Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Dalit "Untouchables" - Unbelievable Discrimination and What You Can Do

On Friday, June 12, 2009, the Feminist Majority Foundation attended the 2009 Global Affirmative Action Praxis Project (GAAPP) Transnational Seminar: Critical Race Theory and the Struggle for Equality in Brazil, India, and the United States at UCLA. The final two days of the weeklong seminar were open to the public.

A group of FMF interns had the opportunity to listen to leaders of the Navsarjan organization, a group devoted to promoting equality among the Indian people and in particular, among the “Untouchable” Dalit population in India, speak at the seminar.

The conference was an eye-opening experience and motivated us to continue to promote women’s equality at home and around the world. Unfortunately, untouchability has existed for thousands of years in India and over time, many Dalits have come to accept or submit to their oppressive treatment.

Navsarjan is working to end the prejudiced treatment of Untouchables and to promote equality for all people in India. Unfortunately, the officiates at the 2009 Global Affirmative Action Praxis Project (GAAPP) Transnational Seminar experienced firsthand the unfair treatment of Dalits when attempting to sponsor Dalits to attend this conference:

Initially, the GAAPP Transnational Seminar attempted to sponsor seven Dalit students to speak about their roles as activists for Navsarjan on issues such as violence against women, land rights and caste, and gender discrimination. GAAPP had met some of these women leaders in India and was particularly moved by their accounts of intolerance and struggle. It would have been the first time these students traveled abroad. One woman in particular wanted to share her personal experience of gender favoritism, in which she was rejected from her community and then by her relatives for being born as the seventh daughter in a family with an “excess of daughters.”

These seven students applied twice to receive visas at the US General Consulate in Mumbai, yet both times their applications were denied. GAAPP sent several letters of support to the Consulate, yet it is suspected that these letters were not even reviewed. During their second appointment, these students were given a letter of rejection immediately, due to a lack of “demonstrate ties to their home countries.” This was particularly ironic, given that these "ties" are related to property, something most Dalits, especially women, do not have access or rights to. Unfortunately, these students were not able to attend the Global Affirmative Action Praxis seminar. Their experience is an attestation to the injustice toward Dalits that continues to exist today.

Discrimination toward Dalits is a direct result of the caste system in India. The Indian caste system divides its citizens into various hierarchical groups called Varnas, which include Brahmans (scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (workers). These four Varnas are believed to have originated from a Primeval Being. Later, a fifth Varna was created: the Untouchables. Today, the social stratification of the Varnas grants privileges to those in the highest ranks, while leaving those in the lowest rank, the Untouchables, now called Dalits, without basic human rights.

The systematic oppression of Dalits is strongly linked to religious Hindu beliefs and therefore, those who wish to bring complete equality to
India face many challenges. As the group Navsarjan declares,

Those from the “lowest” castes are told that their place in the caste hierarchy is due to their sins in a past life. Vivid punishments of torture and death are assigned for crimes such as gaining literacy or insulting a member of a dominant caste."

This religious belief in reincarnation hinders efforts to promote equality in India, as it is believed that Dalits are paying for their sins from a past life and are accordingly, “polluted and impure.” Consequently, the marginalized population of 167 million Dalits is “outcasted".

In 1950, the national constitution of India abolished“untouchability” and banned discrimination based on the caste system. Yet, in spite of this apparent legal protection, close to 50% of Dalits live beneath the poverty line and three out of five Dalits are illiterate. Evidently, while India’s laws are helpful in theory, they have not produced any real changes in the lives of the Dalit people. Sadly, a governmental tolerance of Dalit oppression and discrimination renders the so-called legal protections of Dalits ineffective.

Dalits generally work (only) in jobs that support this theme of impurity and although Dalits make up almost a fifth of the Indian population, they control less than 5 % of the nation’s resources. Dalits are responsible for cleaning toilets and removing human waste, skinning animals and washing clothing. Often, they are forced to live outside of their villages, where less than 10% of Dalit households can afford safe drinking water, electricity and toilets.

A lack of access to basic infrastructure is further aggravated by the fact that Dalits are excluded from village wells and temples. Dalit children in particular are stigmatized from an early age. They are frequently segregated in schools and called names such as Kachro (filth), Melo (dirty), Dhudiyo (dusty), Gandy (mad), Ghelo (stupid) and Punjo (waste). Undeniably, discrimination toward Dalits occurs in India every day. Unfortunately, this discrimination doubles when gender enters the equation.

Almost always, when a group of people is severely discriminated against, women are those who suffer the most. In
India, it is a Dalit woman who must stand away from the village well when retrieving water, often for hours at a time, in the hopes that a non-Dalit will show “mercy” by giving her water. Dalit women are also forced to do the most unsanitary jobs; 92% of Dalits assigned to cleaning human waste are female. Unfortunately, due to the intersectional cross of gender and caste assignment, women receive very little compensation for their labor; if they refuse to continue working, they will most likely be pushed out of their homes.

In addition to job discrimination, Dalit women experience sexual and physical abuse from those in higher castes. Martin Macwan, founder of Navsarjan, observed that Dalit women are not allowed to touch the shadow of men in higher castes, yet when men rape Dalit women, there is often no response.

Not only has rape been used as a tool for sexual abuse, it has also been used as a means of punishment for Dalits who choose to challenge the caste system. In these cases, rape is utilized as a way of punishing the woman and her family for breaking the rules of the caste system. Unfortunately, Dalit women who are raped oftentimes do not seek justice, knowing that their cases will probably be ignored in a society which does not value their bodies.

Clearly, discrimination toward Dalit men and women is a problem that still exists at staggering rates today. Regrettably, the abuse of Dalits does not show signs of stopping soon. Please visit the following websites for more information on the Dalits and for ways you can help.


- Jenna and Danae, FMF Choices Campus Leadership Interns

1 comment:

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