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'Hidden Apartheid': How the Marginalized Are Leading India Away From Casteism

by M-R Abraham | Ashoka India
Monday, 26 September 2016 10:07 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Untouchability” is abolished and and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law. -- Constitution of India, 1950.


Rohith Vemula was a Ph.D. candidate at an Indian university. His academic success belied his humble background -- his father was a security guard, his mother a tailor. But the university threw him out of student housing and terminated his fellowship money.


Vemula committed suicide last month. In a note written before hanging himself, the 26-year-old said he wanted to be a science writer like Carl Sagan. He also lamented that “birth was my fatal accident” referring to the alleged discrimination he felt at the university because he was a Dalit, the lowest rung in India’s rigid caste system.


Protesters across the country raged against what they saw as yet another case of casteism. India’s historically oppressed citizens comprise more than a quarter of the population, about 300 million people. Despite what the Constitution guarantees -- the architect of which is Dr BR Ambedkar, a Dalit -- this systemic prejudice manifests in a thousand daily ways, from fetching water at the village pump to quality of schooling to whom to marry.


Often it is life-threatening. The number of crimes against Dalits and Adivasis (India’s indigenous community groups) totaled nearly 60,000 cases in 2014. That same year, 744 Dalits were murdered.


“If you look into the philosophy of India, that philosophy is tolerance,” said Ashok Bharti, chairman of the National Conference of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR). “But if you look at the history of India, it's intolerant. If we want to follow what we have been, then we will all be intolerant.”


Bharti is a Dalit and said he has “witnessed the untouchability, witnessed the humiliation.” When he was in school, fellow students would call him by his caste name which which is considered very derogatory. The upper caste children would band and beat their Dalit classmates. When he worked for a civil society organisation, everyone’s wages were raised but his. At his government job, everyone was sent abroad for training but him.


“These are the routine things that happen with Dalits everywhere,” he explained.


Bharti is just one of many Ashoka Fellows who are addressing inequalities not by dwelling on stigmas and discrimination but empowering grassroots leaders among Dalits and Adivasis to insist and agitate for their Constitutionally guaranteed rights. This capacity building is what they believe will better living and working conditions and lead to a more tolerant Indian society.


“The community must overcome their destitution themselves,” said Bharti.


One of the prime reasons for destitution is land. Or rather the lack of it. NACDOR found that in one Indian state, Madhya Pradesh, the Dalit and Adivasi comprise more than a third of the population, yet own only 3.5 percent of the land. They also noticed that those who do own the land often don’t till it themselves. So the organisation trained hundreds in the Adivasi community to negotiate on their own behalf and right the skewed ownership by asking the government to redistribute the land to those who actually work it.


In another initiative, NACDOR is empowering children in Haryana, a casteist state with “massive atrocities on Dalits, including a huge number of rapes of Dalit women,” according to Bharti. The Ambedkar Bal Club has adopted 40 villages to handhold Dalit children in education.


“This is how the caste feeling will come down,” said Bharti. “We want to show they are better than [the upper caste] so they will admit them as equals. We will upscale this model across the country.”




Every Sunday, about 50 women gather for a half-day break from their domestic work in the rich and middle class homes of New Delhi. The city has an estimated 400,000 such domestic workers, mostly uneducated Adivasis from economically disadvantaged states such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Assam.


“Before they were given whatever rate the employer would quote,” said Fr. Stanislaus Jebamalai, a Jesuit priest affectionately known by his nickname, Sannybhai.


That monthly wage would be just INR 1,000 or 2,000 per month (US${esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}15-30). But things changed as the women gathered weekly and were advised by Sannybhai through Adivasi Jeevan Vikas Sanstha (Organisation for Life Development of Tribals), a program within Jesuits in Social Action.


“Three years back when I was talking to the women, I said ‘What about raising the minimum?’” recalled Sannybhai. “And they said ‘No, no, no, all of us will become jobless, and we will have to go home.’ Then after six months, I asked them ‘Are you getting a just wage or do you deserve more?’ They said ‘Sannybhai, we deserve at least 5,000 (US${esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}{esc.dollar}73).’ So they feel capacitated, that they are worth [a higher wage]. We may be poor, working in a house, but we are no less. That type of feeling slowly gets built.”


When the workers presented their new wages and working conditions to their employers -- a yearly pay increase, a one-month holiday, a separate bathroom, the same meals as the family ate -- some employers refused. Through the skills they learned, the women countered with the argument that they have left everything behind in their own homes to reside and work in the employers’ homes 24 hours a day, far more than the hours their employers work at their office jobs.


“It was a reconciliatory process, talking things over and making the employers understand,” said Sannybhai.


