Tsunami and Caste
- The following articles tell some disturbing stories of how the caste
system remains intact even in the midst of tragedy.
Caste antagonism in providing relief?
TIMES NEWS NETWORK[ SATURDAY, JANUARY 01, 2005 10:45:55 PM ]
CHENNAI/CUDDALORE: The aftermath of the tsunami in Tamil Nadu has
thrown up some touching examples of communal amity, but it has also
how deep caste antagonism runs.
Travelling across the affected areas, one regularly hears of examples
of communal amity. One example that keeps cropping up in conversation
with NGO activists working in the area is of the Jamaath, a Muslim
organisation, which has been running four relief camps in the
area of Cuddalore district.
The overwhelming majority of the victims are non-Muslims but that has
not prevented the Jamaath from giving them three meals a day for over
three days. Considering there are an estimated 40,000 people in these
camps, that's quite an achievement.
The same NGO activists also tell stories which are depressing,
of how Dalits are losing out in the relief effort. Some claim they
come across cases where others have prevented Dalits from entering
I did not personally come across any such case, but I did hear
fisherwomen in several places talking dismissively of the food being
by relief workers as "stuff that may be good enough for some of the
others, but is beneath our dignity to eat". The veiled reference to
Dalits is hard to miss.
Caste is in its new avataar in India
A sea-change has taken place in society, according to one perception.
'Nothing much has changed', is another viewpoint. That difference and
debate on the issue are quite fascinating. Anthropologist Dr. P.K.
presented his analysis in his talk on the topic 'Living on a
in Indian society'? In the monthly lecture programme sponsored by
Rangsons Group in Ranga Jnana Vinimaya Kendra on Vani Vilas Road,
Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2004. Highlights are published here. Ed.
Indian scenario represented by society nowadays is quite different
what it was before independence in many ways. Discrimination among
people on the basis of class and caste have led to ill feelings. The
are perhaps healed, but the scars persist.
It is neither easy nor right to make any generalisations about India
because of wide diversity of its people and their culture. Travel
the country provides an excellent means of educating oneself about
people of India and their life.
India's history is long and piquant. It has been distorted by many.
still seem to live in our history.
Evaluation of value system in a society is often done by the factors
good, bad, auspicious, happy or otherwise. Quite often the factor of
manners displayed towards one another becomes the tool of evaluation.
always hear that the value systems have changed.
The foremost harbinger of change in our value system was adopting of
the egalitarian Constitution, guaranteeing equality and adult
forcing the people's representatives to go to them with folded hands
once every five years. Reservation for jobs, school admissions and
in the Assemblies of States, Parliament and Panchayats not only set
apart a place for the backward classes but also enlarged the social
of the country.
Joint family system has virtually disappeared. Marriage age of girls,
literacy, life expectancy have risen. The housewife is a virtual
in the family. The child is more computer-literate than adults in the
Landlordism that prevailed all over the country was got rid of by
reforms, bringing to end the exploitation of the client by the
In certain pockets, movements were launched to protest the
discrimination based on castes. Development activities were
providing shelter for the economically weaker sections, education for
and healthcare measures.
Tremendous manpower with higher learning is now available. Advances
have been made in communication and transport making connectivity
people and networking of regions quite easy. Structural changes are
taking place resulting in much churning, raising the aspiration level
people at large.
Some sort of hostility, openly in some pockets, has emerged between
erstwhile exploiting and the exploited. Traditional occupations of
rural populations have either disappeared or moved to urban areas,
leading to large scale migration. Tension in society is also coming
Loyalty, submission, respectful behaviour towards the male head of
family have diminished. He is challenged for his viewpoint about life
and all issues. Decision-making has become more consultative, with
exerting influence. Men have accepted women as bosses.
Network of relationships on the lines of the joint family system
continues during special events such as wedding, religious functions
death ceremonies. These relationships reflect caste loyalties.
are mostly settled on caste basis everywhere in India. They are also
performed as per tradition.
Dowry both giving and receiving is rampant, across all
and religions. It is even blessed by the clergy in some religions.
Begetting of sons is still considered important.
Millions of people are still below poverty line. Gap between the rich
and the poor has become enormous. Exploitation is unabated but
disguised. The factor of caste has remained alive and is in its new
concept of inequality pervades. Inter-caste differences have led to
exclusiveness in society. Even those who belong to weaker sections
not accepted the concept of equality.
Unless the value of inequality based on class and caste is frontally
attacked, the Indian social revolution will not be complete. One of
reasons for that not to happen is adherence to rituals, tied down to
caste system. This, in spite of tremendous changes that have taken
place in Indian society.
Body hunt left to the low caste
January 04, 2005
NAGAPATTINUM, India: They are the "untouchables", the lowest of the
in India's ancient caste system. No job is too dirty or too nasty.
So, now they are the ones cleaning up the rotting corpses from last
The vast majority of the 1000 or so men sweating away in the tropical
heat to clear the poor south Indian fishing town of Nagapattinum,
bore the brunt of the giant wave, are lower-caste dalits from
Locals too afraid of disease and too sickened by the smell refuse to
join the grim task of digging friends and neighbours out of the sand
debris. They just stand and watch the dalits work.
Although it has been a week since the tsunami hit, and the
was confined to a tiny strip by the beach and port, the devastation
so fierce that bodies -- located by the stench and flies -- are still
being discovered daily.
"I am only doing what I would do for my own wife and child," says M.
Mohan, a dalit municipal cleaner as he takes a break to wash off some
the grime of the day's work.
"It is our duty. If a dog is dead, or a person, we have to clean it
Mohan and other sanitation workers from neighbouring municipalities
working around the clock to clear Nagapattinum, for an extra 64c a
and a meal.
The smell of death still hangs heavily, mixing with the sea breeze
the almost refreshingly tart smell of the antiseptic lime powder that
has turned some streets and paths white.
More than 5525 people -- close to 40 per cent of India's estimated
14,488 fatalities -- died along this small stretch of pure white
where the huts of poor fishermen were built down to the sand at the
Caste still plays a defining role in much of Indian society. More
16 per cent of India's billion-plus people are dalits. Despite laws
banning caste discrimination, they are still routinely abused,
and even killed.
They do the jobs others will not: toilet cleaning, garbage
For Mohan, illiterate, uneducated and low caste, the only way to get
government job and the security and pension that come with it, was as
municipal sanitation worker.
In the early hours of the tsunami disaster, he and his colleagues
worked feverishly to clear the thousands of bodies without gloves,
even shoes in some cases.
Now, they are better equipped. But no mask ever stops the gagging
of rotting human flesh, which becomes almost overpowering as the body
is dug out, lodging deep in the back of the mouth. Each new body
discovered is painstakingly prised free of the wet sand, torn palm
debris, mostly by hand.
It is sweaty, backbreaking work. Shifting sand and rubble make just
standing hard. It is done slowly, carefully and patiently with a
respect for the victim.
But there is no dignity.
The almost unrecognisable body of a naked woman, one foot still
surprisingly wet, clean and white as if she had just stepped from a
carried on a mat to the beach.
There, a small bonfire is lit with a tyre and palm leaves. She is
heaved on top. Another mat provides a pitiful attempt at modesty.
pitch-black smoke drifts to the sky. No one knows who she was. With
fear of an epidemic, there is no time to find out.