Untouchables’ left behind in booming nation

DALLIPUR, India — The hip young Indians working inside this country’s multinational call centers have one thing in common: Almost all hail from India’s upper and middle castes, elites in this highly stratified society.

India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society. The Dalits, once known as untouchables, continue to live in grinding poverty and suffer discrimination in education, jobs, and healthcare. For them, status and often occupation are still predetermined in the womb.

While some Indians had hoped urbanization and growth would crumble ideas about caste, observers say tradition and prejudice have ultimately prevailed.

“There’s talk of a modern India. But the truth is India can’t truly move ahead with caste in place,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer and specialist on India’s caste system. “In all ways, it’s worse than the Jim Crow laws were in the American South because it’s completely sanctioned by religion. Despite so many reforms, the idea of untouchability is still very much a part of Indian life.”

As India’s economy surges, one of the country’s most serious and stubborn challenges is how to combat entrenched caste prejudice. Dalits, along with other “backward” castes, make up the majority of India’s 1.1 billion people, and social scientists worry that these groups are being left behind.

The contrast between the gleaming call centers of rising India and the abject poverty that is the reality for many Dalits is all too obvious in Dallipur, an impoverished village on the outskirts of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state.

Without electricity, paved roads or running water, the hamlet is home to landless Mushars, the lowest social stratum of Dalits, who work as shoe shiners, trash pickers, toilet cleaners, and street sweepers.

Amid the straw and mud villages, two children died of starvation last year — not for lack of food in the area, but as a result of prejudice.

Chandrika, a 24-year-old Dalit mother, recalled carrying her crying 2-year-old son and her weak 20-month-old daughter to a nearby health center. There, she pleaded for a card that would allow her malnourished children to receive free milk.

But before the nurses could examine her children, she was mocked and shooed away by doctors, who told the young mother to go beg in the market.

“They said again and again, ‘We don’t want to see you Dalits here bothering us,’ ” said Chandrika, a thin, dark-skinned woman who wept as she recounted how her children died. “My milk had dried up from stress. There was no work for me. There was no one to hear my plight.”

Local government leaders who came to investigate her children’s deaths insisted that the shy mother and her fellow villagers build a raised concrete stage — Dalits could be addressed by upper castes only from a higher platform, Chandrika and other villagers were told. The 3-foot-tall dais remains in Dallipur today, the only outcome of the investigation.

By virtue of birth, some castes inherit wealth; the Dalits inherit debt.

Caste often determines Indians’ spouses, friends, residence and, most important, occupation — part of a Hindu belief that people inherit their stations in life based on the sins and good deeds of past lives.

Some Indians believe that the spread of capitalism in urban areas has in some ways dissolved caste by creating new occupations and eliminating obsolete ones. For instance, with the growing use of flush toilets in Indian cities, the disposal of human waste, once a job for Dalits, is now done with a simple pull of a lever.

In booming evening bazaars in Mumbai and New Delhi, lower castes sell cellphones, leather tennis shoes, and grooming kits from small shops and curbside pushcarts alongside higher castes, with everyone “in a capitalist rush to make money,” said Prasad, the writer. “A lower-caste businessman may even enjoy an evening cigarette with a higher caste, completely taboo even 50 years ago.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently compared India’s caste system to apartheid in South Africa, calling it not just prejudice but “a blot on humanity.”

Critics say that such statements are simply meant to garner votes from lower castes and that any gains made by Dalits have been marginal.

“India is not a true democracy,” said Anup Srivastava, a researcher with the People’s Vigilance Commission on Human Rights in Varanasi who is investigating complaints filed by Dalits about discrimination among neighbors, in schools, at hospitals and at work. “The country is independent. But the people aren’t. How can there be a democracy when there are still people known as untouchables who face daily discrimination?”

Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

Emily Wax, Washington Post July 5, 2007

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Caste system is racial discrimination: UN rights panel

GENEVA: UN Human Rights Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has controverted India’s stand at its recent Geneva hearings that the caste system is not racial discrimination based on descent.

In its concluding observations, CERD, which consists of reputed international experts in international law, academics, sociologists and diplomacy, arrived at the conclusion that India’s denial is not correct, and that there is alarming discrimination in practice against Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, as well as minorities who have converted from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam to avoid discrimination.

CERD, however, complimented the Union government for its legislation and constitution to counter whatever discrimination there is, and the efforts made by the Indian delegation to explain its stand in its 35-page report on racial discrimination, submitted after a 7-year wait.

India’s stand in the report is that its caste discrimination falls within the scope of article 1 of the convention on racial discrimination. Indian laws ban discrimination of any kind. Despite the exchange of views with the Indian delegation, CERD maintained that “discrimination based on ‘descent’ includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights.” Discrimination based on the ground of caste is therefore fully covered by the convention.

Some comments to the Indian delegation by experts was one by Prof Sicilianos the India rapporteur: “The reason why we are talking about caste all the time is that it is difficult to know why India refuses to discuss this.” He questioned: “If India is really committed to social cohesion is it not conceivable that you may use every single instrument at your disposal to assist you?

Why see the convention as a threat instead of assisting you in achieving social cohesion?” The committee pointed out with appreciation the declaration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where he likened the practice of untouchability to apartheid in South Africa, at the Dalit minority international conference in December 2006.

The observations were made after detailed perusal of India’s report, and a two-day interaction with the members of the Indian delegation, which were mostly cordial and illuminatory, but unfortunately marred by word-sparring and confusing statements by a member of the Indian delegation on customs in the caste system — that the Indian society is not constructed around and does not function on the basis of caste and that poverty and other social problems affected many castes; that those who are born in a caste are proud to be part of that caste; and that children of inter-caste marriages are casteless “unlike race when black marries white.”

CERD has observed that there is de facto discrimination against the Dalits and Scheduled Tribes, who cannot defend themselves, and who are disadvantaged in practice in jobs, education, affirmative action (despite legislation), elections, political participation and compensation. Their lands tend to be appropriated by upper caste neighbours, while they don’t get any protection from the police, and they are even sexually exploited, some CERD observers felt.

CERD says that there is “social acceptance of caste-based discrimination and racial and ethnic prejudice” particularly in rural areas. CERD calls for its eradication by intensifying public education and awareness-raising campaigns, incorporating educational objectives of inter-caste tolerance and respect for other ethnicities, as well as instruction of the culture of scheduled castes and scheduled and other tribes, in the National Curriculum framework, and ensuring adequate media representation of issues concerning scheduled castes, tribes and ethnic minorities, with a view to achieving true social cohesion among all ethnic groups, castes and tribes of India.

SHEILA MATHRANI, TIMES NEWS NETWORK  MARCH 30, 2007