the stink of untouchability [in
India] and how those most affected are trying to remove it
by Mari Marcel Thekaekara
New Internationaist magazine,
In the rainy season,' the woman began,
'it is really bad. Water mixes with the shit and when we carry
it (on our heads) it drips from the baskets, on to our clothes,
our bodies, our faces. When I return home I find it difficult
to eat food sometimes. The smell never gets out of my clothes,
my hair. But this is our fate. To feed my children I have no option
but to do this work.'
Naraanamma began cleaning human excrement
at 13. She is now 35. The stench is nauseating, overpowering.
First, she sweeps the shit into piles. Then, using two flat pieces
of tin, she scoops it up and drops it into a bamboo basket which
she carries to a spot where a tractor will arrive to pick it up.
No gloves. No water to wash with. She hitches up her sari tightly
so that it does not trail on the ground or touch the shit. Still,
it is almost impossible to go through a whole day's work without
some of it inadvertently getting onto her clothes and person.
After 20-odd years of cleaning toilets,
Naravanamma clings to a dignity which is markedly at variance
with the work she does. She is dressed neatly, immaculately clean.
Jasmine adorns her oiled and well-groomed hair.
Naravanamma and 800,000 other toilet cleaners
are on the lowest rung of the caste system in India. They are
despised by everyone. They experience absolute exclusion from
the cradle to the grave. They are the other face of India; the
one that nobody likes to see. It is in sharp contrast to the progressive,
Chennai railway station says it all. It
has a hot spot for laptops to download mail, mobile phone chargers,
international food counters offering burgers, chocolate mousse
and chow mein next to hot dosas and chicken tikka. Yet, a few
metres away, sweeper women clean shit in the most primitive manner
possible, lifting it out of the railway track with a stick, broom
and pieces of tin. Why does this unacceptable, utterly obscene
dichotomy exist? Because hardly anyone wants it to change.
Caste permeates every pore of Indian society
in hidden, insidious ways. It is so complex, few Indians begin
to understand it completely, although it is present in our lives
in subtle and not-so subtle ways. Even though the caste hierarchy
is a Hindu construct, conversion does not always help: Buddhists,
Christians, Sikhs and Muslims often still cling to their caste
identities when searching for marriage partners.
In the beginning...
Many sociologists believe the caste system
in India originated as a way of dividing labour, as well as a
method of exercising social control and maintaining order. Its
power and almost absolute acceptance stems from the fact that
caste derives religious sanction for India's majority from the
4,000 year-old Manu Sashtra or laws of Mann. According to this,
society was divided into four broad social orders, or varnas,
each arising from a certain part of the Creator's body. From the
head came the Brahmins, a priestly class, who are the most pure.
From the arms came the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers. From
the lower limbs were born the Vaishyas, the traders. And from
the feet the Sudras, the lowest caste, destined to serve the other
three. Apart from these four varnas, there are over 3,000 sub-castes,
or jatis. Each of these practises exclusion of varying degrees
against each other. An orthodox Brahmin family will not accept
a marriage with another Brahmin of a slightly different subcaste.
Nor will most people eat food cooked by someone from a caste lower
than their own.
Below all these, 'Untouchables' were considered
so impure and polluting that they were not even included in the
system by Mann. This translated into complete exclusion from society.
Their hamlets were outside the village, and they could not even
talk to or walk on the same path as the other castes, much less
touch them. When the British ruled in India, they left caste well
alone to avoid unrest. In some ways they even reinforced it, finding
Brahmins useful as an army of clerks and administrators who served
the British Empire faithfully.
Today, in India, the Untouchables call
themselves 'Dalits', which means 'Broken People'. There are almost
180 million Dalits in India alone and at least another 60 million
around the world who face caste discrimination of various kinds.
On a daily basis, Dalits have to deal
with the fact that they will not be served food in many eateries.
