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This documentation page contains recently published articles and publications from various sources. All are related to Untouchability, Dalits, Ambedkar, etc. Click on the titles to go to the articles.

    1. Untouchability is still practised .... and Bangladesh
    2. Living as Dalits  - P. N. Benjamin
    3. State, central authorities in India 'criminally negligent' - Tom Kellogg (Human Rights Watch)
    4. Violence against 'untouchables' growing ...exploitation - Human Righs Watch
    5. 'Broken people' (summary) - Smita Narulas
    6. 'Folklorist dundes take aims at India's Caste system' - Gretchen Kell (University of California)
    7. Caste system in India - Prof. Koenraad Elst (Belgiium)

    1. Untouchability is still practiced in one form or the other in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh
    Untouchability has been banned in the constitution of India, which was drafted by a committee headed by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, himself an untouchable. It was his great ingenuity that he could tactfully make such a provision in the constitution of a country dominated by the Brahmans. However, there are plenty of evidences that the constitutional provision is honoured more by violation than by observance by millions of so-called high caste Hindus. Here are some: 

    "An attempt by a group of Harijans (untouchables) to enter an historic Hindu temple at the holy town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan state failed on Monday evening when high caste priests and others beat them back with sticks, injuring at least six. The attempt was organised by social reformers to coincide with the 120th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, the spiritual founder of independent India, who named the Untouchables (Dalits) 'Harijans.' Reports from Nathdwara say, a large contingent of police, deployed by the state government to maintain peace, took no action to prevent the attack despite the high court ruling." (Financial Times, 6 October 1988)  "In a village 100 miles from Delhi, villagers hanged and then threw on to a fire a girl and two boys; the boys had first been tortured, while their fathers made to watch, and one of them and the girl had still been alive when put in fire. They had managed to crawl out, but were thrown back. The girl, from the powerful Jat caste, had tried to elope with one of the boys, assisted by his friend; both were untouchables, a group so low they are not even on the bottom rung of the caste ladder. Not long before, in three villages in the state of Bihar, the huts of 400-odd families of untouchables were burnt down by gangs working for the local landowning caste, because they were demanding the legal minimum wage, 16 rupees (78 cents) a day (The Economist, June 8th 1991). "

    "At school Harijans are often made to sit on the floor. In some villages they have to take off their shoes while walking past upper-caste houses and they are usually banned from drawing water from the village well for fear they will pollute it. A Brahmin on a packed bus cannot hop off and bathe six times each time he fears the shadow of an untouchable has fallen on him (The Economist June 8th 1991)."

    "Twenty Harijans (untouchables) have been hacked to death in a village in southern India by high caste Hindus and their bodies thrown into a nearby canal, newspaper reports said. The Statesman said the incident occurred on Tuesday at Tsundur village near Guntur town in Andhra Pradesh state. Other reports said a group of Harijans was attacked by deadly weapons while trying to flee across marshes. A police picked in the village remained passive to the gruesome murders, The Hindu newspaper said. The incident had its origins in an incident that occurred about a month back in a local cinema hall. A Harijan boy watching a movie stretched himself and his leg accidentally touched a high-caste boy sitting in the next seat. Soon there was an altercation between them. The Hindus took this as an affront on their authority. They summoned the teacher-father of the Harijan boy and held him hostage until they caught hold of the boy and beat him. After this, other minor incidents between the two groups snowballed and finally led to arson and mayhem. The southern Indian incident comes three weeks after two lower caste youths and a 15-year old upper caste girl was publicly hanged by their own fathers goaded by a vigilante mob in a north Indian village. They were punished for defying the Hindu social code barring inter-caste marriage (Arab News, August l0, 1991)."

    "In 1989, the national government (of India) recorded 14,269 cases of atrocities committed against outcastes, including 479 murders and 759 rapes (Arab News, March 31, 1991)."

    "Jagjivan Ram (former Union Minister of India) with all power and wealth at his command was made to know that his social status was not even equal to the poorest and uneducated Brahmin of India. When he visited Varanasi on invitation and garlanded the statue of Sampurnanand (a Kayasth), the statue was washed with Gangajal (sacred water of the Ganges) and mantras were recited to make it 'pure' as the touch of a SC (untouchable) had desecrated the stone Statue (Dalit Voice, Vol. 12, No. 21, p.17)." 

    "In Kerala, Namboodiri Brahmins till very recently were compelling 'low caste' women not to wear blouses lest they should appear as high caste. The result was that these women had to go bare-breasted which was condemned by all civilised nations (Dalit Voice, Vol. 12, No. 21, p. 17)."

    Dalits and Hinduism
    A recent example of caste-based atrocities was published by the Indian Express (June 24, 1995). A Scheduled Tribe woman, Prakash Kaur, was most painfully murdered in a village in Maharashtra province in May, 1995. Brutes from the Aryan Hindus (l) dragged her to the village temple; (2) shaved her head; (3) beat her with sticks, (4) inserted a stick into her private parts; (5) blackened her face; (6) put her on a donkey and paraded her in the market; and (7) continued to beat her till she died. When the dying woman asked for water, the killers poured hot water and kerosene in her mouth. Her only offence (?) was that her 12-year old son had entered the local Hindu temple. The place where the incident took place is very close to the local police station. The more painful aspect of the incident is that when the Home Minister of the state was contacted by the All India Democratic Women's Association, he refused to take any action in the matter saying that it was not a murder but a "reflection of mob anger". 

    Another recent example of caste-based atrocities was published by the Times of India in its issue of 18 January 1997. A 41-year old low-caste women was stripped and paraded naked through a village near Muradabad town (Uttar Pradesh). Her only offence (?) was that her son had, allegedly, teased a girl who was a caste Hindu. The woman cried for help but none dared to come to her aid.

    The racial atrocities meted out by the arrogant caste or Aryan Hindus to the underprivileged people of India have no parallel in modern world. The above instances are only few of such incidents presented to indicate how things are going on in a country claimed to be the largest democracy in the world.

