Outsiders: the casteless of India
June 6, 2008
Three weeks ago, a six year old girl in India was thrown into a fire because, as a casteless, she was caught walking on a road for members of a higher caste. The 22 year old defender was from a higher caste. The girl got heavily burned and is still recovering in the hospital.
Caste-related murders, rapes and other crimes are very common in India. A report from 2005 estimates that a caste-related crime is committed every 20 minutes. The true numbers are probably much higher but a lot of casteless (or Dalits) do not dare to report these crimes, because they fear retaliation from the police or members of the higher castes. Dalits are often not even allowed inside a police station. And even if a lawsuit is filed, the highest caste member is most likely to be discharged. In 2000, 89 percent of all lawsuits involving crime against Dalits resulted in absolution of the suspect.
Indian apartheid: how Dalits are treated
The caste system is one of the most poignant forms of social exclusion that still exists to this day. In a country with 1.1 billion inhabitants, a group of 172 million casteless is excluded, discriminated and exploited in various ways. The english word ‘outcast’ refers to this group of people, that do not belong to any of the four traditional Hindu castes. The Tamil-word ‘pariah’, which is used all over the world, is also a common name for the Dalits.
India has had a contitutional ban on caste-based discrimination since 1950 and the use of the word ‘untouchable’ is officially forbidden. But in practice there’s still a lot of discrimination and segregation in India. The influence of Hindu traditions are still widespread, especially in the countryside. And it’s often difficult to maintain the law that forbids discrimination. It’s an Indian variety of apartheid, based on tradition: the casteless live at a great distance from the higher castes and they can’t get water from wells that belong to higher castes. Teahouses store the glasses for Dalits in a bucket outside the building. Public buildings often have separate entries and exits for Dalits, if they’re allowed in at all that is. And some hospitals, temples, markets and cemeteries are off limits for Dalits.
Devdasi: prostitution and slavery
Women like her are exploited based on the traditional system of devdasi (‘dev’ meaning God and ‘dasi’ meaning slave) in which young casteless girls are given to or marry a Hindu God. These girls can’t get married anymore and are forced to have sex with men from the higher priest castes. After that they’re sold to brothels in the cities. This system has caused an AIDS epidemic. And although giving a girl to the Gods is officilally illegal since 1982, the devdasi system is still firmly in place in India. And that goes for almost all laws involving discrimination of castes. This means that this modern slavery is still a reality in the southern states of India.
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil
On an international level, the attention for the Dalits’ problems is minimal. The Indian government internationally presents caste-related crimes and discrimination as an internal affaire and is getting away with that. During a recent hearing by the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, India pretended that this huge problem of discrimination, segregation and violence was just a trivial matter. And the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs told his administration that Indian diplomats avoid subjects like human rights and caste discrimination in their contact with their European colleagues.
India doesn’t seem to make any progress in fighting discrimination of the casteless, so the Dalits have to stand up for themselves. Fortunately, it seems like there’s change coming their way, especially in larger cities. The Dalit Kocheril Raman Narayanan was the president of India until 2002. And in May 2007, Mayawati Kumari was elected as Prime Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a large population. Kumari is Dalit, supports the emancipation of casteless and she’s a woman. But the most powerful position of India, that of vice-president, has never been occupied by a Dalit. It’s impossible to say whether this will change any time soon, as India is a country in which the political elite still only exists of members of the highest (priest-) castes.