It is difficult to touch an untouchable. As Americans, we are nearly a world away. For the people of India, 84% of the population chose not to. The so-called untouchable caste in India have been oppressed and degraded for hundreds of thousands of years, and they still are. In America, reform was possible through powerful leaders willing to stand up for those who are oppressed. In India, this is not the case. Social stigma enriched with traditional Hindu texts reacts to create violent crime and abuse of power against millions of people in India everyday.
In the earliest Hindu texts, dating back to nearly 1000 BC, it was believed that the creation of man and his limbs represent the four classes in society, the Varnas. Many cite this text, the Rigveda hymn in the Sanskrit, as the first recorded substantiation of social stratification. From this point, the class system was a cultural norm. Even throughout British colonial rule into the 19th and 20th centuries, and other Aryan influences, the discrimination against the untouchables endured. During this time, many lower class radicals spoke out against the caste system, equating it with American slavery.
As justification for their treatment of the Dalits, upper class citizens in India often refer back to the Hindu faith and the Rigveda hymn in the Sanskrit. They attempt social control by rationalizing their behavior by claiming untouchables were not part of the varna, that they are a fifth, unnatural caste. The Sanskrit code of laws known as Manu Dharmashastra supports the division of society, awarding certain groups privileges based solely on their status. In addition to this, the story of Brahma’s divine manifestation destined the future of the Indian people within a socially stratified society. From Brahma’s mouth came priests and teachers; his arms produced the rulers and warriors; merchants and traders came from Brahma’s thighs; peasants came from his feet.
Despite industrialization and modernization around the world, and in India, the violence against the Dalits, the untouchable people, continues. The untouchables face segregation similar to that of African-Americans in the south during the 1960s. There is segregation within the schools, housing, and public services; they are restricted to certain land. The failure of deterrence by the Indian government allows the police and upper-caste abuse of the untouchables to continue. Sutherland’s differential association theory captures the deviance of upper-caste Indian society and the lack of governmental discouragement from this unlawful behavior.
In modern India, the focus has shifted from the injustices against the untouchables to that of the violence against women. Yet, the Dalits still make up nearly 16% of the population in India, which are approximately 167 million people segregated from modern society. The social movements to rid India of the caste system were mostly led by Mohandas Gandhi during the 1950s and 1960s while fighting for independence from Britain. Gandhi tried to dismiss the dishonor associated with untouchables by referring to them as harijan, people born of God. Modern India allows for untouchables to hold a quota of parliamentary seats, in hopes of advancing them in society.
The lack of proper police enforcement in India has paved the way for a militant political stance among India’s untouchables. These political groups have transformed the idea of “untouchable” to Dalit, those who are oppressed. India has laws that clearly state that Dalits have equal rights to education, health, and property. They also have laws to protect the Dalit’s right to practice their own religion and have access to equal work. Despite having equal treatment before the law, the police abuse their power and do not enforce these laws. Hence, many Dalits have converted to Buddhism, a religion that opposes caste systems.
In order to combat police blindness, international intervention has raised alarms to draw light unto the hate crimes occurring in India. Human Rights Watch has been publicly acknowledging the plight of the Dalit people and recommends reforms to eliminate police abuse. Within a year, human rights organizations receive more than 100,000 reports of violence against the Dalit people, including rape, murder and arson. Human Rights Watch also acknowledges the lack of police protection for the Dalit people. Additionally, the United Nations recognizes the abuses against Dalit children and the sexual brutality against Dalit women.
Today in India there still are state-sponsored and state-sanctioned acts of violence towards the Dalit people. There are still caste-motivated rapes and killings committed by upper-caste members upon those beneath them. But there is still progress being made in favor of those oppressed. A Dalit woman, Mayawati, was elected chief minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. In northern India, the Dalit-based Bahujan Samaj political party is rising and gaining steam. Atrocities against women in India continue daily, but they are more widespread than limited solely to the Dalit peoples.
For those looking in, the Dalit people of India have made few strides in the struggle to gain back their honor and rid themselves of the stigma created by an ancient caste-system. In reality, the Dalit people, the ancient Hindu untouchables, have made strides within Indian society. Their voices are being heard, by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and also within Indian society. Injustices still occur daily. Dalit people are still segregated from society. But, the Dalit people are using their voices to project their cause, and they are rising up from the bottom of Indian society.
- The untouchables (eviemorrison.wordpress.com)
- NCSC issues notice to officials in Dalit girl attack case (thehindu.com)
- Fate of anti-atrocities Act in Gujarat more than two decades after it was promulgated to protect the rights of Dalits and Adivasis (counterview.org)
- Christian and Muslim Dalits beaten in New Delhi protest (religionnews.com)
- Caste-Offs (downwiththesesortsofthing.wordpress.com)
- Story of a Dalit activist, who dared “cross the line” fighting discrimination and became a human rights defender (counterview.org)
- A trailblazer in Dalit literature (thehindu.com)