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India's "Untouchables" Face Violence, Discrimination

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  • Djehuti Sundaka
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0602_030602_untouchables.html India s Untouchables Face Violence, Discrimination Hillary Mayell for National
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 11, 2003

      India's "Untouchables" Face Violence, Discrimination

      Hillary Mayell
      for National Geographic News
      June 2, 2003

      More than 160 million people in India are considered "Untouchable" —
      tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less
      than human.

      Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A

      random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their

      story: "Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers"; "Dalit tortured
      cops for three days"; "Dalit 'witch' paraded naked in Bihar"; "Dalit
      in lock-up at Kurnool"; "7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash"; "5 Dalits

      lynched in Haryana"; "Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked"; "Police
      on mob to lynch Dalits".

      "Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same
      temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the

      same cups in tea stalls," said Smita Narula, a senior researcher with
      Rights Watch, and author of Broken People: Caste Violence Against
      "Untouchables." Human Rights Watch is a worldwide activist organization
      based in New York.

      India's Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in
      fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with

      impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place.
      walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening

      [Indian From Untouchable Caste]
      One out of six Indians are born into the country's "Untouchable" caste.

      Photograph copyright William Albert Allard

      Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the
      illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the
      International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in

      Crime Against Dalits

      Statistics compiled by India's National Crime Records Bureau indicate
      in the year 2000, the last year for which figures are available, 25,455
      crimes were committed against Dalits. Every hour two Dalits are
      every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two
      Dalit homes are torched.

      No one believes these numbers are anywhere close to the reality of
      committed against Dalits. Because the police, village councils, and
      government officials often support the caste system, which is based on
      religious teachings of Hinduism, many crimes go unreported due to fear
      reprisal, intimidation by police, inability to pay bribes demanded by
      police, or simply the knowledge that the police will do nothing.

      "There have been large-scale abuses by the police, acting in collusion
      upper castes, including raids, beatings in custody, failure to charge
      offenders or investigate reported crimes," said Narula.

      That same year, 68,160 complaints were filed against the police for
      activities ranging from murder, torture, and collusion in acts of
      to refusal to file a complaint. Sixty two percent of the cases were
      dismissed as unsubstantiated; 26 police officers were convicted in

      Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned when India
      adopted its constitution in 1950, discrimination against Dalits remained
      pervasive that in 1989 the government passed legislation known as The
      Prevention of Atrocities Act. The act specifically made it illegal to
      parade people naked through the streets, force them to eat feces, take
      their land, foul their water, interfere with their right to vote, and
      down their homes.

      Since then, the violence has escalated, largely as a result of the
      emergence of a grassroots human rights movement among Dalits to demand
      their rights and resist the dictates of untouchability, said Narula.

      Lack of Enforcement, Not Laws

      Enforcement of laws designed to protect Dalits is lax if not
      in many regions of India. The practice of untouchability is strongest in

      rural areas, where 80 percent of the country's population resides.
      the underlying religious principles of Hinduism dominate.

      Hindus believe a person is born into one of four castes based on karma
      "purity"—how he or she lived their past lives. Those born as Brahmans
      priests and teachers; Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are
      merchants and traders; and Sudras are laborers. Within the four castes,
      there are thousands of sub-castes, defined by profession, region,
      and other factors.

      Untouchables are literally outcastes; a fifth group that is so unworthy
      doesn't fall within the caste system.

      Although based on religious principles practiced for some 1,500 years,
      system persists today for economic as much as religious reasons.

      Because they are considered impure from birth, Untouchables perform jobs

      that are traditionally considered "unclean" or exceedingly menial, and
      very little pay. One million Dalits work as manual scavengers, cleaning
      latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. Millions
      are agricultural workers trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme
      poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.

      Although illegal, 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits, are
      bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred
      generations ago, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published
      1999. These people, 15 million of whom are children, work under
      conditions hauling rocks, or working in fields or factories for less
      U.S. $1 day.

      Crimes Against Women

      Dalit women are particularly hard hit. They are frequently raped or
      as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have
      committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance. They are also
      to arrest if they have male relatives hiding from the authorities.

      A case reported in 1999 illustrates the toxic mix of gender and caste.

      A 42-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped and then burnt alive after she,

      her husband, and two sons had been held in captivity and tortured for
      days. Her crime? Another son had eloped with the daughter of the
      higher-caste family doing the torturing. The local police knew the Dalit

      family was being held, but did nothing because of the higher-caste
      local influence.

      There is very little recourse available to victims.

      A report released by Amnesty International in 2001 found an "extremely
      high" number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, frequently perpetrated
      landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study
      that only about 5 percent of attacks are registered, and that police
      officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false.

      The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate

      witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women's husbands. Little
      nothing is done to prevent attacks on rape victims by gangs of
      villagers seeking to prevent a case from being pursued. Sometimes the
      policemen even join in, the study suggests. Rape victims have also been
      murdered. Such crimes often go unpunished.

      Thousands of pre-teen Dalit girls are forced into prostitution under
      of a religious practice known as devadasis , which means "female servant
      god." The girls are dedicated or "married" to a deity or a temple. Once
      dedicated, they are unable to marry, forced to have sex with upper-caste

      community members, and eventually sold to an urban brothel.

      Resistance and Progress

      Within India, grassroots efforts to change are emerging, despite
      retaliation and intimidation by local officials and upper-caste
      In some states, caste conflict has escalated to caste warfare, and
      militia-like vigilante groups have conducted raids on villages, burning
      homes, raping, and massacring the people. These raids are sometimes
      conducted with the tacit approval of the police.

      In the province Bihar, local Dalits are retaliating, committing
      also. Non-aligned Dalits are frequently caught in the middle, victims of

      both groups.

      "There is a growing grassroots movement of activists, trade unions, and
      other NGOs that are organizing to democratically and peacefully demand
      their rights, higher wages, and more equitable land distribution," said
      Narula. "There has been progress in terms of building a human rights
      movement within India, and in drawing international attention to the

      In August 2002, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial
      Discrimination (UN CERD) approved a resolution condemning caste or
      descent-based discrimination.

      "But at the national level, very little is being done to implement or
      enforce the laws," said Narula.
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