ByÂ Mahitha Kasireddi:
21st century India is proud of its industrial, economic and educational progress. We enjoy enormous attention today and are regarded as a target area for global investors. We are proud of our large youth population which can turn to be a major working force to supply for outsourcing in developed nations. We stand as an epitome of largest successful democracy in the world. Albeit the tremendous transformation, 60 years after independence we continues to combat one of the oldest social evils, “Untouchability”.
A lot has been said and written about the history and origin of the persistent caste discrimination. The age old Varna system prescribed by the Brahamanical society had less of logic in justifying the suppression of an entire class and labelling them as ‘impure’ by attributing it as the result of their “past deeds”. It is absolutely in contradiction to the principles of religion. Which god/goddess would be happy with the inhumane treatment meted out to a section of people for involuntary factors like birth? The promise of social and economic equality made by the Constitution of India belies what lies in practice against 16% of her population. The lowest in the social hierarchy are today’s SC/STs, also called as ‘Dalits’ since the 1930s.
The sub castes within the Dalits are two kinds varying in degree of impoverishment. The first comprises leather workers, street sweepers, agricultural and non- agricultural labour. The second are the “lowest of low” who take up most demeaning jobs like digging graves, disposing of dead animals and cleaning human excreta or manual ‘scavenging’. What would become of environment, hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation if the subalterns abandon their job all of a sudden? This categorization of caste on basis of occupation is also a part of the old supreme declaration of Hindu aristocrats.
Though the government had passed the Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989, but, has not been effective in practice. Major states in India where discrimination is high are Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Gujarat. A landlord in Punjab imposed fine for talking to Dalits. In another incident a Dalit was tied up to a tree and beaten up. They are denied entry into temples and abandoned from all religious and social activities. They live in the out skirts of the village and forced to travelled long distances to fetch drinking water as they are not allowed to use the common resource of the village. The upper caste takes every precaution to avoid physical contact with the Dalits and if they happen to come into contact they immediately sprinkle water as an ablutionary practice.
Children of the Dalits undergo a great ordeal in school. They are asked to sit separately in the lunch hour, made to sit in the last benches, have to fetch water for the teachers, sweep the school ground etc. The result is that they drop out even without completing primary education. They face difficulty in pursuing education and employment. These children suffer malnourishment and under weight problems.
Life of Dalit women is a challenging one. They walk long distances to fetch water and are subjected to sexual violence and abuse when they go for work in fields. Most of such cases go unreported as the police refuse to file an FIR and instead violate the women for the second time on approaching them. These women are kind of alienated from the mainstream women’s movement. The urban feminists are to be questioned if they would encourage leadership and intellectuals from among women from the Dalit groups.
The reason we have a poor rating in the Human Development Index (HDI) is the persistent problem of inequality across various social groups. There is a high level of disparity in HDI and HPI (Human Poverty Index) across states in India. 40% are landless agricultural labourers, 45 % are marginal farmers (60% own less than an acre of land). 7.5 % are rural artisans and those labourers in non-agricultural sector. A major percentage of the population living below poverty line are Dalits. Inequality only reduces when Dalits have a share of prosperity, GDP and per capita income growth and become equal with the “general” category.
Providing Human Rights to Dalits has been difficult. The courts have failed to uphold their right to live a dignified life, right to education, basic amenities and employment. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a non-party based secular platform lead a rally with three objectives- to hold the state accountable for Human Rights violation, to sensitize civil society by raising visibility of Dalit problem and to render justice to Dalit victims of discrimination and violence.
Prohibition of manual scavenging is another troubling impediment. Sometimes state agencies themselves employ them for cleaning toilets and in railways. Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 was adopted only by 16 states but none have enforced it. Forum Against Manual Scavenging (FAMS) lead a 2- month campaign nationwide appealing to Dalits engaged in it to quit the degrading job.
If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person? Nature is the only agency which advocates equality to everyone. It is time the ‘children of god’ demand their right to life, break themselves free from the social construction. An organisation called Video Volunteers runs a campaign called Article 17, a provision under constitution which prohibits untouchability. They are moving forward to initiate a legal fight through the videos as evidences collected by Dalits themselves. That day is not far away when the subalterns wake up to a new sunrise and realize their rightful access to education, natural resources, health facilities and an equal religious and social life.