Combatting Caste

the stink of untouchability [in India] and how those most affected are trying to remove it

by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

New Internationaist magazine, July 2005


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, technological, we-have-the-bomb-and-are-no-longer-the-Third-World face.

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 curse

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 of Bihar.

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 harassed.'

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.


Bhopal Declaration

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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