    2. Promises made to Dalits have never been kept, they continue to live in poverty and degradation.
    APRIL 14 was the birth anniversary of Ambedkar. A number of celebrations were held in honour of the great leader throughout the country. He was the human catalyst of social action against injustice to the suppressed sector of the Indian people whom we, in condescending hypocrisy, call ‘Harijans’ or ‘Dalits’! He was a dynamic figure who devoted himself to the cause of justice, freedom and dignity to the lowliest, the lost and the last in the socio-economic hierarchy, and fought for human rights. He lives today and fights on through millions of sufferers and sympathisers who demand an egalitarian deal for Dalits who have endured indignity, privation and persecution for centuries before Indian Independence and five decades after.

    Ambedkar, in his final address to the Constituent Assembly, said: “On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man, one vote and one vote, one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure continue to deny the principle of one man, one value. How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy, which the Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

    Fifty years later, he has been proved right. Like the poor, the Dalits have become so much a part of our national life that we are all numbed by the enormity of the outrage that is inflicted on a large section of the nation, just as we are reconciled to the degradation that is poverty.

    Ugly reality
    It is very unlikely that the barbarities which the Dalits still continue to suffer will not, before long, exact a political retribution which our system can well do without.

    The political appellation, ‘Harijan’ or ‘Dalit’, has now become a cover for a revolting, humiliating and ugly reality. Five decades after untouchability has been constitutionally ‘abolished’ and long after statutes have penalised its practice, it continues as a disgrace to the country. What is alarming is that, in some ways, the situation has deteriorated. The Dalit is no longer permitted to live  even abjectly  as a Dalit. His very right to exist is challenged. There can be no other explanation for the killings of Dalits in diverse parts of the country. Dalit homes are fair game for burning, and Dalit women for rape.

    Gang-rapes of Dalit women, burning their houses, beating up and murdering those who claim human rights, is the reality of the feudal ferocity in rural India. The law-enforcers remain unconcerned with crimes against Dalits. Why have not our legislators in the States and the Centre ever staged a walk-out to protest against atrocities on Dalits? Why have they not organised a bandh to protect the ‘untouchables’ against gang-rapes? Not even the working class, whatever their label or colour, has gone on strike or called a bandh or led a morcha in sympathy with the victims of these savageries. Even the labour is biased against them. Look at the judiciary and their 'robed` dispensation of justice. The killings in Kilvenmani, Tsundur, Jehanabad and innumerable other places have exposed the character of justice - as far as the Dalits are concerned, legal justice has meant only injustice. The gap between the promise of justice and its actual performance is evident in many spheres.

    Even Dalit legislators become invertebrates when collective, militant, political or direct action is demanded. The corrupting power of the bourgeoisie spares none, not even the legislators, public servants and others in higher positions.

    We speak of bonded labour as a medieval curse in the Constitution (Article 23). It was made a crime by legislatures in and around 1975. But this ban slumbers on the statute book even today. To a large extent, Dalits form the bonded labour. Instances of forced labour do come to the courts. Even when some Good Samaritan judge releases the victims, they often do not get rehabilitated.

    The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act is meant to punish the abusers, on paper at least. But the feudal social system says: “'The law is dead. Rest in peace!” The injustice meted out by the Indian administration tells these most exploited classes that Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar are for them nothing but ‘political opium’. The courts and the police are indifferent or hostile.

    Societal conscience is vaccinated against sensitised action to uphold the dignity of their personhood, and agents of a dharma are on top in the professions, in the three branches of the State and in the agrarian and business world`` (Justice Krishna Iyer).

    The slums in all our cities form pathological eruptions and their inhabitants are mostly Dalits. The upper class needs the slum-dwellers` proximity and their low-priced service! The writ of the Indian Constitution does not run in these ghettos. Slums are increasing day by day, with squalor, disease, absence of potable water and what not. Even the basic privacy for women to defecate does not exist! This terrible injustice, this reckless disregard of the ill-starred millions of weaker sections alongside five-star hotels and high-rise mansions, betrays the hypocrisy of the system.

    Where is the Buddha’s compassion and Ambedkar`s battle-cry and the conscience of the Constitution ? ''After all there is only one thing worse than injustice, and that is justice without her sword in her hand`` (Nirod Mukherjea). And for the Dalits whom Ambedkar represented, justice is irony and mockery.

    Land for liberation
    The land question is central to the liberation of the agrarian proletariat from the feudal stranglehold which, in a way, is the basic vice breeding bonded labour, rape of women, graded untouchability and occupational victimisation and vulgarisation of personhood. The constitutional promise of equality, justice and fraternity and of fundamental rights, is a bleeding casualty in rural India and in urban slums. The importance of giving land to the landless is not only rural economics but social justice, personal dignity and liquidation of feudal ethos. But many States made land legislation riddled with loop- holes. The limited agrarian justice to the Dalits was defeated by non- implementation. Legislative lethargy, executive apathy and judicial jaundice have kept the landless little Dalit a have-not.

    In spite of civil rights laws and constitutional equality, scavengers continue to  publicly carry human excreta in different parts of the country. They have been forced to monopolise all dirty jobs, from the cobbler’s work to skinning carcasses. 

    Another area where the Indian Constitution has received lip service but not soul- force. Reservation in educational institutions, as a strategy to give the Dalits better opportunities of equality, is directed by the Fundamental Law. But Dalit children are child workers, not primary school students. Schools, for economic reasons are out of reach for these young unfortunates. There is no motivation, no sufficient domestic persuasion, no environmental congeniality, no financial or even food incentive and no effective welfare officials to abolish Dalit illiteracy. 

    Eloquent paper schemes must blush or weep at the sight of hard illiteracy statistics and the great wasted human potential. The dynamics of educational reservations need new methodology so that Dalits, as a class, may overcome their artificially created inferiority complex. The VIP youth must be vaccinated at school and college against the racist myth of superiority.

    A fifth of Indian humanity, the Dalits and the depressed classes, have lived in 'blood, sweat, toil and tears.` The contrariness of the situation hardly seems to bother many of us. It is almost as if we have resigned ourselves to being part of a casteist, communal and sectarian nation. The abysmally few responses have their characteristic hypocrisy. Politicians have sought only political mileage from the plight of the Dalits and caste-related atrocities.

    Dalit activism
    The tragedy is that Ambedkar`s legacy which sought to operate outside Hindu religion has also not succeeded in breaking the status quo. Ambedkar felt that organisation, education and agitation would enable the Dalits to reverse caste prejudices. As it has turned out, Dalit political groups are totally disorganised. Education has only led to the emergence of a Dalit elite class which has slowly distanced itself from agitational Dalit politics. Instead of constructive agitation, Dalit movements have either been absorbed within the mainstream parties or else have degenerated into negative militancy. The deification of Ambedkar by building statues in every village appears to have taken precedence over any fight for equal rights.

