American Literature Accelerated
13th March 2015
Dalits in Despair
More than one-sixth of the world is Indian. One-sixth of the Indian population belongs to the Dalit caste, also known as the untouchables. What does the term Dalit even mean? Dalit is the Sanskrit term for “broken” or “oppressed.” India’s caste system assigns individuals a certain hierarchical status according to Hindu beliefs. In the Hindu religion, there are four castes: Brahmins, the highest, Kshatriyas, the second highest, Vaishyas, the third highest, and the Shudras, the lowest. However, below even these four are the Dalits, also known as the Untouchables. This system is an ancient one and can no longer be prevalent in today’s society. In the duration of this research, I discovered how this system originated and how it still plays a role in today’s society. In addition, I read two books dedicated to this topic as well as did extensive research on this controversial subject.
I chose this topic about the caste system in India because I am strongly opposed to discrimination, especially for minorities. I have grown up hearing bits and pieces about the caste system however I have always been interested in knowing more. In the United States, African Americans were discriminated against for centuries. Why? Simply because they are of a different color than a wide majority of Americans. Similarly, in India, people are discriminated against for their “status” in the Hindu religion. As previously mentioned, a sixth of the Indian population is a Dalit. Being a part of this lowest ranking caste, members face discrimination in almost every level: access to education, access to medical facilities and healthcare, jobs they can pursue, and even what area of town they can live in. This cannot be allowed anymore. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity at success, including Dalits. A petition to Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, stated “No citizen of India should have to fear for their life simply because of their religious identity, and the international community is eagerly awaiting any sign that your government has the desire or will to confront this pressing issue.”
I hope to gain an understanding on the reasoning behind the existence of the caste system. I hope to learn about the struggles Dalits undergo, the specific acts of violence taken against them, the common misconceptions, and how it affects society’s view on India. By doing this research, it will greatly benefit me by increasing my knowledge of Indian society. It will introduce me to the facts and myths about an age-old system that can no longer be prevalent in the modern day.
My essential research question is: Why are Dalits not treated the same way as others? This question seems sort of general; however can be more precise in my secondary questions. Some of my secondary questions include: What is the history behind the caste system? Did it always exist? What organizations exist to help Dalits? What sort of education do Dalits receive? What sort of abuse do Dalits go through? Has there been any legislation or attempted legislation to give Dalits more rights? If so, how effective was that? How can caste affect their social or family life? These eight questions will help me gain understanding of all of the aspects of the caste system, specifically Dalit life, and lead me to my conclusion.
Several institutions have taken it upon themselves to do greater research into Dalit life and their everyday struggles. In addition, there are several individuals who have taken a stand against the discrimination Dalits face. Narendra Jadhav is a renowned economist, a prolific writer, and a public speaker who wrote Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India. In addition, The Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS) is a nongovernmental, nonprofit institution that was set up in 2003, by academicians and civil society activists to understand the problems of marginalized groups identify the causes of their marginalization and suggest policies for their empowerment. In addition, B.R. Ambedkar was a remarkable individual who is a symbol for Dalit rights and reform.
Narendra Jadhav received his Bachelor of Science degree in Statistics from Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai University in 1973. He also received his Master of Arts degree in Economics from Mumbai University in 1975. He later went on to receive a Ph.D. in Economics from Indiana University in 1986. Jadhav served as the Principal Advisor and Chief Economist at the Reserve Bank of India till his voluntary retirement in October 2008. He worked for four and half years at the International Monetary Fund, first as Advisor to Executive Director for India and briefly as a Consultant to the Independent Evaluation office of the IMF.He worked as an Advisor to the Government of Ethiopia in 1988 and later as the Chief Economic Counselor for Afghanistan in 2006. In 2008, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra appointed him as the Chairman of a One Man High Powered Committee in the context of 'Farmers' Suicides'. The Jadhav Committee Report has been accepted by the Government and is being implemented today. In addition, Jadhav served as Vice-chancellor of the University of Pune from August 2006 to June 2009. He is also known as the author of Untouchables: My Family's Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India. The novel takes us on a journey from how Damu, Jadhav’s father, escaped his small village before Narendra’s birth to how Jadhav pursued educational and professional success and how he still faced discrimination after earning a Ph.D. and a prestigious job.
