Babasaheb is angry. As I look up at a large photo of his on the wall in front of me; his thick, black eyebrows are knitted together, eyes scowling through spectacles. I can almost feel the disappointment that fills the air. Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Indian Constitution, one of the most visionary constitutions in the world, was an ardent advocate of ending untouchablility. But he also recognised that rights guaranteed by laws could be effective only when protected by the social conscience of the people. And that is where he was failed by his successors. Every government in the past 68 years has done a spectacularly inept job of upholding the principles of equality that he laid the foundations for through the constitution.
In a school in Limbdi, Gujarat ‘upper-caste’ children do not eat the school’s mid-day meal because it is cooked by a Dalit woman; In Maharashtra, a man was murdered over a land dispute because he wanted to build a community centre for Dalits in the village; In Rajasthan a Dalit woman was raped because for ‘upper-caste’ men, it was a justifiable use of force. Over the past three years, Video Volunteers’ Community Correspondents have documented 52 practices of ‘Untouchability’ from across India. That number is a shameful reminder that the practice continues and its instances are increasing at an alarming rate despite a variety of constitutional safeguards to prevent these. Below are the latest videos in the series.
We launched the “ARTICLE 17” campaign to end untouchability in April 2012 with 22 pieces of video evidence. In the years since, we have petitioned the National Commission for Scheduled Castes to take action against the 36 video evidences we sent them 2012 onwards. It took one year and the filing of a Right to Information application, to get the Commission to respond. We were told that the query has been forwarded to State authorities in April-May 2013. Another year went by and there was no further information about actions taken!
Successive governments in India have failed to remind its citizens that untouchability is a crime in India. How else does one explain that there are absolutely no public awareness campaigns, which talk about this issue? That it continues to be difficult for the survivors of such discrimination to seek legal recourse? The citizens are unabashed in their ignorance, as few seem enraged that such injustice is meted out on a daily basis to 20.4 crore people in this country, roughly 16.6% of India’s population.
In late 2014 Video Volunteers along with Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) filed a Public Interest Litigation asking the Supreme Court to put into motion more stringent mechanisms to put an end to caste-based discrimination. The PIL calls on Government agencies to address the issue of Untouchability at its roots rather than take reactive measures as it presently does.
At the heart of the prayers is a demand that the very idea of ‘untouchability’ should be punishable.Non-violent practices like maintaining separate wells for Dalits or not letting them enter places of worship should be treated just as seriously as the violent avatars of caste-based discrimination. One of the key prayers of the petition asksthat Government officials like District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police be held responsible and be prosecuted if cases of Untouchability are found in their areas.
It also seeks orders from the Court mandating the creation of educational material in collaboration with leading human rights and Dalit rights organizations making the study of Untouchability mandatory in schools and at courses for pubic officials and judges; it also seeks the creation of content that would publicise the issue on televisions and radio during prime time.
As the legal case continues, the work of Correspondents on the ground is testament to the fact that this vile and insidious practice can be stopped and that we can end untouchability. Over the past year the Correspondents have won some hard fought battles against discrimination. Through their videos CCs ensured: people who had been fired from government jobs because they are Dalit were reinstated; Survivors of Caste atrocities were compensated for physical injuries and the damage to their homes; Police reports were filed against people who had perpetrated caste-based violence.
“If the fundamental rights are opposed by the community, the no law, no parliament, no judiciary can guarantee them in the real sense of the world,” Ambedkar had said. In the 21st Century, there should be no place for discrimination based on an accident of birth. To end untouchability, we need to bring it to the front and centre of the public conscience. And we can only do it together. So let’s get angry; let’s talk about it; let’s ask the right questions to the right people; let’s usher in an equal world together. Let’s end untouchability.