    Dalit activists twenty or thirty years ago may have been expected to launch agitation to create public awareness had incidents like Jehanabad massacres occurred. Today, caught up in factional politics, and bereft of any ideological thrust, these very leaders appear unwilling to disturb the existing caste equations. These self-seeking status quoits have only aided in pushing the outcastes of our society out of the mainstream.

    Dalits are not a special species of human beings. They are section  almost 200 million  of India’s population, discriminated against for generations. Their emancipation from poverty and social discrimination and disabilities does not depend upon perpetual special treatment. Like the rest of the poor in India, they have to be taught, helped and made to participate in the process of bettering their lives.

    We in India have always claimed to have shown concern for the poor. We believe in giving alms. We tolerate the presence of the poor. But we are indifferent to the shame, loss of human dignity, and the psychology born out of deprivations that characterises the poor. And we lack a hatred of poverty without which a determined desires to see the end of all-pervading, naked poverty in our country cannot arise. That is why the increasing number of atrocities on Dalits do not evoke national indignation.

    India will be truly free only when Indians  the last and the least are free. Over 200 million humble human beings ask for justice and the Indian elite, has to realise that democracy cannot be hypocrisy. And humanists everywhere are vicariously guilty if they do not speak up. ‘Les Miserables’, in their social millions, are a stain and a wound. To pay homage to Ambedkar, to many unknown and unwept warriors and martyrs among the Dalits, we must launch a patriotic struggle according to a human development plan to make Indians free, immediately. This is the call of patriotism, the social justice agenda of Indian humanity.

    3. State, Central authoristies in Inida "Criminally negligent"

    (New York, April 23, 1999)
    Human Rights Watch today condemned the Bihar state government for refusing to heed warnings that the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of  upper caste landlords, was planning a revenge attack on lower caste villagers.  Yesterday, gunmen belonging to the uppercaste Hindu militia killed twelve people in an attack on two neighbouring villages in the Gaya district, south of the state capital, Patna. According to press reports, the victims included four women and a baby. The hands of some victims were reportedly bound together before they were shot. The killings were in apparent retaliation for the killing of thirty-five upper caste villagers by Maoist guerrillas last month.

    As rival political parties in New Delhi struggle to form a new government, violence against the country's most marginalised groups continues. In a 291-page report released on April 14, "Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's `Untouchables,'" Human Rights Watch documented other recent incidents of violence in Bihar in which private militias like the Ranvir Sena have killed Dalit villagers with impunity.  Extremist guerrilla groups have retaliated by killing high-caste villagers, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. Such attacks on civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law.  Human Rights Watch has called for independent investigations into the killings and for the disarming of the militias. The group has also urged that authorities provide full security to villagers against further Ranvir Sena attacks.

    "The government's failure to stop the Ranvir Sena this time and protect these Dalit villages amounts to criminal negligence," said Patti Gossman, senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. 

    The Ranvir Sena, which is one of the most prominent militias, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. Within a span of three weeks in January and February 1999, Sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks.  On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Centre, a guerrilla organisation with low-caste supporters, beheaded 33 upper-caste villagers in retaliation for the Sena killings.

    Despite the fact that the Senas frequently give warnings before they attack, little has been done to protect vulnerable villages and prevent attacks. The Senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity.  In some cases, police have accompanied them during their attacks and have stood by as they killed villagers in their homes.  In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the Senas.  The purpose of the raids is often to terrorise Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of guerrilla organisations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and destroyed property. Sena leaders and police officials have never been prosecuted for such killings and abuses. 

    Human Rights Watch reiterates its call on the Indian government at the central and state level to implement a 1989 law banning atrocities against Dalits.

    4. Violence Against "Untouchables" Growing - Indian Government Fails to Prevent Massacres, Rapes and Exploitation
    (London, April 14, 1999)
    The Indian government has failed to prevent widespread violence and discrimination against more than 160 million people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today. The report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables," calls on the Indian government to disband private militias and implement national legislation to prevent and prosecute caste-based attacks. 

    "Untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950. Yet entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste, in what has been called "hidden apartheid." Untouchables, or Dalits-the name literally means "broken" people-may not enter the higher-caste sections of villages, may not use the same wells, wear shoes in the presence of upper castes, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms.  Dalit villagers have been the victims of many brutal massacres in recent years. 

    "'Untouchability' is not an ancient cultural artefact, it is human rights abuse on a vast scale," said Smita Narula, researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The tools for change are in place-what is lacking is the political will for their implementation." Human Rights Watch is an international human rights monitoring organisation based in New York. 

    Since the early 1990s, violence against Dalits has escalated dramatically in response to growing Dalit rights movements. The release of the 291-page report today is timed to coincide with the birthday of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian constitution and revered Dalit leader who died in 1956.  The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, the first of its kind in history, will be marking the occasion with rallies in ten states.

    The report includes more than forty specific recommendations to the Indian government at the central and state level, many of them focused on implementing a 1989 law banning atrocities against Dalits. According to that law, it is illegal to force Dalits into bonded labour, deny them access to public places, foul their drinking water, force them to eat "obnoxious substances," or "parade them naked or with painted face or body." The recommendations also call for the establishment of special courts and atrocities units to prosecute crimes against Dalits, and more women police personnel to register complaints by Dalit women.

    “The violence will only grow without these measures," said Narula. "It is a crisis that calls out for national and international attention." 

    At the international level, the report calls on India's donors and trading partners to build anti-discrimination measures into all aid projects where problems of caste violence are particularly severe.  All of the recommendations were formulated in consultation with Indian activists involved in the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, founded in 1998.

    Upper-caste employers frequently use caste as  a cover for exploitative economic arrangements. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India's policy of reservations (affirmative action), Dalits are relegated to the most menial tasks. 

    An estimated forty million people in India, among them fifteen million children, are bonded labourers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts.  The majority of them are Dalits. At least one million Dalits work as manual scavengers, clearing faeces from latrines and disposing of dead animals with their bare hands. Dalits also comprise the majority of agricultural labourers who work for a few kilograms of rice, or 15-35 rupees (less than US$ 1, -) a day. 

