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The Dalit mothers who were forced to become wet nurses

On a sunny afternoon in February 2021, I was sitting in the shade of a neem tree with my great-aunt Yellamma.

We were in Ramavaram, a small town in the South Indian state of Telangana, and the early summer heat was already in the air.

I hadn’t seen my father’s aunt since I was 14, but now, ten years later, she welcomed me into her arms.

Growing up, my family moved often because of my father’s government job. I would only see my relatives once a year when we visited our hometown of Dornakal in eastern Telangana and at weddings or funerals. But whenever I saw my relatives, I pestered them with questions about their lives, trying to understand my roots.

That day was no different, and Yellamma and I talked for hours at the house where our family had gathered for the memorial of a distant relative.

Yellamma, who was 75, wore a dark green sari and her hair was in a tight bun. She answered my questions in her stern voice, her gaze intense as she recalled her younger years and cursed the hardships she had endured.

We are Madigas – a Dalit community concentrated in the southern states of India, considered ‘untouchable’ by the Indian caste system. The four-tiered Chatur Varna system consists of Brahmins (priests), followed by Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (workers). Dalits exist as a fifth category, outside of caste society.

In India, caste, a status dictated by birth, often remains the cause of class differences. While education has enabled some Dalits to live comfortable lives, many communities such as Madigas – traditionally tasked with making and repairing shoes, tanning leather and scavenging dead animals – still face forced labour, poverty and discrimination across the country.

Yellamma, like many Madiga women of her time, worked as a farm laborer. It was a hard life of toiling in the fields, sweeping and doing other menial work for a day’s wages.

But there was another job I was curious about, a practice I casually heard of, where so-called “lower caste” women were required to be wet nurses for “upper caste” children. How far back did this practice go, I wondered. And did I know anyone who was once a nurse?

“Nanamma (grandmother), do you know anyone from our family or community who breastfed upper caste children?” I asked her.

Yellamma straightened her back and looked at me. “I know a lot of them, beta (child)”, she replied. “But why would an educated boy like you want to dig up the misery of the past? I thought kids your age just bury their faces in their phones.”

But she frowned and started telling me about Akkamma*, a Madiga woman she knew in her village Gundrathimadugu when she was just a teenager.