Survey Confirms What We Already Knew: Untouchability Still Exists In 21st Century India

Posted by videovolunteers in Caste, Society, Staff Picks
April 13, 2018

A survey conducted by Video Volunteers with the SC/ST community in India reaffirms a fact everyone knows, but few talk about – discrimination exists and more than 50% of the respondents have experienced it in its most crass form – untouchability.

India is one of the few former colonies of the world that has progressed so far as to become the second-fastest growing economy in the world, along with being projected as a future superpower. Socially, however, India’s progress has not been as steep and stark. Its society continues to remain in the tight grip of patriarchy and caste – two dominant features that continue to determine how far one can go socially, economically and politically. However, unlike patriarchy that is finally being challenged at least by the apparent ‘elite’ somewhat discernibly (even if only verbosely), caste still remains that dirty laundry in modern India which no one likes to acknowledge publicly – not even the elite, the educated, the sensitised, and the ones who project themselves as saviours. The pre-independence Dalit movement, that was started by Dr B.R Ambedkar, has largely been kept alive by Dalits themselves.

Through a Video Volunteers survey conducted by its Community Correspondents with 490 people from the SC/ST community in nine states, it was recorded that 64% of the respondents have experienced discrimination or atrocities in some form, thus confirming it as a pandemic.

The survey confirms that there is no space for us to, even for a second, assume that untouchability and other discriminatory practices against members of the SC/ST communities ended when the Constitution abolished it as a practice in 1950 through Article 17. In order to actualise the intention of the law, it is necessary for law enforcement and social sensitisation to work concurrently. “The Statement of Objects and Reasons” of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2013, acknowledges that the bill was initially brought into force to prevent atrocities against the SC/ST community, and was amended in 2013 because ‘atrocities…continue at a disturbing level’.

The survey was rolled out among the network of 250 correspondents to relay to a wider audience that caste-hierarchy and discrimination continue to fuel inequality in Indian society. When the SC/ST Act was enacted and amended, it was done in order to slowly eliminate the roadblocks placed in front of the people of the SC/ST communities to support them in leading an equal and dignified life as citizens of India, as promised by the Constitution. However, the survey provides a compact glimpse into the ground realities that 26% of the country’s population (the SC/ST communities) lives with (as per the 2011 census).

The Video Volunteers survey in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh reveals that 45% people from the SC/ST communities have experienced untouchability – the crassest form of discrimination that challenges one’s right to a dignified and respectful life. The survey also reveals that 15% faced verbal abuse, 12% said they had experienced physical violence, 10% were denied access to public places including schools and temples, 7% were denied an economic opportunity, and 1% had been raped or had experienced other forms of sexual assault.

However, it is necessary here to take into account the sample size of this survey and diversity of respondents – 43% women were surveyed as opposed to 57% men. According to the National Crimes Record Bureau, the second largest category of crimes committed against people from the SC/ST communities are crimes against women. These crimes include rape, kidnapping, and insult to modesty, among others.

After a conversation with Ramlal Baiga, a Community Correspondent who surveyed 18 people in his village of Takhatpur in Madhya Pradesh’s Umariya district, it became even more evident why the people surveyed recorded untouchability as the form of discrimination they had faced the most. While conducting the survey, he found that most people only regarded untouchability as discrimination because of their caste. The people he surveyed thought other forms of discrimination were because of their “rehen-sehen” (the way they live) and not necessarily because of the caste or tribe they belong to. In order to challenge and eliminate caste, it will be important to show the people who are held back for the caste they belong to, the face of caste and the different masks it can wear.

The survey on caste-based discrimination and atrocities also reveals that only 21% of those who had faced some form of discrimination filed a report with the police. This doesn’t come as a shocking revelation because raising one’s voice corresponds to vulnerability to social boycott, physical violence, or losing one’s source of income.

One of the respondents, Naresh Mittal (name changed), a retired Income Tax officer, told Community Correspondent Jahanara Ansari (who conducted the survey in Gwalior), that he would be given tasks beyond his profile and his work timings would be monitored more than his co-workers. He was, however, afraid of raising his voice against his employer because he feared losing his job. Another respondent reported facing a similar kind of discrimination to Jahanara. Alka Kumar (name changed) who is a Public Administration professor at a college in Gwalior, is constantly held back from important tasks, which has stalled the progress of her career. She, too, is afraid of speaking up because of the consequences that might follow – losing her job. These stories sound all too familiar – top-tier position in most organisations are held by ‘upper-caste’ men, which can place people from ‘lower-castes’ and women in a disempowered position.

Of the small number of people who did report going to the police, 63% said that the response of the police was not helpful. According to the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau report, of the 1.44 lakh cases of atrocities registered against people from SC communities, and the 24, 408 cases registered against people from the ST communities that were brought to trial in 2016, only 10% culminated in a verdict, and only one-fourth of those in convictions – whereas the number of incidences of crime/atrocities against the SC communities in 2016 alone was 40,801, and 6,568 against people of the ST communities. Just as both the formal and informal sector is dominated by ‘upper-caste’ men who mostly lack sensitisation, one of the building blocks of a democracy, the police too is dominated by ‘upper-caste’ men, and they may refuse to support a person from the SC or ST communities.

On March 20, 2018, the Supreme Court passed a verdict that led to Bharat Bandh protests spearheaded by the Dalit community in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, among others. The court placed limitations on the immediate arrests of a public servant or a common citizen accused by a member of the SC/ST communities. This, the people fear, will make it all the more difficult for an SC/ST person to seek justice – a road that is already filled with hardships for the average Indian, let alone one from a marginalised background. Ironically, the same ‘Statement of Objects and Reasons’, of the 2013 amendment bill of the Atrocities Act, acknowledged the hurdles faced by the communities while trying to attain justice.

For the first time, the latest NCRB report (2016) included a section on crimes against the SC/ST communities in 19 metropolitan cities. Lucknow recorded 262 incidences of crimes/atrocities against people from the SC communities, Bengaluru recorded 207, and Hyderabad, 169. These are the leading metropolitan cities of India, marketed as modern – but these numbers go to show that their modernity only extends as far and high as their buildings.

If a Dalit or Adivasi cannot feel safe, secure and equally included in cities that are breathing with apparently educated and sensitised people, then the gravity of the situation can only be grasped like quicksand – especially in disconnected rural villages, where voices are dimmed and heard only so often.

Article by Shreya Kalra, a member of the VV Editorial Team.