    In India's southern states, thousands of Dalit girls are forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests before reaching the age of puberty.  Landlords and the police use sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community. Dalit women have been arrested and tortured in custody to punish their male relatives who are hiding from the authorities. 

    The report documents violence in the eastern state of Bihar and the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, high-caste landlords have organised private militias, or Senas, which have killed Dalit villagers with impunity.  Extremist guerrilla groups have retaliated by killing high-caste villagers, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. Such attacks on civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch has called for independent investigations into the killings and for the disarming of the militias. 

    One of the most prominent militias, the Ranvir Sena, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999.  Within a span of three weeks in January and February 1999, Sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks.  On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Centre, a guerrilla organisation with low-caste supporters, beheaded 33 upper-caste villagers in retaliation for the Sena killings.  Both sides have threatened more "revenge killings" in the weeks to come.

    The Senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them during their attacks and have stood by as they killed villagers in their homes.  In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the Senas.  The purpose of the raids is often to terrorise Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of guerrilla organisations.  During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and destroyed property. Sena leaders and police officials have never been prosecuted for such killings and abuses.

    Dalits throughout the country also suffer from de facto disenfranchisement.  During elections, Dalits are routinely threatened and beaten by political party strongmen in order to compel them to vote for certain candidates.  Dalits who run for political office in village councils and municipalities (through seats that have been constitutionally "reserved" for them) have been threatened with physical abuse and even death to get them to withdraw from the campaign.

    In the village of Melavalavu, Tamil Nadu, following the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency, members of a higher-caste group murdered six Dalits in June 1997, including the elected council president, whom they beheaded.  As of February 1999, the accused murderers-who had been voted out of their once-secure elected positions-had not been prosecuted.

    In cases investigated for this report, with the exception of a few transfers and suspensions, no action has been taken against police officers involved in violent raids or summary executions, or against those accused of colluding with private actors to carry out attacks on Dalits. In many instances, Dalits have repeatedly called for police protection and been ignored. Even national government agencies concur that impunity is rampant.

    "Talking about the problem is not enough," said Narula. "The Indian government must act now to demonstrate its stated commitment to ensuring equal rights for Dalits."

    5. 'Broken People' (the whole summary) - Smita Narulas 
    When we are working, they ask us not to come near them. At tea canteens, they have separate tea tumblers and they make us clean them ourselves and make us put the dishes away ourselves. We cannot enter temples. We cannot use upper-caste water taps. We have to go one kilometre away to get water... When we ask for our rights from the government, the municipality officials threaten to fire us. So we don’t say anything. This is what happens to people who demand their rights.

    — A Dalit manual scavenger, Ahmedabad district, Gujarat 
    Thevars [caste Hindus] treat Sikkaliars [Dalits] as slaves so they can utilise them as they wish. They exploit them sexually and make them dig graveyards for high-caste people’s burials. They have to take the death message to Thevars. These are all unpaid services. 

    — Manibharati, social activist, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu
    In the past, twenty to thirty years ago, Dalits enjoyed the practice of "untouchability." In the past, women enjoyed being oppressed by men. They weren’t educated. They didn’t know the world... They enjoy Thevar community men having them as concubines... They cannot afford to react, they are dependent on us for jobs and protection... She wants it from him. He permits it. If he has power, then she has more affection for the landlord.

    — A prominent Thevar political leader, Tamil Nadu
    More than one-sixth of India's population, some 160 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of society because of their rank as "untouchables" or Dalits—literally meaning "broken" people—at the bottom of India's caste system. Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoys the state's protection. In what has been called India’s "hidden apartheid," entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. National legislation and constitutional protections serve only to mask the social realities of discrimination and violence faced by those living below the "pollution line." 

    Despite the fact that "untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950, the practice of "untouchability"—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth in certain castes— remains very much a part of rural India. "Untouchables" may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India’s policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors. Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural labourers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day. Their upper-caste employers frequently use caste as a cover for exploitative economic arrangements: social sanction of their status as lesser beings allows their impoverishment to continue. 

    Dalit women face the triple burden of caste, class, and gender. Dalit girls have been forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are used by landlords and the police to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community. According to a Tamil Nadu state government official, the raping of Dalit women exposes the hypocrisy of the caste system as "no one practices untouchability when it comes to sex." Like other Indian women whose relatives are sought by the police, Dalit women have also been arrested and tortured in custody as a means of punishing their male relatives who are hiding from the authorities. 

    The plight of India's "untouchables" elicits only sporadic attention within the country. Public outrage over large-scale incidents of violence or particularly egregious examples of discrimination fades quickly, and the state is under little pressure to undertake more meaningful reforms. Laws granting Dalits special consideration for government jobs and education reach only a small percentage of those they are meant to benefit. Laws designed to ensure that Dalits enjoy equal rights and protection have seldom been enforced. Instead, police refuse to register complaints about violations of the law and rarely prosecute those responsible for abuses that range from murder and rape to exploitative labour practices and forced displacement from Dalit lands and homes. 

    Political mobilisation that has resulted in the emergence of powerful interest groups and political parties among middle- and low-caste groups throughout India since the mid-1980s has largely bypassed Dalits. Dalits are courted by all political parties but generally forgotten once elections are over. The expanding power base of low-caste political parties, the election of low-caste chief ministers to state governments, and even the appointment of a Dalit as president of India in July 1997 all signal the increasing prominence of Dalits in the political landscape but cumulatively have yet to yield any significant benefit for the majority of Dalits. Laws on land reform and protection for Dalits remain unimplemented in most Indian states. 

    Lacking access to mainstream political organisations and increasingly frustrated with the pace of reforms, Dalits have begun to resist subjugation and discrimination in two ways: peaceful protest and armed struggle. Particularly since the early 1990s, Dalit organisations have sought to mobilise Dalits to protest peacefully against the human rights violations suffered by their community. These movements have quickly grown in membership and visibility and have provoked a backlash from the higher-caste groups most threatened—both economically and politically—by Dalit assertiveness. Police, many of whom belong to these higher-caste groups or who enjoy their patronage, have arrested Dalit activists, including social workers and lawyers, for activity that is legal and on charges that show the police’s political motivation. Dalit activists are jailed under preventive detention statutes to prevent them from holding meetings and protest rallies, or charged as "terrorists" and "threats to national security." Court cases drag on for years, costing impoverished people precious money and time. 

