64 years of freedom and dalits remain captive.
In today’s special video, the IndiaUnheard correspondents across the country shed light on the continuing social, economic and political oppression of the dalits. The footage from three correspondents figure predominantly in the video- Amit Kumar, Satyawan Verma and Jai Kumar. Dalits themselves, they have now become community leaders in their respective regions. IndiaUnheard speaks to them to get a perspective on dalit lives and struggles at the grassroots:
“I believe that if Gandhi ever made a mistake it was grouping all of us lower castes under the term ‘Harijan’, “says Community Correspondent (CC) Satyawan Verma from Hisar, Haryana.
Amit Kumar, CC from Kurukshetra also in Haryana nods in agreement. “It literally means ‘the people of God’. But the label stuck and a single word effectively ghettoised around 200 million people,” he says. “I realize that perhaps he had our best interests in mind but the fact that only we were supposed to play ‘god’s people’ seems patronizing. If I am ‘god’s people’, so is everyone, you and me and everything under the sun.”
Jai Kumar, CC from Ludhiana in the neighbouring state of Punjab is visibly agitated. “I hope the British would return to rule us all over again,” he explodes.
One is perplexed and lost at this seemingly reactionary, anti-national outburst but Amit steps in to explain his comrade’s stand and anger. He says,” Before independence, we were gathering garbage, cleaning drains, scavenging, being abused and tortured and denied our human rights. After independence, very little has changed. There is an India on the road to progress, registering itself as a major player in the scheme of the world but for us dalits, India is a country where time has stood still for thousands of years.”
Satyawan, Amit and Jai have been community leaders and dalit activists before they joined IndiaUnheard. Their experiences speak not just from the grassroots work they have done with their communities but also from the life they have lived. At 23, Satyawan became the youngest headman of his village. But as he tried to work his way around the political system, he found that in his predominantly upper caste constituency, caste put him at a disadvantage. He never received the grants that were supposed to come to him and he realized that the only way he was going to get any work done was by paying through his own pocket. So exasperated was he at the end of his term that he refused to stand for the re-election. For Amit, it was the discrimination that he experienced in school at the hands of upper caste students and teachers and later, his co-workers when he began work in the private sector that solidified his resolve to speak out for his community. And so disillusioned was Jai with the oppression of caste that he renounced his religion and turned a Buddhist. “Caste is the elephant in contemporary India’s room,” he says. “It’s taking so much space that I can hardly get my toe in.”
Investigating the caste system in India is an exasperating and frequently paradoxical process. Its origins and existence have been made vague but the system has worked its way into every major religion and public and private spaces. But still, the official line on caste discrimination teeters between complete denial and the attempt to sweep the whole mess under the carpet. They would have you believe that the country has collectively enlightened and risen beyond this petty ‘aparthied’. They would tell you that the Constitution of the country which provides social, political and economic justice for all has in place provisions which ensure that the lives, dignity and livelihood of the dalits are secure. Any exploitation along the lines of caste has been forbidden and long abolished. In fact, they’ll tell you, the most vulnerable segments are given special protection. Special reservations have been made for the underprivileged so that they can participate in the economic, social and political mainstream.
From the couch to the TV, it appears as an inspiring portrait of a young nation of one billion citizens moving upwards into a brighter future. You have to look beyond the mainstream, towards the margins to realize that every day, in every 18 minutes, in the space of 3 advertisement breaks and half a news program, an atrocity crime is committed against a dalit.
A closer inspection of the systems of power in India can testify to the exploitation and marginalization of the dalits. You may see it or you may not but it’s everywhere.
In the political scheme, in spite of constitutional reservation, dalit representatives are few. The paradox remains that the dalit vote bank is much sought after and political parties are known to offer false promises and even stoop as low as to resort to blatantly undemocratic measures like threatening and pressurizing the people to gather their vote. Even so-called dalit parties are known to suspend all disbelief and willingly join hands with the upper caste right wing if that assures then a place in the ruling government. “Dalit ideology and identity is missing from present day politics,” says Satyawan, speaking from experience. “What is the point is you are a dalit but speak in the words of a Brahmin?”
The justice system fares no better. The conviction rate for crimes against dalits is a paltry 15% and 85% of cases are kept in a perpetual state of being ‘pending’. Just to register a case is a struggle for the people. Dalits are not allowed to enter 33% of police stations across the country. “Even if a policeman witnesses a crime being committed on a dalit, he won’t budge a muscle. When a house was burnt in Hisar district with a dalit father and his handicapped daughter inside, the arson happened in the clear sight of the police. Clearly, they were no worse than the upper caste goondas,” says Amit Kumar.
“Earlier we had white masters, now we have black ones,” says Jai. Two thirds of the 40 million bonded labourers in India are dalits. Extreme poverty and lack of education and no access to resources drive the dalits towards degrading and dangerous wage labour. They have no rights and no voice when it comes to employment. They are mostly paid below the minimum wage and safety precautions are virtually unheard of. A shocking 1.3 million dalits are currently employed in the illegal practise of manual scavenging in which they clean human excreta and other waste from dry toilets and sewers. The inhuman practise was outlawed and abolished in 1993 by the courts but it continues, not just in rural India but in prosperous, urban areas like Ludhiana. In fact, the company that employs the highest number of manual scavengers in none other than that redoubtable government enterprise called ‘The Indian Railway’. The worker descends into the city’s entrails with no masks or gloves but uses his bare hands to scavenge. Every year about 100 dalits die while in the sewers.
Media and other private enterprises are no different from the public services. Dalits will form the majority of the labour but as one works the way up the pyramid, their percentages reduce until they’re an extremely rare species at the managerial and decision-making levels. Even in Bollywood cinema, a dalit hero is nowhere to be seen, an absolute anomaly that can render an out and out commercial film with the pretensions of art, of marginalized cinema.
The dalit is the cheap sweat and toil, the human resources that are sacrificed at the furnace of a growing economic powerhouse. They make up the grotesque and invisible sweatshop run under the grand facade of a globalized India.
Even among the dalits, the worst affected are the women. They are targeted as a way of humiliating entire dalit communities. “The abuse of our women has become routine,” says Amit. “Each time there is an upper caste wedding or function, it is our woman who are employed as labourers. They spend the whole night outside the house or village and they’re in a very vulnerable position. That’s when the upper caste men use the opportunity sexually abuse them. The women have no one to turn to, no voice to speak out. If the news gets out that she has been raped, she will be shunned by her own community and the upper castes might even murder her. The stigma of being a dalit is multiplied manyfold if you are a woman.”
So in thi bleak picture do they find any hope for the dalits?
“Yes,” says Jai, “but it the community itself that has to change first. Even within the community there is hierarchy and politics. Dalits themselves discriminate against other dalits whom they regard as coming from an even lower caste. Such politics takes away from the dalit movement, creates further margins among the marginalized. If you keep pulling at each other’s legs how are we ever going to reach the top?”
Satyawan agrees and insists,” A strong dalit identity has to be forged at the grassroots. For this, the population needs to be aware of its rights and its histories and its politics. It can be achieved through education. I would want every dalit man, woman and child to be educated. Only then can a strong foundation for a dalit movement can be made.”
“In our country, education is the key to closed doors,” says Amit. “I say it on the basis of my personal experience. When I see the children in my town go to school, I feel hopeful about the future. I look at them and think to myself that it may be a long, hard way still but nonetheless, our time is on its way. Sooner than later.”
“Zindabad!” says Jai.
for Human Rights Watch, India’s report on caste violence in India click here (http://www.hrw.org/legacy/