One of the darkest aspects of India is its caste system. A brilliantly administered scam, the caste system has been said to be developed by the Brahmins in order to maintain their superiority. It became formalized into 4 classes (Varnas) – the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and finally the Shudras. Beneath these 4 classes are the Scheduled castes, they exist outside the Varna and are referred to as ‘Avarna’. They are the Untouchables, the Dalits – which in Sanskrit means exploited and oppressed. And, the worst part is that there being no escape to this system.
While understanding the source of untouchability, B. R. Ambedkar in one of his writings compared the condition of Jews to that of the ‘untouchables’.
He writes: “the problem of the Jews and of the Untouchables is similar in nature – in as much as the problem is created by others – it is essentially different. The Jews case is one of the voluntary isolation. The case of the Untouchables is that of complete segregation. Untouchability is an infliction and not a choice.” Further, “The separateness, their segregation is not the result of their wish. They are punished not because they do not want to mix. They are punished because they want to be one of the Hindus.”
1. Who are Dalits?
The term Dalit means ‘oppressed’, ‘broken’ or ‘crushed’ to the extent of losing original identity. However, this name has been adopted by the people otherwise referred to as Harijans, or ‘Untouchables’, and has come to symbolize for them a movement for change and for the eradication of the centuries-old oppression under the caste system. In legal and constitutional terms, Dalits are known in India as scheduled castes. There are currently some 166.6 million Dalits in India.
Politically Dalits have not been able to break into mainstream debates and discussions despite the system of reservations that works at both national and state levels.
2. Accounts of Dalit oppression in India
The oppression against Dalits has been ongoing throughout the ages.
They face exclusion in different facts of life: whether it is education or place of worship. Several incidents of horrific human rights abuse targeting the Dalits are reported in the media on a daily basis.
A telling example of the social exclusion that Dalits suffer even in the face of a large-scale natural disaster was witnessed in the immediate aftermath of the 26 December 2004 Tsunami. The Tsunami brought a substantial amount of devastation for the Dalits of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is estimated that well over 10,000 died while 650,000 were displaced. In the aftermath of the Tsunami, the Dalits of Tamil Nadu were made to suffer from worst forms of discrimination and humiliation. Dalits were excluded from making use of (and in some cases even entering into) makeshift relief camps; the ‘untouchablity’ syndrome dominated Hindu upper–caste mentality even at this time of natural catastrophe. The limited shelter that was provided to Dalits was close to what are regarded as less desirable areas, for example near graveyards or garbage dumps lacking in proper sanitation or other facilities. In these shelters there was no regular supply of water. After the Tsunami, several international agencies donated large portable water-tanks for the general consumption of all those who were affected by the Tsunami. In several instances, Dalits were prevented from drawing water from these taps, because of the fears of upper–caste Hindus of the ‘pollution’ of water at the hands of Dalits.
This again brings us to the vicious cycle of untouchability!
Untouchability was abolished by the Indian Constitution in 1950. Yet, there are many Indian villages that are to this day segregated by caste; this phenomenon has been termed as – ‘hidden apartheid’ and, to put it more bluntly, these villages are basically divided into two – Dalits and non-Dalits. In rural areas, Dalits are not allowed to cycle through villages when they pass through the streets where higher caste people live. The whole community is liable for punishment, even when the offence is committed by an individual. In these villages a literate Dalit is considered below an illiterate non-Dalit. There is no place for equality or dignity. Such and much worse are the atrocities still faced by Dalits. But why do people from higher caste continue to practice untouchability, why do they resort to violence and why has it not vanished? The reasons fall in the continuous belief and faith in the sanctity of the caste system by the high caste Hindus.
As Ambedkar writes, “If the Hindu observes untouchability, it is because his religion enjoins him to do so. If he is ruthless and lawless in putting down the untouchables rising against his Established Order, it is because his religion not only tells him that the Established Order and therefore sacrosanct but also imposes upon him a duty to see that this Established Order is maintained by all means possible”.
3. Caste based violence in India: What does NCRB data say?
According to a report by National Crime Record Bureau of India, 2020, a Scheduled Caste faced crime every 10 minutes. Uttar Pradesh constituted 25% of the crimes followed by Bihar and Rajasthan. Dalit women are more vulnerable to caste violence and most of these crimes go unregistered. There are several cases that have yet not received justice, most of them did not receive enough attention and were silenced. Even today, a religious practice known as ‘Devadasi’ is practiced in some parts of India, where parents marry their daughter to deity or a temple before the girl reaches puberty and they are forced to have sex with the members of the upper caste.
The very recent Hathras case, where the police forcefully cremated the victim without the consent of the family, depicts a grave violation of human rights.
The untouchability was legally abolished by the Anti-Untouchability Act, 1955. After two decades, in 1976, the Act of 1955 was reviewed and the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 was enacted. In 1989, The Prevention of Atrocities Act was enacted which aimed to protect the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes against discrimination, but has failed to achieve its purpose. Despite several laws to protect them, Dalits still face discrimination. It is not just the laws that should be made, but their implementation should also be looked upon. There are various NGOs and activists growing, which are trying to draw attention to the issue but at the national level still very little is being done.
We see that largely these legislations remain ineffective in their implementation. Many reasons lie behind this, including a lack of political will on the part of both central and state governments, a lack of commitment of upper-caste and class bureaucrats to social justice, the absence of broad-based rights groups to monitor the implementation process, and a lack of statutory power on the part of the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Commission (Mandal Commission) to directly punish the perpetrators of crimes against Dalits.
4. The way ahead …
The very basic ways to improve the condition of Dalits is improved education, improved economic status. “We are entering an era of political equality. But economically and socially we remain a deeply unequal society. Unless we resolve this contradiction, inequality will destroy our democracy”, B.R Ambedkar in the constituent assembly.
“For the millionth time I asked myself why they couldn’t judge me on where I stood. Why did they always had to judge me on where I came from”, Narendra Jadhav. It is so often heard “let us do something for the Dalits” but one seldom hears “let us do something to change the non-Dalits”. But the questions still remain – for how long will the discrimination continue? For how long would they judge on where we came from? Untouchability is a human rights abuse; the society collectively need to unlearn what must be unlearned in order to evolve.
About the author …..
Ritul Rajvanshi is a student of Amity Law School, Noida. She is a prolific researcher and reader of social and legal issues.