On the 15th of August India celebrated the 70th anniversary of its independence. For those who work with the poorest, most marginalised groups, it was a moment to ask the question: What does freedom mean? Free to be mercilessly thrashed for doing a job thrust forcibly on you, such as skinning dead cows, your destiny because that’s the caste you were born into? “It’s our curse,” say many dalits (India’s most oppressed group, the “untouchables”) . The community is at the bottom rung of the social Hindu hierarchy and does the dirtiest jobs. Indian society is still often ordered by the ancient Hindu caste system for millennia. What caste you're born into determines your profession, education and marriage partner.
The caste system in India is structured as a four-tiered socio-econo-political system determined by familial line. The system is classified in four Varna’s prescribing occupation along with the social status; in sinking order Brahmins (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants) and Sudra (servants). Untouchables, or Dalits, were the people so low in social status that they were not included in the caste system; outcastes. The term “Untouchables‟ refers to their traditional degrading and “impure‟ occupations that often involved handling dead matter or faeces, resulting in them being considered polluting in themselves – they were not to be touched. The Dalit is ‘unclean’ from birth; is considered perpetually filthy and can never escape his or her status. According to Hindu scriptures, what is pure must be separated from what is impure. Following that logic, the impure and Untouchable Dalits are forced to live in segregated areas of villages and refrain from touching (and therefore ‘defiling’) common resources as power supplies and water sources. For Dalit women, the situation is even worse, as they suffer from the triple oppressions of being poor, being female and being female Dalits. Dalit women numbers 80.517 million. All available data on the status of Dalit women’s rights to education, health and work participation, indicates that they are subjected to lower levels of enjoyment of these rights as compared both to non-Dalit women and men, and Dalit men. The practice of Untouchability is forbidden by law in the Indian constitution, but the social stigma, discrimination and social exclusion of Dalits remains both on an institutional and personal level even today.
Last month four young men were brutally beaten up with iron rods by a mob of cow vigilantes for skinning dead cows. These young men are from the “chamar” or leather tanning caste. Even now, if ordered to move a carcass – and that means any dead animal ranging from cows to goats to dogs or cats – they are compelled by societal norms to do so, regardless of whether they’ve earned a doctorate in economics or history. Ovindra Pal, a dalit man who despite having a master’s in history, is forced to work in his father’s trade, skinning bovine carcasses. Understandably, Pal is bitter, as are thousands of dalits who have painstakingly inched up the education ladder but still can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications. The unwritten rule: once a chamar, always a chamar. India’s feudalistic caste system is alive and well and not just kicking, it’s maiming, raping and killing, too.
All Indians, whether Christian, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain or Hindu, carry some vestiges of the caste system in them. Caste and casteism have been carried to every corner of the globe to which the Indian diaspora migrated. Our caste prejudices manifest themselves most clearly in the matrimonial newspaper columns, where prospective brides and grooms of all religions are sought for traditional marriage alliances. Caste and skin colour are the most important criteria for admitting a strange woman into that most intimate circle, the home and the family. The woman who will bring forth children to perpetuate the line must almost always be fair-skinned and of the same caste. The exceptions to this rule are very rare.
In India, justice for the poor and powerless is the exception rather than the rule. Only when the medieval practice of untouchability and caste is honestly a thing of the past, can we truly celebrate India’s freedom.
If you seek to put an end to class and caste contact:
The World Socialist Party (India):
257 Baghajatin ‘E’ Block (East), Kolkata – 700086,