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Caste simmers in India

The Dalit community of India is at the bottom of the social hierarchy, assigned to do the least desirable menial jobs. Their rights are systematically and regularly violated. India is at a crossroads in how it will treat this social group going forward, shaping the quality of democracy in this country.

Sunil Kumar
22 October 2012

After working like a dog for hours with your boss, how would you feel if he not only ignored your efforts, but also kicked you senseless and felt no remorse for his actions? You probably would feel devastated. You might also curse your own existence and even try to kill yourself. Such a scenario is highly unlikely to occur in a corporate office with cubicles and boardrooms. The boss may choose to ignore your work and not pay enough attention to your efforts, but a workplace environment is about civilised people at the end of day. These people may compete to push up their sales numbers, but they are not demons.

Contrast this with the scenario occurring in the countryside of Punjab, Haryana and many of the other states in India. Dalits, the lowest group within India’s social hierarchy, are predisposed by archaic social norms and customs to do menial work, labouring in the fields of upper caste landlords. The Dalits receive exactly the treatment outlined on a regular basis. The Times of India, a leading national newspaper, reported on 13/09/2012 that in the state of Jind a Dalit agricultural worker who was late to work in the fields of an upper caste landlord was not just chastised for arriving late. He was also beaten to death. Apparently, he had gone home after half a day’s work to rest. Unlike air-conditioned corporate offices, this worker had most likely toiled under a scorching sun. Sadly, there are many such stories like this in India. The question is why they are so common.

Feudal remnants refuse to die in parts of India. Caste continues to dominate the social milieu. The dignity of labour has not yet taken root. Several jobs, like collecting the carcasses of dead animals, cleaning dry toilets and maintaining cremation grounds, are viewed as solely the work of the Dalit community. They are consigned to do these tasks since such a type of work is considered to be unclean or 'polluting' for others.

Such attitudes are dangerous as they threaten to undermine Indian democracy by violating democratic values and the human rights of a part of India's population. This pernicious caste system compels a section of its population to live a servile life and results in horrific tales of discrimination that are often reported in the Indian media. Unfortunately, such stories are rarely found on the front page. The private lives of celebrities can make the front page but not the worst violations of human rights.

Among women, Dalit women remain most vulnerable to sexual assault. The security concerns of a woman, whether she is a female Dalit farm labourer or a lady working the late night shift at a call centre, should theoretically be the same. Dalit ladies, however, face discrimination. Concerns for their security do not figure anywhere in the policy decisions of the Indian government. Laws prescribing strict punishment for the violation of the human rights of Dalits exist, but the justice process is slow and cumbersome. The police regularly refuse to file a First Information Report (FIR) to set the criminal justice system in motion.

Dalits in India are at a crossroads. While some have surmounted the social bias to emerge as significant contributors at the national level, most are regularly insulted, made to commit inhuman acts against their wishes and compelled to lead a life of subhuman existence. This must change, with change coming from within us who consider ourselves a 'civilized' people. Laws are not the only remedy. Since it is the people within this divided society who implement the laws, a change in mindset is also essential. How to change this mindset, however, is the question that remains unanswered.

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