India Is Not
Shining For The Dalits
By Neelesh Mishra
04 June, 2004
India: Midway through an interview in his north Indian village,
Sangatha Prasad suddenly threw out a coded challenge:
like some water?"
Prasad, 62, is an
"untouchable," a landless laborer at the bottom of the world's
oldest surviving system of social discrimination. His upper caste neighbors
wouldn't share a morsel of food with him and his clan, invite them to
weddings and funerals, let their children play together.
So the glass of
water becomes a litmus test. "If you have water with us, if you
sit on the same cot with us and don't ask us to sit on the floor, it
means you treat us as humans, as equals," Prasad said.
For 21st century
India, eager to modernize and spread its economic wings, the caste system
is its ball and chain, holding down the lower castes while the higher
ones get rich on digital innovation and snap up thousands of new jobs
produced by economic liberalization, many outsourced from the West.
action programs, laws against discrimination and the voting power they
have once again demonstrated in the recent election, little has changed
-- or is likely to change -- for the multitudes of India's low castes,
including the lowest layer known as Dalit, meaning "the oppressed."
The 12-party alliance
that won the April-May election, and the nine parties backing it from
outside the government, include lawmakers from seven groups campaigning
almost exclusively for Dalits and other lower castes.
They will be a powerful
lobby, though probably too divided among themselves to threaten the
new government's stability. What is changing is the number of parties
openly campaigning for low-caste votes, and the assertiveness of men
like Prasad offering a glass of water to a higher-caste Hindu interviewer
to test his caste loyalty.
A Dalit, Kocheril
Raman Narayanan, was India's president until July 2002, and 120 of the
543 seats in Parliament's lower house are reserved for lower castes.
More than half of all government jobs are supposed to be earmarked for
But the president
is a figurehead with no real clout, and many of those government jobs
go unfilled because so few even know about them or have the education
The lower castes,
80 percent of India's 1 billion people by government estimate, are still
at the bottom in most social indicators -- education, income, employment,
asset ownership and debt.
It is extremely
rare to find a Dalit software engineer, scientist or bank executive.
Dalit youths are not found at discos or shopping malls. They're in the
fields where they toil next to their parents from the time they are
Thousands have been
killed over the past decades in cyclical violence that erupts over use
of a well, a boy and girl talking to each other, a dispute over payment
protect caste interests, sometimes massacring sleeping villagers. Dozens
of men and women have been shot, hanged or publicly humiliated for falling
in love with someone from a different caste. A cricket match between
village children this year erupted in a caste clash and the killing
of two Dalit kids from the winning team.
have always been there but we never wanted to hurt each other like this,"
said Ram Asrey Singh, 70, a retired school teacher from the underclass
in Hanumantpur village. "My grandchildren also hear the same rants
of enmity. I fear that one day there will be a huge civil war."
Millions of lower-caste
Hindus have sought escape over the centuries by converting to Islam,
Sikhism, Buddhism or Christianity. But the caste biases followed them.
Ali Anwar, a Muslim
author, maintains in his book "War of Equality" that it's
a myth that Indian Islam is caste-free. "Neither the Muslims' ruling
elite nor the religious leaders have so far made any meaningful efforts
to remove the disease of inequality that has made Dalit Muslims suffer
for centuries," he writes.
The same goes for
Christianity, according to a 1992 study by a Dalit Jesuit, the Rev.
Antony Raj, showing separate chapels, cemeteries and Communion ceremonies
for Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu state, and a bar on their becoming
altar boys and lectors.
Last Christmas Day,
more than 250 Christian Dalits were shut out of a Mass in Manjakuppam,
a village about 1,100 miles south of New Delhi where caste has long
divided Dalits and Vannia, high-caste Hindu converts to Christianity.
"I know it
is against the teachings of Jesus," the pastor, the Rev. Christopher
Rethinasamy, told The Associated Press at the time. "But I had
to go along with the decision of the Vannia Christians. I did not want
the situation to deteriorate into violence."
The caste system
began as a social division of labor based on one's profession, which
demarcated society into Brahmans (religious teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors),
Vaishyas (traders), and Shudras (servants of the Brahmans).
Over time, castes
became hereditary. A 19th century listing by British colonial rulers
counted 2,000 castes and subcastes.
Mohandas K. Gandhi,
the revered independence leader, fought hard to end the system, and
it was formally outlawed in 1955, eight years after India won independence
from Britain. Yet it thrives still, defended by many like Jagdamba Prasad
Bajpai, 53, a priest from the highest Brahman caste.
between castes is necessary. Society cannot function unless you have
this hierarchy," he said, sitting in front of a temple to the 10-armed
warrior goddess Durga, a sacred red mark of Hinduism daubed on his forehead.
"After all, you can't just decide one fine morning to start calling
your father your son."
some injustices, however, like the ban on low caste people entering
temples or taking part in religious ceremonies. "This is unfair.
I don't believe in this," he said.
The return to power
of Gandhi's Congress party, led by his Italian-born namesake Sonia Gandhi,
may boost the morale of Dalits who remember Congress as a force for
secularism and unity. The hordes of political candidates seeking lower-caste
votes would also suggest things are improving.
But in the village
of Narsinghbhanpur, 310 miles southeast of New Delhi, where he lives
in the Dalit section separated by farm fields from the affluent higher-caste
neighborhoods, Prasad sees little cause for rejoicing.
our votes. Everyone talks about us in their speeches. But look at what
we wear, look at what we eat," he said. "We are more than
80 percent of this country. But what did we get?"
Not much, analysts
social ladder has gone up a bit. But those who were at the bottom remain
there," said Ajit Kumar Singh, a professor at the federally funded
Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow. "The only difference
is that earlier, the voices were suppressed. Now the downtrodden have
a voice. It has had a huge psychological impact."
But in Deora, a
northwestern village, a scene plays out that looks little changed from
50 years ago -- five Dalit children in ankle-deep muddy water alongside
a grandfatherly laborer, planting mint saplings for 30 rupees (60 cents)
"We hear that
a lot of work is being done for the lower castes. But I don't see it
anywhere," said Ram Nath, a teenage worker. "We still face
discrimination every day. These are ancient laws that we cannot erase."
What change there
is comes in small, everyday gestures.
In nearby Jankinagar,
Meva Lal, a Dalit farm laborer, relishes the simple dignity of chatting
face-to-face with a high-caste visitor.
"If I was meeting
you earlier, or going somewhere with you, I would have had to sit on
the ground," said Lal, 35, sitting on a bed surrounded by children
and bleating goats. "We have acquired more confidence now ... But
apart from that, our lives have not changed at all."
In some parts of
Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Indian caste politics, some Dalits have
effected a social revolution of sorts. Instead of being led in Hinduism
by a Brahman, they have devised their own religious text, or "Patra,"
to be read at religious ceremonies.
"The low caste
people followed our ways for centuries, but they are now questioning
them ... They think our religious laws are discriminatory," said
Bajpai, the priest. He now gets far fewer Dalit devotees.
"There is no
use of a Brahman pundit in our village now ... We do our own thing,"
said Pyare Lal, 38, in Karua village. "There are no Sanskrit hymns,
no ostentation. We are happy with this."