The primary focus of IIDS is research on the marginalized groups in India, specifically Dalits. There are several types of research priorities for the Institute. First, Theoretical research on the concepts of social exclusion and discrimination in social, cultural, political and economic spheres of Dalits. Second, there is empirical research on measuring the forms, magnitude and nature of discrimination of Dalits. Third, they conduct empirical research on the status of excluded and discriminated groups in the Indian society with respect to their social, cultural, political, and economic situations. Finally, there is empirical research for developing policies for social inclusion and empowerment of the socially excluded groups in various spheres. In addition, the institute works with other organizations, both within and outside India, to conduct the research and work towards some public policies to protect these citizens. Some of these organizations include UNICEF, UNDP, US International Food Policy Research Institute, and several University departments throughout the world.
B.R. Ambedkar was an Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who campaigned against social discrimination of Dalits. He was Independent India's first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India. He was strongly opposed to the oppressive caste system and went on to fight for the rights of Dalits. He also went on to write many scholarly essays and articles denouncing the caste system and how Dalits should be treated just like any other citizen of any other caste.
Through the length of this project, I wished to identify the reasons that make Dalits such a badly treated group of people and how to fix this prevalent issue. In order to do that, some important questions need to be answered. First, what is the history behind the caste system? The Globe and Mail News gives us a detailed timeline of the history of the Hindu Caste System. Sometime between 1200 and 900 B.C., a religious text, known as the Purusha Sukta, was written and spoke of the creation of the world from the sacrifice of a cosmic man, from whose mouth, arms, thighs and feet emerged the four classes of society. This was the first textual representation of a system of social separation that would later become known as caste. Sometime between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D., a Sanskrit code of laws and norms, by Manu Dharmashastra, elaborated on the fourfold structure of society. It described the privileges and disabilities according to status, and identified despised groups outside the four varnas. These groups would later become today’s Dalits/Untouchables. In the seventh century, Hsuan Tsang, a Chinese Buddhist traveler, journeyed through India and provided evidence of the segregation, imposed disabilities, and defiling labor that were part of untouchability. This shows that by the 600s AD, the caste system was completely in place and so was untouchability.
In the year 1206 A.D., the Islamic Delhi Sultanate took over a large portion of South Asia. This led to a spread of Islam around the region. Along with this came a slight destabilization and alteration of the caste order. By 1757, the British East India Company had begun to rule a large portion of the Indian Subcontinent. While, in certain aspects, they did disrupt the caste order, they also reinforced the traditional privileges of the Brahmins and did very little to end the discrimination against untouchables. By 1918, the British began to realize some of the issues with the caste system in India. As a result, they began to outlaw certain practices of untouchability and reserve places in local government for the traditionally excluded. In 1927, a young Dalit lawyer by the name of Bhimrao Ambedkar, later widely known as B.R. Ambedkar, gathered thousands of Dalits to draw water from a public well to which they had been denied access in Mahad, Maharashtra. This was the first major action by Ambedkar that would reshape the Nation of India.
In 1932, Ambedkar started a movement to push the British to create separate electorates for Dalits; however Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he had otherwise been a colleague in the fight for independence, rigidly opposed the idea. Gandhi began a “fast unto death” to oppose the move, until Ambedkar and his Dalit supporters dropped the demand. Many Dalits later felt that Gandhi set back the cause of ending caste discrimination by decades. Finally, in 1950, 3 years after Indian Independence, the new constitution went into effect, which outlawed discrimination based on caste and the practice of untouchability. It also reserved 22.5% of its educational and civil service seats for “untouchables” and aboriginals. In the mid-1950s, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led over 500,000 Dalits to Buddhism in order to escape the still-prevalent issue. In 1970, a Dalit Panther movement, modeled off of the Black Panthers in the United States, was started in Bombay, India (present-day Mumbai). It was then that the term “Dalit” came to be used more often. The movement spurred the emergence of a new Dalit literature.
In 1995, history was made when a Dalit woman by the name of Mayawati was elected as chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Her party, Bahujan Samaj Party, claimed to be continuing the legacy of Ambedkar. In 2005, Human-rights organizations collected over 100,000 reports of atrocities committed against Dalits in this year alone. These include murders, rapes and arson attacks on Dalit communities. Unfortunately, only a handful of arrests were made. This shows that even though reform in the discrimination against Dalits has come a long way, there is still much to be done.
