by Elizabeth Joy,
General Secretary of SCM India
In October 2000, six Dalits near Lucknow were brutally attacked with acid by the local Thakurs (high-caste Hindus) because they failed to procure a tender for fishing rights in a nearby pond.
A Dalit woman carrying an empty pot was stripped naked and beaten to death for crossing the path of two upper caste Dalit men.
In Bihar, 21 Dalits were shot dead, some of them in their sleep, by the outlawed Ranbir Sena, a private militia of landlords, in January 1999.
In Gujrat, a group of Dalit youth and women were beaten up for coming to collect water from the only source of water in that village.
June 30, 2001, marked the fourth anniversary of the murder of seven Dalits in Melavalavu. The only crime that was committed was that Murugesan, one of the seven, refused to opt out of election for the post of Panchayat Presidentship. On his victory, he was not allowed to enter the Panchayat office, located within the high caste area.
In Orissa, a Dalit bank officer was fined Rs. 100,000 but was subsequently reduced to Rs. 10,000, for visiting a temple.
The first Dalit girl who passed her Higher Secondary Education two years ago, in a village in Karnataka was attacked with acid that disfigured her face completely.
The barbers in many villages of India do not extend their service to Dalits even though they are considered to be just a little above the Dalits.
On January 23, 2001, the Police Deputy Commissioner in Madurai ordered charges against more than a thousand Dalit students who protested against the irregular pattern of Government loan scholarship for Dalit/Tribal students.
The Dalits were denied of earthquake relief in Gujarat discriminating them even after the dreadful experience of losing everything to continue their livelihood.
The census of India—2001, denied the opportunity for Dalit Christians to even confess what their religion was as it would deprive them of all the benefits given to Dalits of other religions like Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. They were given the option to either declare themselves as Christians or scheduled castes.
Even as this paper is written, the shocking tragic news is of Phoolan Devi, the Member of Parliament of our nation being shot dead in broad daylight within the vicinity of the Parliament House and her residence.
She is a Dalit woman from a poor family who was married at 11, gang raped by Thakurs, that made her a rough and tough person. She became a murderer at the age of 18 killing 20 of the Thakurs, and surrendered to the police after two years. She was in prison for 11 years after which the Samajwadi Party recognized her not as a Bandit Queen but a victim of the caste structure. Her life is a story of caste and poverty, threat and humiliation, politics and a premature death at the age of 38 years old. However, the media portrayed her death as “MP Phoolan Devi dies a bandit’s death”. We still do not know, whether it is the political conspiracy, revenge by her enemies from outside or within the family—patriarchal dominant structures.
Between 1994 and 1996, out of the 98,349 cases registered as crimes and atrocities against scheduled castes (Dalits), 38, 483 were registered under Atrocities Act. This Act is supposed to prevent abuses and punish those who are responsible for retaliating or customarily degrading Dalits in the following manner: forcing Dalits/Tribals to eat any inedible or obnoxious substances, dumping wastes, excretion, carcasses etc. in their premises/neighbourhood, stripping them, parading them naked, or interfering with their rights to land, compelling them for forced bonded labour, child labour, poisoning their water resources, denying their rights to enter public places etc.
The others include 1660 murder cases, 2814 rape cases and 13, 671 injury cases. These show only the tip of the iceberg as Dalits are both reluctant to register all incidences and are unable to do so often as the people in position or power in the Parliament, Executive and Judiciary are totally indifferent to Dalits. The violence against Dalits is ever on the increase.
Whenever Dalits organise themselves or assert their rights for higher wages, land, political rights, social rights or change of village customs, the retaliatory violence against them has manifested in mass murders, gang rapes, looting, burning of their huts and possessions, arson and acid attacks.
A majority of the bonded labourers, child labourers, landless labourers, sex workers in the religiously sanctioned Devadasi system are all Dalits. According to government statistics, an estimated one million Dalits are scavengers whose main duty and occupation is to clean human faces from public and private latrines and dispose the dead animals. The unofficial estimates are of course much higher.
