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Dalits in India 2000

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

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

It is very important to mention that this happens in 90 per cent of Dalit-majority schools because untouchability is such a phenomenon that there is severe and extensive practice of untouchability among the Dalits, within the scheduled class. It is the absorption of the ideology of the oppressor. It is always nice to have someone below you whom you can beat up. In all the villages of Navapada the headmasters divide the children on the basis of caste at the time of the midday meal. The reason for this is ritual pollution.

I went to the headmaster and asked him if they were segregated. He denied the fact that they were segregated. Each group was sitting together in the corridor. When the eating is done the cleaning up has to be done by a cleaning woman. If the Dalits are sitting there she does not clean. Dalit children have to clean and mop up and sweep the place, which would be fine if all children were doing it. This is going on today in Kalahandi, Navapada and in Bolangia district in Orissa. In Tamil Nadu it showed up in different forms. The most extraordinary story we covered was in the Tutkudi district of Tamil Nadu, a school kabaddi match led to 24 dead because the headmaster in his wisdom divided the two teams on the basis of Marawar vs. Pallav, Tavar vs. Dalit. The Dalits won the match and that was it. A spiral of violence was in the district leading to one-way killings and the Tamil Nadu government is still dealing with it. It’s out of control in Tamil Nadu in some respects, that kind of thing.

Another kind of exclusion is that millions of people in this country do not have the right to enter the temples. In Karnataka, for instance, there was an ordinary victory where ordinary people banded together united in an association and went into the temple and beat drums in it. In Nataduara temple, throughout the early 1980s, Swami Agnivesh protested to gain entry for the Dalits but commerce did it because the huge amount of violence there saw a drop in tourist traffic. So now they can’t explicitly exclude Dalits so what happens instead is that no shop in the lanes of the temple will hire a Dalit and no Dalit is a permanent employee of the Municipal Corporation. They are all contract-employees of the temple.

If you think this is all so rural and remote, please understand that there is an enormous amount of discrimination in the urban areas. In the capital city of Delhi, we have had a problem over a major medical college. This has made front pages in the national newspapers and nobody has been punished. A national hostel was segregated and all Dalit students were kept to one floor. The tables were also segregated.

In the state of Tamil Nadu, BHEL has spit on purely caste lines because the Dalits working in that organization felt that they were being sidelined. They decided to leave those unions and form their own union. I went there and investigated what the complaints were and a majority of the complaints were valid. In campus housing I found that if one of my fellow Brahmins showed up on campus, no matter how long the waiting list is, he gets the house. If a Dalit shows up, however, he can wait for four years without getting a house.

I have done a survey of bank postings. There are lots of Dalits in banks because of affirmative action . Find me one Dalit who is in charge of loans and advances. They are never given the prime portfolios within the bank. One of the strangest phenomena now arising has to do with false certificates. Lot of Dalits are changing their names to escape discrimination. Even if you are a Tahsildar you will find it difficult to get accommodation. A lot of Dalits at the lower rungs of the government service have legally changed their names. Any day of the week if you look at the Rajasthan Patrika there will be poll deeds: “I so-and-so Maurya changing my name to Mahinder Singh Deo because I am not going to get housing unless I do.” The leader of the Communist Party in Kumher changed his name in order to find a place to live in Jaipur. So the actual gap between Dalits and non-Dalits is very wide.

If you think this is something of the past and is a rural phenomenon, I suggest you go to the net and look at the matrimonial columns of any major newspaper, including the matrimonial sites of oversees Indian. You will see people not only asking for brides from the same linguistic group but they seek also the same caste and the same sub-caste.

I wanted also to emphasize that this is an all-pervasive phenomenon across every religion in India. If you go Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh you will find that the caste system that exists in the Hindu community is faithfully represented in the Muslim community because caste is much larger than religion in many respects. The problem of caste does not arise so much in Buddhism because there are no untouchables. In that sense it must be seen as exempt. We have only covered 20 per cent of what we wanted to. However we will stop there and discuss anything you like.