    Dalits who dare to challenge the social order have been subject to abuses by their higher-caste neighbours. Dalit villages are collectively penalised for individual "transgressions" through social boycotts, including loss of employment and access to water, grazing lands, and ration shops. For most Dalits in rural India who earn less than a subsistence living as agricultural labourers, a social boycott may mean destitution and starvation. 

    In some states, notably Bihar, guerrilla organisations advocating the use of violence to achieve land redistribution have attracted Dalit support. Such groups, known as "Naxalites", have carried out attacks on higher-caste groups, killing landlords, village officials and their families and seizing property. Such attacks on civilians constitute gross violations of international humanitarian law. Naxalite groups have also engaged in direct combat with police forces. 

    In response, police have targeted Dalit villagers believed to be sympathetic to Naxalites and have conducted raids in search of the guerrillas and their weapons. While there is no question that the Naxalites pose a serious security threat and that the police are obliged to counter that threat, the behaviour of the police indicates that the purpose of the raids is often to terrorise Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of Naxalite organisations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and wantonly destroyed property. 

    Higher-caste landlords in Bihar have organised private militias to counter the Naxalite threat. These militias, or Senas, also target Dalit villagers believed to be sympathetic to Naxalites. Senas are believed responsible for the murders of many hundreds of Dalits in Bihar since 1969. One of the most prominent militias, the Ranvir Sena, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. In one of the largest of such massacres, on the night of December 1, 1997, the Ranvir Sena shot dead sixteen children, twenty-seven women, and eighteen men in the village of Laxmanpur-Bathe, Jehanabad district Bihar. Five teenage girls were raped and mutilated before being shot in the chest. The villagers were reportedly sympathetic to a Naxalite group that had been demanding more equitable land redistribution in the area. When Ramchela Paswan returned home from the fields, he found seven of his family members shot: "I started beating my chest and screaming that no one is left...." When asked why the Sena killed children and women, one Sena member responded, "We kill children because they will grow up to become Naxalites. We kill women because they will give birth to Naxalites." 

    The Senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them on raids and have stood by as they killed villagers and burned down their homes. On April 10, 1997, in the village of Ekwari, located in the Bhojpur district of Bihar, police stationed in the area to protect lower-caste villagers instead pried open the doors of their residences as members of the Sena entered and killed eight residents. In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the Senas. Sena leaders are rarely prosecuted for such killings, and the villagers are rarely or inadequately compensated for their losses. Even in cases where police are not hostile to Dalits, they are generally not accessible to call upon: most police camps are located in the upper-caste section of the village and Dalits are simply unable to approach them for protection. 

    Tamil Nadu
    In the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, clashes between Pallars (a community of Dalits) and Thevars (a marginally higher-caste non-Dalit community) have plagued rural areas since 1995. New wealth among the Pallars, who have sent male family members to work in Gulf states and elsewhere abroad, has triggered a backlash from the Thevars as the Pallars have increasingly been able to buy and farm their own lands or look elsewhere for employment. At the same time, a growing Dalit political movement has provided the Pallars with a platform for resisting the still-prevalent norms of "untouchability." While some Dalits have joined militant groups in Tamil Nadu, such groups have generally engaged in public protests and other political activities rather than armed resistance. The Thevars have responded by assaulting, raping, and murdering Dalits to preserve the status quo. 

    The police force
    Local police, drawn predominantly from the Thevar community, have conducted raids on Dalit villages, ostensibly to search for militant activists. During the raids they have assaulted residents, particularly women, and detained Dalits under preventive detention laws. With the tolerance or connivance of local officials, police have also forcibly displaced thousands of Dalit villagers. During one such raid, Guruswamy Guruammal, a pregnant, twenty-six-year-old Dalit agricultural labourer, was stripped, brutally beaten, and dragged through the streets naked before being thrown in jail. She told Human Rights Watch, "I begged the police officers at the jail to help me. I even told them I was pregnant. They mocked me for [having made] bold statements to the police the day before. I spent twenty-five days in jail. I miscarried my baby after ten days. Nothing has happened to the officers who did this to me." 

    Excessive use of force by the police is not limited to rural areas. Police abuse against the urban poor, slum dwellers, Dalits, and other minorities has included arbitrary detention, torture, extra judicial executions and forced evictions. Although the acute social discrimination characteristic of rural areas is less pronounced in cities, Dalits in urban areas, who make up the majority of bonded labourers and street cleaners, do not escape it altogether. Many live in segregated colonies which have been targets of police raids. This report documents a particularly egregious incident in a Dalit colony in Bombay in July 1997, when police opened fire without warning on a crowd of Dalits protesting the desecration of a statue of Dalit cultural and political hero Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The firing killed ten and injured twenty-six. 

    Dalits throughout the country also suffer in many instances from de facto disenfranchisement. During elections, those un-persuaded by typical electioneering are routinely threatened and beaten by political party strongmen in order to compel them to vote for certain candidates. Already under the thumb of local landlords and police officials, Dalit villagers who do not comply have been murdered, beaten, and harassed. 

    Police and upper-caste militias, operating at the behest of powerful political leaders in the state, have also punished Dalit voters. In February 1998, police raided a Dalit village in Tamil Nadu that had boycotted the national parliamentary elections. Women were kicked and beaten, their clothing was torn, and police forced sticks and iron pipes into their mouths. Kerosene was poured into stored food grains and grocery items and police reportedly urinated in cooking vessels. In Bihar, political candidates ensure their majority vote with the help of Senas, whose members kill if necessary. The Ranvir Sena was responsible for killing more than fifty people during Bihar’s 1995 state election campaign. The Sena was again used to intimidate voters in Ara district, Bihar, during the February 1998 national parliamentary elections. 

