India's "Untouchables" Face Violence, Discrimination
India's "Untouchables" Face Violence, Discrimination
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
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
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
"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
"But at the national level, very little is being done to implement or
enforce the laws," said Narula.