Now that the history of Dalits has been understood, it is important to understand what issues they still face right now. Even though India’s constitution outlawed untouchability, it still affects Indian society in the modern day. Article 17 of the new Constitution abolished “untouchability” and forbid its practice in any form; yet, no provision was made under which to enforce the prohibition. According to the Dalit Solidarity organization, even though the practice of untouchability is a punishable offense, the law is rarely enforced. According to a community correspondent for BBC News India, "It's like you are born with a stamp on your forehead and you can never get rid of it.” The Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955 and amended as the Protection of Civil Rights Act in 1976, effectuated the right to file untouchability cases in Indian courts. The law, however, did not clearly define untouchability or its practices and offenders were often acquitted. In 1989, after over 40 years of independence, The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Act was passed to further clarify the definition of untouchability. For the first time, Scheduled Tribes were included in the jurisdiction of the act. Six decades after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar first expressed concern that political freedom lacked meaning as long as economic and social inequalities were still evident in society, both economic and property-related offenses committed against Scheduled Castes were identified as atrocities, alongside political offenses. The Act called for the appointment of Special Courts and Special Government Prosecutors for expediting the proceedings under the Act and courts were given authorization for enforcement. Notably, public servants showing negligence towards the implementation of the Act would be considered offenders. As evident, one of the primary reasons why there is still a certain amount of discrimination is because there still exists loopholes in the system.
Another important area to focus on is how caste discrimination affects human rights. According to the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Caste discrimination affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide. Caste discrimination involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. According to the previously stated source, nearly fifteen human rights violations are made in caste discrimination. Some include: The right to physical security and life, the right to be free from violence, the right to equal political participation, the right to fair access to justice, the right to own land, the right to equal access to public and social services, the right to education, the right to cultural identity and the right to equal opportunity and free choice of employment.
Both in India and throughout the world, a number of organizations exist that work towards ending caste discrimination and supporting those that are subject to those horrors. One of the largest organizations that exist is The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). It was founded in March 2000 to advocate for Dalit human rights and to raise awareness of Dalit issues nationally and internationally. IDSN is a network of international human rights groups, development agencies, national Dalit solidarity networks from Europe, and national platforms in caste-affected countries. Through association with the United Nations, European Union and other multilateral institutions, IDSN has had a significant impact on the internationalization of caste discrimination as a critical human rights issue. The network produces crucial input in the form of documentation, strategic interventions and lobby action and also supports lobby activities on a national level.
In addition, the Navsarjan Organization is a grassroots Dalit organization that ensures human rights for all. Their mission is to eliminate discrimination based on untouchability practices and to ensure equality of status and opportunity for all, regardless of caste, class or gender. Navsarjan has a variety of different programs and campaigns. They include: Human Rights Value Education, Women’s Rights, Eradication of Manual Scavenging, Minimum Wage Implementation, Land Rights, Center for Dalit Human Rights, Digitization of Data, Dalit Shakti Kendra, Community Video Unit, Local Governance and Political Rights, and Youth Awareness and Motivation. The Center for Dalit Human Rights (CDHR) is the semi-autonomous legal wing of Navsarjan that works to register and prosecute atrocity cases and cases of violence against both Dalits and non-Dalits. The CDHR also organizes Public Hearings for victims of atrocities to voice their grievances. These hearings help Dalits understand the types of hurdles they face in registering atrocity cases, particularly as a result of police apathy or active antagonism or refusal of the government to provide a legally-mandated special Public Prosecutor in atrocities cases, overall government inaction, among other reasons. The CDHR also collects an enormous amount of data on human rights abuses and other issues that Dalits face.
After conducting extensive research, I have concluded that untouchability is no longer as prevalent an issue as it was before. Many acts and legislations have been passed to vastly improve the lives of Dalits. Some of these acts and legislation include Protection of Civil Rights Act of 1976 and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes Act of 1989. In addition, many organizations exist, like the International Dalit Solidarity Network and the Navsarjan Organization, to help Dalits escape the restrictions placed on them by their caste, Many Dalits, like Dr. Narendra Jadhav and his family, have fought against society and risen to fame, despite their upbringing. They have been given high-up government positions and reached new heights for Dalits. Even though the caste system still exists in Indian society, it is slowly becoming less of a major problem.
Through the length of this research, I have gained a vast amount of knowledge regarding the rights and treatment of Dalits and have learned more about the Hindu Caste system. I have also learned about the history of the caste system and how much it played a role in Indian culture. I think this is a fascinating topic to study that not a lot of people know about. A major reason I chose this topic was to raise awareness for this issue that, even though is not as prevalent as before, still exists in modern day Indian culture. If I am to continue this research, I would delve deeper into the other castes that exist in the Hindu religion as well as study other minority groups that exist in India. Overall, I enjoyed studying the lives of the Dalit people and was fascinated by their experiences. I look forward to doing even more research in the future.