    Reservations in politics
    Dalits who have contested political office in village councils and municipalities through seats that have been constitutionally "reserved" for them have been threatened with physical abuse and even death in order to get them to withdraw from the campaign. In the village of Melavalavu, Madurai district Tamil Nadu, following the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency, members of a higher-caste group murdered six Dalits in June 1997, including the elected council president, whom they beheaded. As told to Human Rights Watch by an eyewitness, the leader of the attack "instructed the Thevars [caste Hindus] to kill all the Pariahs [Dalits]... They pulled all six out of the bus and stabbed them on the road... Five Thevars joined together, put Murugesan [the Dalit president] on the ground outside the bus, and chopped off his head, then threw it in a well half a kilometre away... Some grabbed his hands, others grabbed his head, and one cut his head... They deliberately took the head and poured the blood on other dead bodies." As of February 1999, the accused—who had been voted out of their once-secure elected positions—had not been prosecuted. Those arrested were out on bail, while the person identified as the ringleader of the attack was still at large. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, enacted in 1989, provides a means to address many of the problems Dalits face in India. The act is designed to prevent abuses and punish those responsible, establish special courts for the trial of such offences, and provide for victim relief and rehabilitation. A look at the offences made punishable by the act provides a glimpse into the retaliatory or customarily degrading treatment Dalits may receive. The offences include forcing members of a SC or ST to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance; dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in their premises or neighbourhood; forcibly removing their clothes and parading them naked or with painted face or body; interfering with their rights to land; compelling a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe into forms of forced or bonded labour; corrupting or fouling the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by scheduled castes or scheduled tribes; denying right of passage to a place of public resort; and using a position of dominance to exploit a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe woman sexually. 

    Law and justice
    The potential of the law to bring about social change has been hampered by police corruption and caste bias, with the result that many allegations are not entered in police books. Ignorance of procedures and a lack of knowledge of the act have also affected its implementation. Even when cases are registered, the absence of special courts to try them can delay prosecutions for up to three to four years. Some state governments dominated by higher castes have even attempted to repeal the legislation altogether. 

    Between 1994 and 1996, a total of 98,349 cases were registered with the police nation-wide as crimes and atrocities against scheduled castes. Of these, 38,483 were registered under the Atrocities Act for the sorts of offences enumerated above. A further 1,660 were for murder, 2,814 for rape, and 13,671 for hurt.15 Given that Dalits are both reluctant and unable (for lack of police co-operation) to report crimes against themselves, the actual number of abuses is presumably much higher. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has reported that these cases typically fall into one of three categories: cases relating to the practice of "untouchability" and attempts to defy the social order; cases relating to land disputes and demands for minimum wages; and cases of atrocities by police and forest officials. 

    Focus of the report
    Although this report focuses primarily on abuse against Dalit communities that have begun to assert themselves economically or organise themselves politically, it also examines the weakest sectors of the population: those with no political representation, living in the poorest of conditions, and made to perform the most degrading of tasks with little or no remuneration. To eke out a subsistence living, Dalits throughout the country, numbering in the tens of millions, are driven to bonded labour, manual scavenging, and forced prostitution under conditions that violate national law and their basic human rights. 

    An estimated forty million people in India, among them fifteen million children, are bonded labourers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off a debt. A majority of them are Dalits. According to government statistics, an estimated one million Dalits are manual scavengers who clear faeces from public and private latrines and dispose of dead animals; unofficial estimates are much higher. An activist working with scavengers in the state of Andhra Pradesh claimed, "In one toilet there can be as many as 400 seats which all have to be manually cleaned. This is the lowest occupation in the world, and it is done by the community that occupies the lowest status in the caste system."16 In India’s southern states, thousands of girls are forced into prostitution before reaching the age of puberty. Devadasis, literally meaning "female servant of god," usually belong to the Dalit community. Once dedicated, the girl is unable to marry, forced to become a prostitute for upper-caste community members, and eventually auctioned off to an urban brothel. 

    This report is about caste, but it is also about class, gender, poverty, labour, and land. For those at the bottom of its hierarchy, caste is a determinative factor for the attainment of social, political, civil, and economic rights. Most of the conflicts documented in this report take place within very narrow segments of the caste hierarchy, between the poor and the not-so-poor, the landless labourer and the small landowner. The differences lie in the considerable amount of leverage that the higher-caste Hindus or non-Dalits are able to wield over local police, district administrations, and even the state government. 

    Role of NGO’s
    Investigations by India’s National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the National Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, and numerous local non governmental organisations (NGO) all concur that impunity is rampant. In cases investigated for this report, with the exception of a few transfers and suspensions, no action has been taken against police officers involved in violent raids or summary executions, or against those accused of colluding with private actors to carry out attacks on Dalit communities. Moreover, in many instances, repeated calls for protection by threatened Dalit communities have been ignored by police and district officials. 

    Role of the BJP
    The "National Agenda for Governance," the election manifesto for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in the February 1998 elections, outlines a program of action for the "upliftment" of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It promises to take steps to establish "a civilised, humane and just civil order... which does not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion, class, colour, race or sex"; ensures the "economic and educational development of the minorities"; safeguards the interests of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward classes by "appropriate legal, executive and societal efforts and by large scale education and empowerment"; provides "legal protection to existing percentages of reservation in educational institutions at the State level"; and removes "the last vestiges of untouchability." However, to date, the Indian government has done little to fulfil its promises to Dalits. 

    National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights
    A national campaign to highlight abuses against Dalits spearheaded by human rights groups in eight states began to focus national and international attention to the issue in 1998. The recommendations for this report were drafted in consultation with more than forty activists who have been working closely on the campaign. In publishing this report now, Human Rights Watch adds its voice to theirs in calling upon the Indian government to implement the recommendations outlined in this report, to fulfil the commitments made regarding scheduled castes in the National Agenda for Governance, and to take immediate steps to prevent and eliminate caste-based violence and discrimination. We further urge the international community to press the Indian government to bring its practices into compliance with national and international law.

    (Order the book at: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india)

    6. Folklorist dundes takes aim at India's caste system - Grechen Kell (University of California)

    Caste and untouchability in India have puzzled social historians for centuries. Why are millions of Indians deemed "untouchable?" Can a person change his or her caste? Why is cleanliness so prized-and yet cowdung
    used as a cleansing agent?

    Prominent folklorist Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore here, offers a unique Freudian analysis of caste and untouchability in his new book, "Two Tales of Sparrow and Crow" (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

    Although there are hundreds of books on the subject, Dundes said no one has looked at it from a psychoanalytic point of view.

    "There is a lot of Freud-bashing going on in our country, and a lot of resistance in other parts of the world to Freudian and Western theories," he said. "But I think I offer a plausible, coherent explanation-certain Indian child-rearing techniques-for the pattern that underlies caste and untouchability."