This action at the grassroots level is how each woman took leadership and motivated others to do the same. As they shared their success stories, it energized others and created a ripple effect through the domestic workers community.


“The challenge for me is how do we capacitate so there is a co-existence one day,” said Sannybhai. “So that the discrimination could be minimized. I wouldn't say it will completely disappear. But at least the margin would be less. In India, the contrast is so much. The rich have everything, 80 percent of the land and the wealth. The poor hardly have 10 or 15 percent.


“How do we motivate these people who think ‘We are useless, We cannot.’ Can we give them this kind of hope? That there is no need to despise ourselves or others? If these people can stand up on their own, they can stand up with dignity and say ‘Yes, I am happy to be what I am.’ Then they can spread these values to others.


“If we want to claim that India has really developed, it has to develop in humanness, values and respect.”




When Sharad Sharma worked as a journalist in New Delhi, spending hours in TV studios, he realized that the stories being told were those of what he calls the “snooty minority.” The issues that mattered most to the “silent majority” -- about 80 percent of the population -- were ignored by mainstream media.


His solution was not to start another media network, but to use a simple medium to empower this silent majority to tell their own stories.


“Being a cartoonist, I thought people can draw something,” said Sharma, the founder of World Comics India. “People used to laugh at me, saying you are talking about cartoons when there are bomb blasts, terrorism, people being killed.”


So he traveled throughout India holding workshops with quick primers on drawing four-frame cartoons illustrating the ordinary citizen’s problems: water, health, sanitation, education, a lack of toilets, police atrocities, housing, corruption. World Comics Network has expanded a medium that was earlier confined to superheroes and mythology, according to Sharma.


He held a workshop with homeless people in New Delhi, most of whom were illiterate and had never even held a pencil. Within 15 minutes they were drawing. They dictated their speech balloons to someone who could write. The stories they drew illustrated how difficult their lives are, living on footpaths and doing odd jobs. One homeless man was so inspired, he created 15 comics and plans to do 50 more, all of which he will publish in a book.


But formal distribution of these comics is not required. Sharma said the objective is to make copies and paste them in a central area for others to see.


“When you look at a story, you see four frames,” said Sharma. “But there is an invisible fifth frame for the reader to fill. The empathy you are creating in the street just using this simple piece of paper is amazing in how powerful that is. Each and every person feels empowered that I am the one telling my story.”


Sharma has also introduced grassroots comics into conflict-ridden areas. He traveled to the Burma border in Manipur state, a region with no newspapers, no television and about two hours of electricity a day. Sharma trained 40 new artists to produce stories. Within a half-hour, they had collected enough money from curious onlookers to make 500 photocopies. That included one police officer who wanted the entire set of comics. Sharma said that the comics medium is non-threatening so there was no adverse reaction even though some of the stories pointed out police atrocities.


“These comics are created by local people in the local language,” he explained. “Nobody is coming from outside and pointing fingers. These are voices emerging from within the community.”


Sharma said the comics can also call into question prevailing attitudes and even change minds.


“It's a very interesting thing that the behavior of the mob is different from the individual,” said Sharma. “This is the transformation that happens as a storyteller. Because then you are also questioning your beliefs, what you have been hearing at home. You are thinking about individual rights and choices, human rights and what the law says.


“I'm asking each and every person, ‘If what is happening to the character in your story happens to you, is it acceptable to you? Is it according to the Constitution and the law? Do you want to see this as a trend in society? Is this story up to the human rights mark?’


“The problem in this country is that we are only aligning with people who have the same opinion. That will not solve the problem. Unless we bring these people into the discussion and let them share their story, slowly individuals will question themselves.”




India’s path to a caste-blind society is likely a long one. Parallels with racism, another form of entrenched discrimination, can only go so far. Bharti of the Dalits organisation explained that though the humiliations and atrocities may be similar, there is a stark difference between the two. Race is visible, caste is invisible, making the latter much harder to remove than the former. 


Adding to the issue is that caste is now a global phenomenon, spread far and wide by the Indian diaspora. 


“Look at the marriage advertisements, whether in the U.S., Britain, or take any country where Indians are living,” said Bharti. He referred to the practice of parents and families placing matrimonial advertisements in newspapers and online specifying academic and professional achievements, skin complexion and caste. 


“[Abolishing caste] is not going to happen in the near future,” said Bharti. “We will have at least two more centuries of labeling.” 


The work of these Ashoka Fellows may be a slow journey against a tidal wave of millennia-old oppression. But by empowering the Dalit and Adivasi communities, they are small steps to matching the letter of the Constitutional law to its spirit. 


“I believe the labeling will only improve by the better performance and attainment of the Dalits,” said Bharti.


M-R Abraham is Storyteller in Residence at Ashoka India.