They must sit outside and drink their tea at a distance from the
other customers. Special 'Untouchable' cups are placed on the
shelf outside. The Dalit customer has to take his or her cup,
place it on a counter carefully without touching the waiter. The
tea will then be poured from a safe, non polluting distance and
the Dalit must pick up the cup, drink the tea, wash the cup and
place it back on the secluded Dalit shelf outside. This is known
as the 'two-glass' system.
In one recent survey of 22 villages in
Tamil Nadu, 16 practised the 'two glass system'; 14 villages had
the 'chappal' system where Dalits have to remove their footwear
when they enter the caste part of the village; and in 17 villages
Dalits were forbidden to enter the village temples. In four villages
Dalits had come together to combat these practices and they have
largely been abolished.'
India's real curse lies in the fact that,
57 years after Independence, Dalits continue not only to face
daily injustices, but they can be murdered, raped and viciously
humiliated merely because they have tried to break out of the
caste trap to assert their rights as equal beings. Often the supposed
transgression is something as ludicrous (to the outside world)
as wearing footwear when walking through the dominant caste's
village, riding a bicycle or daring to wear clothes considered
uppity, above their station, by the neighbourhood bullies. Often
the punishment has the tacit approval of the entire village with
a sizable number joining in, making the beating, rape, humiliation,
a public spectacle to teach the entire caste a lesson, to remind
them of their place in society. This is caste in its ugly, undisguised
form. Such incidents are so common that Indian newspapers often
don't even bother reporting them.
The big question is: why has so little
changed for so long? Immediately after Independence, there were
visionaries who dreamed of equality, justice and freedom for all
Indians. Mahatma Gandhi led this movement. However, it required
retributive justice, the distribution of land to the landless,
special privileges for those who had been oppressed and neglected
for Gandhi's dream of education for every Dalit child lay shattered
in the dust millennia. The brilliant, pro-poor Indian Constitution
envisioned all this. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Dalit leader and intellectual,
was its architect. It identified all the marginalized castes and
tribes of India (officially termed Scheduled Castes and Tribes)
and issued directives for positive discrimination, commonly called
the 'reservation system', to ensure that these communities would
be brought out of bondage and poverty. Subsequent Acts also sought
to protect them, but the situation has J only marginally improved
because the Acts, like the Constitution, are ignored or violated.
Today, Dalits remain the poorest of the poor; they are the majority
of child workers, illiterates, bonded labourers, and have the
worst health, the worst education and the worst jobs. Dalit women
like Narayanamma easily qualify for the worst-off women in the
world. Many people were motivated and inspired by Gandhi's call
to rebuild the nation. But after Independence, the spirit of sacrifice
gave way to greed and power politics. The movement was not far-reaching
enough; it was too fractured to have any real impact and leaders
became corrupt. Gandhi's dream of education for every Dalit child
lay shattered in the dust, trampled on by venal politicians in
the corridors of power.
Academics talk of lack of political will
to describe successive governments' failure to protect Dalits.
Translated, this means police officers stand in the background
and watch upper-caste mobs burn Dalits alive, because the village
considers they are getting too big for their boots. Feudal landlords
are aided by corrupt civil servants and government officials in
maintaining the status quo. So they approve and abet in the exploitation
of Dalits, turn a blind eye to bonded labour, and the terrorizing,
killing, rape of Dalits who protest. Meanwhile everyone mouths
the rhetoric of the Constitution and government documents hypocritically
pay lip-service to it.
Although India presents the worst-case
scenario as far as atrocities and discrimination go, the situation
in neighbouring Nepal is almost as bad. Caste discrimination also
remains alive and well wherever the Indian Diaspora has migrated.
Other forms of caste discrimination, outside of a Hindu context,
can also be found in other countries in Asia and Africa.
A recent UN study officially redefined
caste discrimination 'on the basis of descent or work and occupation'
and listed the countries as Bangladesh, Britain, Burkina Faso,
the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Japan, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania,
Mali, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, North America, Malaysia, Micronesia,
Pakistan, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Yemen.