    The book first reviews the caste system, a rigid hierarchical structure of social inequality in which one's rank is ascribed at birth. Castes are ranked on the basis of one's "pollution"-work-related contact with life processes such as birth and death as well as life substances such as feces and blood. The greater one's purity, or lack of contact with pollution, the higher one's rank.

    Contact with a person of a lower caste can negatively alter one's purity and require, in some cases, a ritual procedure-such as bathing or changing clothes. A more serious defiling act can result in expulsion from one's caste. Intermarriage between castes is strongly discouraged.

    "Many anthropologists and specialists on India have remarked on the critical importance of pollution to the caste system," said Dundes. "It has been called the 'chief principle' upon which the entire caste system

    In the book, he uses two Indian folktales, one about a crow who unsuccessfully tries to eat communally with a sparrow. Associated with faeces and pollution and unable to wash itself clean, the crow eventually dies while doing chores to try and win acceptance from other animals.

    "A crow can never be clean enough to share a meal with a sparrow," said Dundes, "any more than an untouchable can ever be clean enough to share a meal with a Brahman."

    Although there are hundreds of books on the subject, Dundes said no one has looked at it from a psychoanalytic point of view.

    The importance of India's "pollution complex" no longer is debated, but Dundes provides a fresh look at what he calls the "unconscious underlying folk belief complex" which has led to untouchability.

    Dundes' research found that caste and untouchability have roots in the human body. The top, "cleanest" caste-the Brahmans-supposedly were born from the head of the creator while the bottom, "dirtiest" caste-the
    untouchables-came from the feet or anus.

    "It is the persistent, obsessive fear that the top, clean mouth might be contaminated or defiled from the bottom," he said, "that underlies and permeates the entire caste system. This explains why a higher caste cannot accept food from the hands of a lower caste-for fear of contamination. Feet...are dirty because they are in contact with the outside ground where faeces might lurk."

    Dundes said he found other clues to the roots of the pollution complex while examining toilet training practices in India. Indian parents give their children a mixed message during their early years, he said, "that is closely related to the pollution complex."

    Begun much earlier than in the West, toilet training starts in India when a child is three months old. A very lenient approach is used, where children can eliminate wherever they wish and are cleaned up by a doting mother.

    However, at age five, the child's toilet training ends with a traumatic "crackdown," in which the previously pampered child is expected to respond with absolute obedience and conformity to familial and social

     "The trauma arising from such a marked discontinuity could well result in a cathexis or fixation on anality," said Dundes.

    "I believe there is a correlation between toilet training in India and the adult behavior as expressed in various manifestations of thepollution complex," he said. "I would like to think that this insight mightbe of some help in encouraging reformers to take action against forms ofcaste prejudice and some of the evils of untouchability."

    Dundes recommends changing toilet training techniques by encouraging mothers to start toilet training later than three months and to minimize the traumatic crackdown at age five.

    "Ultimately," said Dundes, "this is a problem Indians are going to have to solve for themselves."

    Dundes' book also includes discussions of the sacredness of the cow in India, the burning of widows and also on the caste system and pollution complex among contemporary European and American Gypsies, whose
    ancestral roots are in India.

    7. Caste System in India - Prof. Koenraad Elst (Belgium)
    In an inter-faith debate, most Hindus can easily be put on the defensive with a single word-caste. Any anti-Hindu polemist can be counted on to allege that "the typically Hindu caste system is the most cruel apartheid, imposed by the barbaric white Aryan invaders on the gentle dark-skinned natives." Here's a more balanced and historical account of this controversial institution.

    Merits of the Caste System The caste system is often portrayed as the ultimate horror. Inborn inequality is indeed unacceptable to us moderns, but this does not preclude that the system has also had its merits.

    Caste is perceived as an "exclusion-from," but first of all it is a form of "belonging-to," a natural structure of solidarity. For this reason, Christian and Muslim missionaries found it very difficult to lure Hindus away from their communities. Sometimes castes were collectively converted to Islam, and Pope Gregory XV (1621-23) decreed that the missionaries could tolerate caste distinction among Christian converts; but by and large, caste remained an effective hurdle to the destruction of Hinduism through conversion. That is why the missionaries started attacking the institution of caste and in particular the Brahmin caste. This propaganda has bloomed into a full-fledged anti-Brahminism, the Indian equivalent of anti-Semitism. Every caste had a large measure of autonomy, with its own judiciary, duties and privileges, and often its own temples. Inter-caste affairs were settled at the village council by consensus; even the lowest caste had veto power. This autonomy of intermediate levels of society is the antithesis of the totalitarian society in which the individual stands helpless before the all-powerful state. This decentralised structure of civil society and of the Hindu religious commonwealth has been crucial to the survival of Hinduism under Muslim rule. Whereas Buddhism was swept away as soon as its monasteries were destroyed, Hinduism retreated into its caste structure and weathered the storm.

    Caste also provided a framework for integrating immigrant communities: Jews, Zoroastrians and Syrian Christians. They were not only tolerated, but assisted in efforts to preserve their distinctive traditions.

    Typically Hindu? It is routinely claimed that caste is a uniquely Hindu institution. Yet, counter examples are not hard to come by. In Europe and elsewhere, there was (or still is) a hierarchical distinction between noblemen and commoners, with nobility only
    marrying nobility. Many tribal societies punished the breach of endogamy rules with death.
    Coming to the Indian tribes, we find Christian missionaries claiming that "tribals are not Hindus because they do not observe caste." In reality, missionary literature itself is rife with
    testimonies of caste practices among tribals. A spectacular example is what the missions call "the Mistake:" the attempt, in 1891, to make tribal converts in Chhotanagpur inter-dine with converts from other tribes. It was a disaster for the mission. Most tribals renounced Christianity because they chose to preserve the taboo on inter-dining. As strongly as the haughtiest Brahmin, they refused to mix what God hath separated.

    Endogamy and exogamy are observed by tribal societies the world over. The question is therefore not why Hindu society invented this system, but how it could preserve these tribal identities even after outgrowing the tribal stage of civilisation. The answer lies largely in the expanding Vedic culture's intrinsically respectful and conservative spirit, which ensured that each tribe could preserve its customs and traditions, including its defining custom of tribal endogamy.

