Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Subhuman lives

Jaipur: A 50-kilometer journey from the capital of Rajasthan, brings visitors to Chakwara village - and back into the Middle Ages. Here, after all, is a society based on terrible persistent inequalities, social servitude and economic bondage. At the centre of the serfdom, and legitimizing it, is the systemic, systematic and religiously sanctified discrimination against the Dalits, India's former 'untouchables'.

Oppression of the 160 to 180 million Dalits, who are viewed as being too low to even be part of the caste system, is one of the most repelling, but enduring, realities of the Indian countryside. Equally oppressive is the violence perpetrated against them, especially their women. To be a Dalit today means having to live in a subhuman, degraded, insecure fashion: Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted. Every day, three Dalit women are raped, and two killed. In most parts of India, Dalits continue to be barred from entering Hindu temples or other holy places - although doing so is against the law. Their women are banned from wearing shoes in the presence of caste Hindus. Dalit children often suffer a form of apartheid at school by being made to sit at the back of the classroom.

Yet, the Dalits are resisting. In parts of the country, they are organizing politically to demand their rights. A Dalit woman rules the largest state, Uttar Pradesh. However, breaking the barriers laid down by the Hindu caste system is an uphill struggle, especially when the government does little to uphold the law of the land that prohibits discrimination on account of descent.

The Dalits of Chakwara village discovered this when they lay their claim to a common or public resource: the village pond, bathing in which is an important ritual. The pond and the steps leading to it have been built and maintained over the years with state funds and contributions raised by the entire village, including the Dalits. But Dalits have been excluded from using the common 'ghats' for decades. Caste-based "tradition" ensures that Dalits are treated worse than the buffaloes, cows and pigs that have virtually unrestrained access to the pond. The only exception is the women who have also, irrespective of caste, always been barred from the pond.

However, in December, Babulal and Radheshyam, who belong to the Bairwa group of Dalits, decided to defy the hallowed "tradition" and take a dip in the pond. Outraged, the caste Hindus subjected the Bairwas to vile abuse, threats of a "bloodbath", a nightly siege of their homes and a crippling social boycott. The Dalits could no longer buy tea or vegetables or hire farm implements. The local doctor would not treat them. The grocery shop ostracized them. The local mechanic would not repair their bicycles. Their men were stalked, their women abused.

The local administration and police should have protected and supported the Dalits. Instead, they generally sided with the upper castes. In January, officials allied with the caste Hindus in breach of the law bullied the Dalits into signing a "compromise" agreement, which effectively erased their right to the pond. The agreement produced discontent and resentment that has been simmering ever since. Last month, the discontent culminated in another effort by the Bairwas to assert their rights, through a rally in collaboration with other human rights organizations.

The caste Hindus decided to confront the Dalits "physically" and gathered a mob of 10 to 15,000 men armed with sticks. The police tried to stop the men from attacking the rally, halted some distance away. Angered, the caste Hindus attacked the police who responded with teargas and bullets, and in the ensuing brawl more than 50 people were injured, including 44 policemen.

The incident has created waves beyond Rajasthan - one of India's most socially backward states. Rajasthan has a dismal record of anti-Dalit offenses, with an annual average of 5,024 crimes registered in the last three years. On average, there are 46 killings, 134 rapes and 93 cases of grievous injury every year. One of the worst killings was the massacre of 17 Dalits, at Kumher village, in 1992.

However, the state administration and police have learnt few lessons. Rather than take preventive measures or prosecute those guilty of caste discrimination, they side with the upper castes. This is partly because the bulk of India's bureaucracy is caste Hindu. Although the Dalits are entitled to 15 percent of all government jobs, they rarely get the better-paid ones in senior categories.

Of equal importance is the role that "tradition" plays in the Hindu religion. Many enlightened Hindus reject the idea of caste. Modern education persuaded large numbers of them to support a reform movement for cleansing Indian society of evils like caste-based apartheid, widow burning and dowry. But despite early gains, the reform momentum ran out of steam by the 1950s and conservative currents have taken hold since then. In the past 10 to 15 years, these have struck their deepest roots in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and critics allege that the party ideologically represents hierarchical Hinduism and casteism in its worst aspects.

Legally, the notion of untouchables and discrimination against the Dalits are prohibited under the Indian Constitution under a 1955 civil rights act and the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities, or POA, act. The act was written explicitly to outlaw physical and verbal abuse against Dalits, but hasn't had the desired effect.

The Dalit struggle for emancipation from social and economic servitude faces heavy odds, but it has also acquired an international dimension since the World Conference Against Racism last year in South Africa. Casteism has come in for strong criticism from the United Nations. In August, while discussing descent-based discrimination, the U.N. Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination strongly condemned caste. The panel's recommendations for corrective measures are thoughtful and exhaustive. They confront India with a simple choice: systematically fight casteism or face opprobrium and possible sanctions from the world community.

Source: Indiatogether, October 2002


Post a Comment

<< Home