PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania – The practice of “untouchability” in India dates back over 3,000 years. Initially Hindu-sanctioned caste delineation, the custom has since transformed into more of a cultural phenomenon observed across religious lines. Individuals of the Untouchable caste, the lowest rank in Indian society, are called Dalits and comprise almost 20% of the country’s population. Navsarjan, a human rights organization working “to eliminate discrimination based on untouchability practices” outlines the role and distinction of Dalits on their website: those who perform impure jobs and are considered a ‘polluted people.’ These jobs range from dealing with the dead, disposing of human and animal waste products, and performing menial labor.
On October 16, untouchability was the topic of a talk given by Christian Davenport at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum, the talk focused on a project initiated in 2003 as a cooperative study by Davenport, Navsarjan, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and a few other academics. The project started as an impact assessment of untouchable practices on Dalits. Despite legislation from 1976 and 1989 that prohibit the tradition, Dalits are still systematically deprived of numerous rights. Such violations extend from the rights to health and education to access to public services and cultural life. The research team’s efforts to shed light on the phenomenon spawned a massive survey and research project whose results are compiled in the paper Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1589 Villages, released in January 2010.
To begin, Davenport and the rest of the research team conducted several years of focus groups and discussions throughout the western state of Gujarat. Gujarat was elected as the focal location because of its high level of economic development, as well as Navsarjan’s established presence. The latter, cited Davenport, would minimize rebuffs that the study was merely conducted in a “backwards” area that does not reflect modern Indian society.
Through the focus groups and discussions, the group was able to identify specific untouchable practices and scenarios. Davenport emphasized that the early meetings were often spent explaining how the Dalits’ everyday experiences were actually human rights violations. From these initial conversations, the team was able to construct a survey of approximately 100 items, ranging from food and water restrictions, to marriage and educational limits, to social and physical barriers, to incidents of activism or violence. Participants were asked the questions not only regards to how non-Dalits treated Dalits, but also how Dalits reinforced similar oppression amongst themselves. As for the scope of the census, of approximately 14,000 villages in the state, the survey was conducted in 1,589. The collected data came from 5,462 individuals, however Davenport estimates almost 100,000 were involved in the various community meetings.
The results themselves are not uplifting. The census identifies the percentage of villages in which specific untouchable practices occur. For example, during the religious ceremony of Prasad, temple-goers are given a small amount of food to signify sacrifice to the deity. In 92% of villages surveyed, Dalits were thrown food rather than being handed it or allowed to pick it up themselves, in order to prevent others from being “polluted”. In almost 25% of villages, Dalit children in schools were forced to sit on the floor, separated from their non-Dalit classmates. In 74% of villages the public water well was located in a non-Dalit area, access to which was often either restricted or came with the threat of violence.
However, Davenport did not limit his speech to enumerating the violations and results. Instead, he called attention to the activism and progress that gained momentum since the report was published. Shortly after completing compilation of their research, the team revisited the villages to discuss their specific results as well as comparing them to neighboring villages. Davenport asserted that basic steps, such as calling attention to the long-shrouded tradition, are essential. By shedding light on untouchability, Davenport and the team are pushing the government to acknowledge the discrepancy between the Indian Constitution and everyday practices, and hoping to jump-start enforcement of the laws and monitoring of violations.
Further developments include a board game entitled “Power to the People” in which players are placed in one of four castes or one of 8 categories of untouchability. An arts project was started that uses completed census forms for papier-mâché. One of Davenport’s fellow researchers, Martin Macwan, founder of the Navsarjan Trust, now writes children books to begin educating children. Titles such as What is Proper? What Is Improper?, work to deconstruct the socialization and acceptance of untouchability. Davenport, the Robert F. Kennedy Center, and the Navsarjan Trust continue to develop programs emphasizing advocacy, activism, and education around untouchability.
– Katey Baker-Smith
Sources: Europarl, Navsarjan
Photo: Buddhism in India