The Indian Government which has played an active role in the United Nations (UN) against Racism is least willing to admit that caste discrimination in India is equally bad if not worse than racism. Despite all of the inhuman discriminations that lead to exploitation, dehumanization and violation of human rights, India is still striving to oppose all attempts of putting racial and caste discrimination in the same bracket.
It is in this context that the Dalit liberation Movements are bent on presenting this issue of Caste Discrimination in India as a hidden form of Apartheid. Our attempt to pressurize the UN to include caste discrimination in the Agenda of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) is indeed genuine and a deep cry for justice. How does it matter for a human being male or female, Indian or African, whether he/she is discriminated on the basis of his/her colour, sex, which are more prominent and obvious or the so-called human made hierarchical caste system? All discriminations on the basis of one’s birth, caste, colour, sex and race lead to dehumanization and violation of human rights to the core.
The Indian government is all out to see that caste will not be discussed and deliberated as an issue in the UN conference. The first two articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948 clearly state that all human beings without distinction are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Therefore, the very basis of caste discrimination based on the birth of a person is violation of Human Rights and need to be brought to central focus in all forums for strong condemnation and total destruction.
The attempt of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to review the constitution itself is an attempt to reconcile the constitution with Manu dharma to have green signal for all their hidden agendas of promoting the caste discrimination and saffronization of the Nation. The need to overcome violence against Dalits is grave and intense. This can be achieved only if they are reinstated as whole human beings in this world, in this life, in this generation with all honor, dignity and respect.
In the name of religion (Hinduism) and in the name of God (Brahma), untouchability has been practiced in the Indian society for about 3,500 years and it is now affecting 250 million people in India, nearly 25% of the total population. This has promoted inequality and inhuman subjugation of a considerable section of the Indian society by a dominant minority group based on the false notions of “Purity and Pollution”. It is a well known fact that though the government through its census in 1991 very reluctantly outs the percentage of Dalits at 16.2, the real percentage is much above this as not all Dalits are counted under this category. Even after 53 years of independence, there is a lack of concern for the development of Dalits. Funds allocated for their development were either diverted or insufficiently distributed. However, the atrocities and crimes against Dalits are ever on the rise!
The ownership of land or the productive assets by Dalits are very marginal and negligible. Though there exists reservation in the education and employment sectors for Dalits, the naked truth is that about 83% of the Dalits are illiterate. Enrolment of Dalits in Primary education is 11% while it reduces to 8% in Middle School and much less in High School and Colleges. The percentage of literacy with respect to Dalit girls/women is far below. This explains why more number of Dalits are employed as sweepers, peons, clerks in the government sectors, while very few are employed in teaching and other professions. A major chunk of the Dalits especially women are employed in the unorganised sectors such as landless labourers and construction workers. It is a stark reality that 57.5% Dalit children under 4 years of age were undernourished in 1992 (UNDP Country Report 1995). The infant mortality rate amongst Dalits was 91 per 1000 live births in 1992-3, which are 22 to 45% more than the national average (UNDP Country Report 1007). These are all the direct impact of exploitation and denial of opportunities, resources and access for education, employment and empowerment.
Education gives self worth, dignity and certain standing in society empowering people to ascertain their rights. If the opportunities for education are deprived and denied to Dalits for various reasons for generations, then how can this section of the Indian society ever breathe the air of freedom especially from the demonic clutches of caste that enslaves and dehumanises them? Therefore, the empowerment of Dalits begins with education, a tool for their liberation. Moreover, the need to rewrite histories with truths about the Dalits, which hardly appear in written forms, is important. We strongly believe that caste which was created in history needs to be destroyed and be filled with truths. We also firmly believe that the liberation for Dalits will be more effective if they could enroll in full leadership roles and participation.
SCM-India is happy and grateful that the World Council of Churches (WCC) has come forward to give partial assistance to Dalit Empowerment for Transformation With Acts of Justice (DETWAJ), where we will be educating the children of our Maintenance Staff of whom more than 95% are Dalits. We have started this only in July 2001. SCMI will most appreciate to receive help from other SCMs towards providing education to a wider circle of Dalit students.