    Description and History The Portuguese colonisers applied the term caste, "lineage, breed," to two different Hindu institutions: jati and varna. The effective unit of the caste system is the jati, birth-unit, an endogamous group into which you are born, and within
    which you marry. In principle, you can only dine with fellow members, but the pressures of modern life have eroded this rule. The several thousands of jatis are subdivided in exogamous clans, gotra. This double division dates back to tribal society.

    By contrast, Varna is the typical functional division of an advanced society-the Indus/Saraswati civilisation, 3rd millennium, bc. The youngest part of the Rg-Veda describes four classes: learned Brahmins born from Brahma's mouth, martial Kshatriya-born from his arms; Vaishya entrepreneurs born from His hips and Shudra workers born from His feet. Everyone is a Shudra by birth. Boys become dwija, twice-born, or member of one of the three upper Varnas upon receiving the sacred thread in the upanayana ceremony.

    The varna system expanded from the Saraswati-Yamuna area and got firmly established in the whole of Aryavarta (Kashmir to Vidarbha, Sindh to Bihar). It counted as a sign of superior culture setting the arya, civilised, heartland apart from the surrounding mleccha,
    barbaric, lands. In Bengal and the South, the system was reduced to a distinction between Brahmins and Shudras. Varna is a ritual category and does not fully correspond to effective social or economic status. Thus, half of the princely rulers in British India were Shudras and a few were Brahmins, though it is the Kshatriya function par excellence. Many Shudras are rich, many Brahmins impoverished.

    The Mahabharata defines the varna qualities thus: "He in whom you find truthfulness, generosity, absence of hatred, modesty, goodness and self-restraint, is a Brahman. He who fulfils the duties of a knight, studies the scriptures, concentrates on acquisition and distribution of riches, is a Kshatriya. He who loves cattle- breeding, agriculture and money, is honest and well-versed in scripture, is a Vaishya. He who eats anything, practises any profession, ignores purity rules, and takes no interest in scriptures and rules of life, is a Shudra." The higher the Varna, the more rules of self-discipline are to be observed. Hence, a jati could collectively improve its status by adopting more demanding rules of conduct, e.g. vegetarianism. A person's second name usually indicates his jati or gotra. Further, one can use the following Varna titles: Sharma (shelter, or joy) indicates the Brahmin, Varma (armour) the Kshatriya, Gupta (protected) the Vaishya and Das (servant) the Shudra. In a single family, one person may call himself Gupta (Varna), another Agrawal (jati), yet another Garg (gotra). A monk, upon renouncing the world, sheds his name along with his caste identity.

    Untouchability Below the caste hierarchy are the untouchables, or Harijan (literally "God's people"), Dalits ("oppressed"), pariah (one such caste in South India), or scheduled castes. They make up about 16% of the Indian population, as many as the upper castes combined.

    Untouchability originates in the belief that evil spirits surround dead and dying substances. People who work with corpses, body excretions or animal skins had an aura of danger and impurity, so they were kept away from mainstream society and from sacred learning and ritual. This often took grotesque forms: thus, an untouchable had to announce his polluting proximity with a rattle, like a leper.

    Untouchability is unknown in the Vedas, and therefore repudiated by neo-Vedic reformers like Dayanand Saraswati, Narayan Guru, Gandhiji and Savarkar. In 1967, Dr. Ambedkar, a Dalit by birth and fierce critic of social injustice in Hinduism and Islam, led a mass conversion to Buddhism, partly on the (unhistorical) assumption that Buddhism had been an anti-caste movement. The 1950 constitution outlawed untouchability and sanctioned positive discrimination programs for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. Lately, the Vishva Hindu Parishad has managed to get even the most traditionalist religious leaders on the anti-untouchability platform, so that they invite Harijans to Vedic schools and train them as priests. In the villages, however, pestering of Dalits is still a regular phenomenon, occasioned less by ritual purity issues than by land and labour disputes. However, the Dalits' increasing political clout is accelerating the elimination of untouchability.

    Caste Conversion In the Mahabharata, Yuddhishthira affirms that Varna is defined by the qualities of head and heart, not by one's birth. Krishna teaches that Varna is defined by one's activity (karma) and quality (guna). Till today, it is an unfinished debate to what extent one's "quality" is determined by heredity or by environmental influence. And so, while the hereditary view has been predominant for long, the non-hereditary conception of Varna has always been around as well, as is clear from the practice of varna conversion. The most famous example is the 17th-century freedom fighter Shivaji, a Shudra who was accorded Kshatriya status to match his military achievements. The geographical spread of Vedic tradition was achieved through large-scale initiation of local elite into the Varna order. From 1875 onwards, the Arya Samaj has systematically administered the "purification ritual" (shuddhi) to Muslim and Christian converts and to low-caste Hindus, making the dwija. Conversely, the present policy of positive discrimination has made upper-caste people seek acceptance into the favoured Scheduled Castes.

    Veer Savarkar, the ideologue of Hindu nationalism, advocated intermarriage to unify the Hindu nation even at the biological level. Most contemporary Hindus, though now generally opposed to caste inequality, continue to marry within their respective jati because they see no reason for their dissolution.

    Racial Theory of Caste Nineteenth-century Westerners projected the colonial situation and the newest race theories on the caste system: the upper castes were white invaders lording it over the black natives. This outdated view is still repeated ad-nauseam by anti-Hindu authors: now that "idolatry" has lost its force as a term of abuse, "racism" is a welcome innovation to demonise Hinduism. In reality, India is the region where all skin colour types met and mingled, and you will find many Brahmins as black as Nelson Mandela. Ancient "Aryan" heroes like Rama, Krishna, Draupadi, Ravana (a Brahmin) and a number of Vedic seers were explicitly described as being dark-skinned.

    But doesn't Varna mean "skin colour?" The effective meaning of Varna is "splendour, colour," and hence "distinctive quality" or "one segment in a spectrum." The four functional classes constitute the "colours" in the spectrum of society. Symbolic colours are allotted to the Varna on the basis of the cosmological scheme of "three qualities" (triguna): white is sattva (truthful), the quality typifying the Brahmin; red is rajas (energetic), for the Kshatriya; black is tamas (inert, solid), for the Shudra; yellow is allotted to the Vaishya, who is defined by a mixture of qualities. Finally, caste society has been the most stable society in history. Indian communists used to sneer that "India has never even had a revolution." Actually, that is no mean achievement.



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