NEW DEHLI — Even as India becomes more developed, traces of its past discrimination linger, keeping human rights a constant concern. One group of victims are the Dalits, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system and the so-called Untouchables. These outcasts face discrimination and poverty in a rapidly growing country.
The caste system, formally and religiously known as Varna, first became a part of the Hindu religion in the third century. Manusmitri, the Law of Manu found in religious texts, outlines the caste levels and rules for social exclusion. Hindus are born into their castes, making social mobility nearly impossible and inequality rampant. Those in the lower castes are believed to be paying for the sins they committed in past lives.
The caste system structures Brahmans, society’s priests and teachers, at the top of the ladder, followed by Kshatriyas, the rulers and soldiers, the Vaisyas, merchants and traders, and lastly, Sudras, the laborers. Dalit, or untouchables, are seen as below the boundaries of the caste system and shoulder the brunt of discrimination.
Nearly 16 percent of India’s population is Dalit, which totals about 166 million people. The term “Dalit,” which has been used widely since the 1970s to describe the Untouchables, means oppressed or broken to pieces in Sanskrit. This translation accurately describes the lives of these people. Dalits are among the most disadvantaged members of Indian society, with 70 percent living in the rural and impoverished regions, and nearly 90 percent working in agriculture or remedial, unskilled labor. Overall, Dalits experience violence, discrimination and poverty as a result of their status.
“One is actually born a Dalit; you cannot leave a Dalit status. You’re born, you live and you die a Dalit. Dalits are employed in some of the worst jobs… they scavenge, they sweep, they’re tanners. They do the smelliest, dirtiest work and therefore, they ‘pollute.’ They’re untouchables,” says Rebecca Samuel Shah from Georetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, describing the reality of Dalits’ struggles.
Technically, under the Indian constitution, “untouchability,” or the basic form of class discrimination against Dalits that limits physical contact between them and members of higher castes, has been illegal since 1949. Legislation like the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955 and Prevention of Atrocities of 1989 also serve to hypothetically protect Dalits’ livelihoods, but these acts are often ignored in Indian society. Additionally, India requires that 16 percent of government jobs and spots in public schools go to members of the Dalit group, but research shows that only five percent of Dalits actually benefit from these reservation laws.
The discrimination against Dalits is kept alive by social practices. Dalits are not allowed into temples, and they cannot use the same water sources or eat with members of a higher caste. This repressive discrimination keeps Dalits constantly at war with the rest of Indian society and subject to extreme prejudice. In some cases, Dalits who have forgotten their place are raped, beaten, burned or lynched.
“It’s like you are born with a stamp on your forehead and you can never get rid of it,” says Amit, a community correspondent for an ongoing project by Video Volunteers that calls for legal action.
About half of India’s Dalit population lives in poverty, trapped in a cycle of scarcity by religious beliefs, discrimination and lack of options. Less than 10 percent of Untouchables have access to clean water or sanitation, and most live in slums without electricity or sufficient shelter. Only a lucky few are able to pull themselves into a higher income bracket through education, but most families struggle in poverty for generations.
Dalits’ inability to rise out of poverty is enhanced by job discrimination. Untouchables have historically been forced to carry out the dirty jobs, from leatherworking to trash disposal, which Hinduism believes makes people unclean. However, because of untouchability and upper caste members’ reluctance to touch anything a Dalit holds, these marginalized members of society continue doing these grimy duties without choice.
Additionally, while India’s public sector does require quotas, the private sector lacks any equal opportunity regulations. Because India’s private sector is rapidly outpacing the public sector, Dalits are being left behind in a swiftly developing nation with no door into private business. Essentially, job discrimination is leaving Dalits behind in the remedial and impure work as the rest of India grows and profits.
In addition to being kept out of any lucrative work, Dalits are also excluded from the housing market because in most regions of India, they are not allowed to own land. Dalits make up just over 16 percent of the nation’s population, but own just five percent of the land, which forces them to live in rural regions. If Untouchables do come to possess land, they can be subject to violence and destruction of their property by neighbors in a higher caste. Furthermore, housing is often segregated by caste, meaning Dalits find themselves living in slums with poor sanitation and no electricity or healthcare.
Education is often the only way of escaping crippling poverty for Dalits, but 62 percent of the Untouchable population remains illiterate. Most children receive inferior education and are forced to sit away from higher caste students, resulting in less than satisfactory learning. Only a handful of lucky children are able to go to school under the reservation laws, and while some manage to reach a high level of education, teasing and prejudice in the classroom turns many students away from school.
Ending discrimination against Dalits will be challenging, but the first step is to implement lessons of acceptance for lower castes into all schools, allowing children to grow up without prejudice. Additionally, a united Dalit front would allow for a more structured call for rights, which could more likely be acknowledged by the international community and Indian government. Finally, putting more Dalit spokespeople into government positions will shape policy that benefits the disadvantaged groups, giving them more rights and opportunities.
Overall, the marginalization of Dalits remains one of the gravest human rights violations India struggles with today. While some believe that public discrimination has decreased in recent years, the fact remains: Dalits are still considered Untouchables. They remain kept on the outskirts of society and they continue to struggle through poverty. India has come a long way in the 65 years since its independence, but as Dr. Vinod Sonkar, one of the few Dalits to get a higher education teaching job, says “We are still Dalit, still broken, still surpressed.”
– Caitlin Thompson
Photo: Denis Rickard