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The problem of India’s ‘untouchables’

by Cesar Chelala

It is a great paradox that India, one of the world’s oldest democracies, is still unable to eliminate a deep-rooted social problem: the widespread violence and discrimination against the Dalits, a name that means literally “broken” peo ple. The Dalits, or “untouchables,” are a segment of Indian society, numbering more than 160 million people, that is ranked at the very bottom of the Hindu caste system. Their plight is receiving renewed attention with the recent release of a Human Rights Watch report titled “Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s Untouchables,” written by Smita Narula.

Although “untouchability” was officially eliminated under India’s constitution in 1950, according to the report there remains a persistent pattern of segregation by caste. Because of that segregation, untouchables may not enter the higher-caste section of villages, wear shoes in the presence of the upper castes, use the same water wells or claim land that is legally theirs. Upper-caste employers frequently exploit Dalit workers, who are relegated to the most menial tasks, such as cleaning latrines and disposing of dead animals with their bare hands. Millions of people, many among them children, work in slavelike conditions for modest pay (less than $1 a day) or for small amounts of rice. It is estimated that in India 40 million people, among them 15 million children, work in slavelike conditions to pay off debts they are forced to incur to ensure their survival.

The report states that abuse of Dalit women is blatant. Particularly in India’s southern states , thousands of Dalit women are forcibly turned to prostitution, many of them before reaching puberty. Dalit women are frequently sexually abused by landlords and the police as a punishment for dissent within the community. Many are also tortured while in custody to punish husbands or other male relatives who are hiding from the police because of their activities of organized protest against the abuses they are subject to. Whenever Dalits try to break free from this situation they are brutally repressed.

When Indian society was divided into a class system, the untouchables were set apart, below the main divisions of Hindu society, and treated as total pariahs. As Harold R. Isaacs, the author of the book “India’s Ex-Untouchables” remarks, “The Untouchables were also made Unseeable, Unapproachable, Unhearable.” The untouchables are, in essence, economically poor, politically weak, educationally at a disadvantage, and have more limited access to health services.

The Human Rights Watch report documents violence against the untouchables in the eastern state of Bihar and in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, high-caste landlords have organized private militias, called “senas,” which have carried out brutal assaults against Dalit villagers with total impunity. In many cases, police have accompanied these private militias during their assaults against villagers, and stood idle while the villagers were attacked and their houses burned.

The Ranvir Sena, one of the most prominent private militias organized by upper-caste landlords, has been responsible for the massacres of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. These actions have been followed by the beheading of 33 upper-caste villagers by members of a low-caste guerrilla group. The stage is thus set for a vicious cycle of further revenge killings between both groups. No sena leader or police official has been indicted for these atrocities. Those sena members who have been arrested have been quickly released on bail, and none has been convicted. Dalit calls for police protection have been systematically ignored.

In the village of Melavalavu, in Tamil Nadu, the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency in 1997 was followed by the murder of six Dalits by members of a higher-caste group. Among those murdered was the elected city council president, who was beheaded. As of February 1999, the accused murderers had not been prosecuted. Even national government officials agree that such brazen disregard for the law is rampant.

The report gives further details of abuse against Dalits and issues recommendations for change addressed to both the Indian government and international organizations. For those aware of the problem, the report provides detailed information of a sustained pattern of abuse against a minority group. For those who didn’t know about it, it gives ample evidence of a situation of brutal inequality.

However, as Narula remarks, “Talking about the problem is not enough. The Indian government must act now to demonstrate its stated commitment to ensuring equal rights for Dalits.” After all, “untouchability” was abolished under India’s constitution in 1950.

As Narula also indicates, the tools for change are in place. What is necessary is the political decision to use them.