Filter +

Dalits in India 2000

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

Villagers of India. (Mira (on the wall)/Flickr)

If you go to a Christian graveyard you will find all the graves neatly arranged according to caste. If you go to Kerala today, you will find that the same religious denomination has four different churches in the same area organized by caste. Kerala was one of the places where they introduced reform in the Catholic Church by doing away with the holy community. They did away with it because the idea of drinking wine from the same glass as the upper castes was simply too much and the upper caste revolted and threatened to reconvert to Hinduism if this was imposed. So in the name of hygiene it was abolished.

The third kind of exclusion you will encounter is that whether you go to Pudukotai in Tamil Nadu or to Gulbarga in Karnataka or Bharatpur in Rajasthan or Mehbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh or Navapada in Orissa, to this day, the Dalit postman does not cycle through the upper caste section of the village. He parks his cycle and walks through that section of the village because otherwise he will be beaten for the insolence of daring to enter on a cycle.

I entered Alkuru village in Mehbubnagar in 1998. It became a big issue in the legislature of the Andhra Pradesh assembly at a time when a Dalit boy had succeeded in getting a job, was very proud of it and like a good Andhra wore a white shirt and white pants and came back on a new cycle. In addition, he entered the village in his excitement, going through the backward-caste section of the basti. When I came he was being taken to the hospital after having been beaten to a pulp for entering the main part of the village on his bike.

Incidentally many of the things I am telling you about are written year after year in the government’s official reports. In the annual reports produced by the National Commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, this issue is dealt with quite plainly. These reports are given to the President of India, and then presented to Parliament. Any investigative report that is placed before Parliament is placed under ATR. You can imagine the logistics of getting action reports from 25 states and union territories. In 1999, for instance, the Indian Parliament discussed the report of 1988 when most of the cases had been thrown out of court for want of evidence, many of the biggest and openly self-proclaimed killers had been acquitted, and many of the victims had been forced to withdraw their charges. In the village of Kumher, Rajasthan, for example, the victims were forced to withdraw charges when forty ministers and 250 members of parliament visited the area eight years after the massacre.

The most obvious sign of this oppression is the two-glass system. Teashops keep separate glasses for untouchables and Dalits because at the heart of untouchability is the notion of “ritual pollution.” People who perform certain functions like disposing of carcasses or cleaning latrines are considered polluted. This is the central argument of untouchability. Of course, as Shyama said a lot of things have changed and they have changed for the better, largely as a result of public action.

There are an incredible plethora of laws on this. You have a law on the abolition of manual scavanging. Every municipal corporation in the country employs the scavagers and denies them officially. They are there because someone has to clear the shit. On the other hand a state like Kerala has no scavengers; they did not pass a law but there was this dignity and self-respect movement that did away with it. Novelists in the ‘60s wrote powerful books; The Son of a Scavenger was one such book. Kerala has serious caste problems and serious Dalit problems but public action and a conscious citizenry make a big difference.

So these separate glasses in some parts of Mehbub Nagar hang outside in a basket. I have got pictures which have been published widely in the Times of India and The Hindu where the glasses are kept in a barred window and you take the glass from outside the window. When this story appeared I am very happy to say that the Andhra government was infuriated and the first discussion in 37 years on caste took place. They set up a one-man commission with Justice Ponaiyya (who is part of the constitutional review committee) and the idea was that my stories would be discredited. Instead, Justice Ponaiyya ended up saying that he had gone to the villages and that I had understated the case.

This Ponaiyya Report is due out any day now and he has said that the situation has degenerated. Dalits can be beaten up for dressing better. In the Hindi belt, in a traditional Indian wedding, no Dalit can mount a horse in a barat (bridegroom’s party). Most riots during weddings are over this issue because a Dalit mounting a horse is an affront to the social hierarchy. This is faithfully reflected in the South in another way. I was born in Andhra and brought up in Tamil Nadu.

In Tamil Nadu when women came into the Panchayat after 1973, an amendment was passed that reserved 33 per cent of seats in local government for women and a large number of Dalit women came into local governance.