Perversely, caste discrimination in Diaspora
communities in the West has become worse in the last few years;
as communities have grown larger, caste distinctions become more
pronounced. In addition, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism has
promoted the 'be proud of your culture' (read caste) syndrome,
leading to greater segregation, separate temples and gurdwaras,
and ugly divisions.
Bleak though the situation often appears,
there is some hope. Throughout India's chequered history there
have been people who fought for the rights of the oppressed. Even
before Gandhi campaigned for the rights of Dalits, Christian missionaries
had begun educating them. Their motives were questionable - to
convert the heathen. And many allowed upper caste converts to
cling to their caste identity. Nevertheless they educated more
Dalits and adivasis (indigenous peoples) than anyone else. Martin
Macwan, Gujarati Dalit leader for the last 25 years, believes
education is a lethal weapon in combatting caste oppression. 'Traditionally,
the varna system banned education for Dalits. The laws of Mann
declared: "Even by mistake if a lower caste person hears
the vedas (holy scriptures), molten lead should be poured in his
ears" and "his tongue should be cut off if he recites
the sacred verses." They had it all figured out. Knowledge
is power; it is the key to empowering our people.'
The 1970s brought a new breed of activists,
young people who sought not to dispense charity, but to fight
injustice. For three or four decades now, all over India, Dalit
human-rights defenders have consistently taken on the State, fighting
the police, feudal landlords and exploitative employers at individual,
regional and national levels. They support ordinary Dalits trying
to assert their rights in rural areas in spite of violent reprisals
from the dominant castes and the police. The situation, however,
remains dire in North India and particularly hopeless in the state
Hope must be won from the Dalit people's
ability to mobilize themselves. To take pride in their identity,
build up their self-esteem, assert their dignity and demand their
rights both privately and in public spaces. From now on, it is
Dalits who will determine their future.
Paul Divakar, Convener of the National
Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) in India, explains: 'We
don't expect easy solutions or quick results. We need to go through
certain processes to free ourselves from the 'Brahminical mindset'.
Whereas in the early 1950s we fought visible forms of untouchability
which spun around concepts of self-respect, now NCDHR has decided
to fight for land rights. Land is central to eradicating untouchability.
On paper, 80 per cent of rural Dalits have access to land but
the moment they try to assert control over this land they are
In politics too, there has been change.
The fact that a Dalit, KR Narayanan, was elected as President
in 1997 was no small victory. The last decade has seen the rise
of strong Dalit political parties. While these parties are just
as corrupt as all the others, their emergence gives the community
crucial bargaining power and political space.
More recently, the success of the National
Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in the build up to the World Conference
Against Racism, held in South Africa in 2001, has given a new
impetus to the grassroots Dalit movement. Public hearings were
held in many state capitals in India, where Dalits spoke from
the heart, revealing the harrowing experiences they had been through.
Ordinary people were often visibly moved. Many wept openly. After
an intensive advocacy campaign, the Dalit question finally received
United Nations recognition. In March 2005, two Special Rapporteurs
were appointed to work on it. They will submit a yearly audit
on 'discrimination based on work and descent', and track governments'
action and indictment record against those who perpetrate atrocities.
In India, the last five years have seen
encouraging trends in the shape of the Bhopal Declaration, a huge
government consultation of Dalits about what needed doing, and
the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), a commitment from the Government,
spearheaded by the Indian Congress Party, to work for the poorest.
For the first time ever, the corporate world has also been exhorted
to reserve jobs for Dalits. Indian corporations (which include
some of the richest people in the world) are eager to get rid
of the embarrassing, backward, feudal image projected by caste
discrimination to the outside world. There is increasing awareness
of social responsibility and many companies are now eager to be
involved in change.
One can hope that these changes will mean
that at the very least, Dalits should be able to live free from
fear of murder, rape and violence merely because they are born
Dalit. That would be one step towards civilization.
P Sainath, an Indian writer who has covered
atrocities against Dalits for many years, observes: 'We are witnessing
the single greatest struggle for human dignity on Planet Earth
by some 250 million people. I have no doubt that the outcome of
this great struggle will be in favour of the Dalits. The only
question is, which side will you and I be on?
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