Shyama Venkateswar Thank you very much, Mr. Sainath, for a thoughtful, provocative and dismaying talk. I would like to open up the floor for questions.

Question Many of you may have seen a 60 Minutes feature on CBS with Christiane Amanpour which focused on caste conflict in India and the status of night-soil workers, particularly in a village in South India. The feature was an effective commentary on the intertwining of class, caste and gender issues. The subtext of that 60 Minutes video was that the only way out of this situation is an armed response; the video shows people arming themselves to protect themselves from upper-caste violence. The question then is do you think this is an accurate depiction? Is change possible from within the system, through democratic institutions or is an armed response the only solution?

P. Sainath Absolutely. Let me make a fundamental point here in my way of seeing the world. I write for an Indian audience. They are familiar with how certain things work in their own life. I must say that each time I come back from the countryside, I feel encouraged by the resilience of ordinary people. The circumstances under which they stand up and fight. Often I see people fighting who are going to lose but who are not willing to compromise their democratic rights. I completed 20 years of my life as a journalist on September 20, and I have never seen the Indian poor as assertive regarding their human rights as they are today.

These things happened twenty years ago, they were not reported. People are now fighting back, and for me that mould is breaking, the silence is breaking. Our job is to smash that silence. This shows in a variety of ways. The reason the old landed elements are reacting so much to the Dalits is because that nominal extension of democracy threatens them so much. They have worked the lever of power much better. Nothing entertains me more than the middle class fear of instability. The whole bloody country is burning around us. I am for instability. I love elections; I wish we would have one every year. But the fact is that the chattering classes in India do not vote.

I agree with the political point you are making and I agree with your point about despair but I come back wondering whether I would have the courage to handle the kind of situation the Dalits face and my conclusion is no. I think some great things have happened in India in the last 50 years. Fundamental conditions have changed. The ruled are not willing to be ruled in the old way. The rulers cannot rule in the old way. In some parts of the country I could not endorse your view more. If I were living in those parts of the country, I would be for armed struggle. But there are other regions where people have worked it differently.

Where I support your point entirely is the incredible failure of the law. If you take Rajasthan, one Dalit women is raped every 60 hours, there are arson attacks every four days. I am just trying to offer the possibility that something else might happen.

In the Andhra legislature, as this whole debate over whether these stories were true or false was going on and the Justice Purniyya Commission was announced, mobs gathered. An organized crowd of 30,000 people gathered there and went and broke 3,000 glasses in their respective districts. I think that sort of action is a must.

Smita Narula My name is Smita Nirula. I work with Human Rights Watch. I would like to say that I am aware of your work and I respect it highly. I want to thank you for your talk and to also thank the Asia Society for having such an important subject for discussion. As you know we released a report last year looking at caste-based violence and discrimination which Dalits face. The report also led to the formation of a national campaign for human rights. As you rightly said, the alternative lies in the action of the people. The campaign is expanding its focus to 11 countries.

My question is that one of the things that the campaign did was to release black papers detailing lots of statistics on education, reservations that the governments are not providing. One of the things they looked at and one of the things our report looked at is the implementation of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. My first question is whether you are looking into the Prevention of Atrocities Act which many people feel will revolutionize the legal system as it applies to punishing those who commit atrocities in its own limited way? The second question is that the campaign is doing so much and getting very little press coverage. Can you talk a little bit about prejudices within the press in India?

P.Sainath It is very difficult to talk a little bit about the press and its prejudices. (laughter) Let me answer the second question first. It’s my conclusion that of all the institutions of Indian society there is none that is so unrepresentative as the media. It is the most elitist sector. You can search from Kanyakumari to Kashmir for a Dalit editor in a mainstream journal at any position above chief-sub and you will not find one. You will find extremely talented Dalit journalists but you will never find them occupying positions inside newspapers. They are completely marginalized in the media. In the government they can’t be marginalized because of affirmative action to some extent but in media they are marginalized. That’s the first thing.