and how they can be solved. Because they are facing the problems they know them and the solutions better. This is also knowledge from education of the struggle. In India activists have commitment and they learn and get knowledge through struggle

In Finland I did not see the second type of activism. But I did have feelings about the second type with two of my friends: Hannu Virtanen and Marko Ulvila. Hannu in Jyvaskyla is living in modest conditions and I noticed he is facing everyday problems. He could explain to me many issues better than others because of the problems he is facing. Also in Marko’s house I felt good because he has very simple home with very few facilities.

I am from a low class and caste, and I know the everyday problems better than many others. We are learning and practicing in mass basis. It is a kind of a laboratory. There one experiments, finds theories and establishes laws. This is my kind of activism.

Some experiences from Finland

When I went to Finland I had first a feeling of inferioirty, because I do now know English so well and I am not much educated. Rita Nahata was helping me, but also telling me that my English is not good. I was wandering why I was sent to Finland because I am not like these educated ones. But then I got very close to the Finnish people because of the family atmosphere. Through this, I felt I am with a family and I forgot all about the inferiority complex.

Outi Hakkarainen and Siru Maunuksela arranged a seminar on dalits where Dr. Mikko Malkavaara and I spoke. I chose to speak on the theme ‘Life of a Dalit’. First I thought I would talk about the caste system - its history and structures - but since I am not a scholar, I thought I would speak what I know for sure - my life. Dr. Malkavaara in his speech talked about the origin of the cast system and about the aryans coming from outside to oppress the darvidians since 2500 BC. In the seminar there were 32 people who were very serious. Nobody wanted the leave the room during the seminar, and even when the university was closing people stayed to discuss. There was keen interest for dalit issues.

Once on the way to Kepa office I saw a man cleaning a french-designed public toilet that was very dirty. I went to talk to him and introduced myself as a member of a cleaner caste from India. He was happy to learn to know me and he told me about his life. His name is Pasi which is also a name of dalit cast. He told that people do not give much respect to him, and the salary (6.000-7.000 FIM) is hardly enough for living. Every day he cleans 23 public toilets. Because he got unemployed from truck driving job he had to take up this work. In Helsinki he has no house but is living with a friend. We were happy to become friends.

Family life: strong women and computer-like people

In Oulu we visited a home for elderly people with Piia Saari. Before coming to Finland I had got a bad impression of Europe where people discard their ageing parents and put them in elderly homes. After being to one such place and meeting a 97 year-old man and a 93 year-old woman who was getting a hair-do, I saw that there are a lot of facilities and they are free to live their life there. The children visit their parents time to time but life is so fast they do not come often. They were very happy to meet us from far away who came to see them and discuss with them. In India the elderly are staying at home but do not necessarily receive good care from their children. Children taking care of their parents is the ideal, but in practice they may be neglected.

One thing I found very shocking was how women are left alone with children. Once I visited a friend of a friend of mine in Tampere who had just one week before given a birth to her baby. When I went to see her in an evening she was alone. I wanted to ask a lots of questions found out that her partner had left her and the baby because he was not willing to have the child. She needed a lot of help with the child, but there was only some occasional support from friends. In Finland women have a lot of freedom and can go around the world alone. In India this is not possible, even to go outside the neighbourhood. Finland is more advanced than us. Dr. Ambedkar had said that the parameter for a developed society is how many women participate in any function of the society. My society is not so developed. In my community women have more freedom than the upper castes, but even they do not have many opportunities. The young mother I visited gave me a lot of encouragement, because despite her hardship she was happy and feeling good.

From the international community theater festival in Turku I learned a lot about the tensions in the Finnish society. Not all old people like it that young people start living together without getting married. They have to accept it but they do not like it. Finnish society is good in the sense that mature people should have their choice of living. However, among teenagers the freedom can cause a lot of problem especially for the girls. There is attraction among the opposite sex and this is stronger among teenagers. Some times accidents occurs and women faces the problems of pregnancy, abortion etc. This is all borne by the women. I also learned from one play that parents do not look after their child who then turn violent in school. In another play the mother was angry of her son of 15 years who had a girlfriend from a poor family. Once she found them having sex and got very angry. In another play, an Estonian and Finnish groups performed a play about the lesbian issues and I learned that it is not fully accepted by the society.

Of all this I got the impression that women in Finland are very courageous and their feelings have to be respected. This is not case in India, where there is no freedom of choice for the women, or in many cases for men either. For schooling and marriage the parents decide, and in villages people can not take up jobs outside their cast tradition.

In Finland I was asking young people if they want to get married. They said yes, but when I asked why they are not married, they told me that first they have to study. After studying they want first to get a good job. Then they need a good house, and so on. In India we have hardly anything, yet we get married and raise children - and are happy.

Equal society not willing to fight any more

In sauna there is no discrimination, all are equal. This I learned from Jarna Pasanen’s father Erkki who took me to sauna in his home in a village in Leppavirta. Past dalit leaders, like Dr. Ambidkar, have also got the taste of equality in the Western society and got the inspiration to fight for it also back in India.

In Finland there are all kind of facilities due to the trade union movement. In past the union activists were fighting to make the society better, this is why there are all these facilities like education and social security. Because of the fight things are better now.

When I went to meet homeless people who are some 10.000 in Finand and 4.000 in Helsinki I was wondering how they can survive in the dangerous climate without a house. They told me that sometimes we stay in staircases, government shelters or NGO sheds. I visited one such place where there is a long queue outside. They had to take turns for being inside where there were chairs only. People could not sleep which is dangerous to their physical and mental health. I was asking ‘why you just do not go and build a house there is a lot of land, you can make an organisation’. They said, ‘Oh, but that is government land, it is wrong, illegal’. I was wandering why they do not fight, where is the culture of fighting, why are people like slaves. Also friends like Marko are saying that the state is a friend, there is no need to fight so much.

In Finland people have access to good education and social security. In the school I went the education was very good, ideal I would stay. In Finland, there was no discrimination, unlike in India. I found there are many honest people, especially among the common people in Finland.

On the exchange programme

I am very sorry that I could not prepare myself properly. Because of my obligations with the family, office and politics and difficulties in communicating in English, there was not enough time for carrying out well all the preparations

The programme in Finland was really fully packed. I wanted to see sewers, sanitation systems and health services, and I also wanted to see how police and jail authorities treat the people. But is not easy to arrange. Only last week I had a chance to see the Helsinki waste water treatment plant, but I never got to see such facilities in the interior villages where people arrange them themselves.

It was very helpful to know the similarities and struggles of Finnish society and mine, so that we can fight together. All in all, the visit was very educational, and really gave me a taste of equality which will give me energy to fight for it in India. I want to thank all those numerous people who shared their time and experiences with me in Finland.

Back in India

After coming back to India I have told about this experiences to my friends and showed some of them my pictures. It is like a dream for a member of my community to go outside, it is not easy. For some better of people it nothing special, they go all the time, but for me it was an unique experience.

Upon my return, an intellectual friend of my, N. Manohar Prasad, re-convened a Social Studies Circle of learned and active dalits. I was the first one to make a presentation in the group. I told about my experience and presented the paper ‘Life of a Dalit’. Some radical friends of mine from raised some questions about me travelling abroad, but nobody has criticised it really.

Transcribed and slightly edited by Marko Ulvila from an interview with Amar Singh.