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India’s unofficial apartheid

29 April 2009

Emma Eastwood, MRG’s Media and Events Officer, is in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, training local Dalit organisations on how to use the media to fight caste-based discrimination

As I step out of the sliding doors at Chennai airport I’m greeted not only by a wall of eager faces but also by an invisible wall of wet, sticky heat. Welcome to India in April, the hottest month of the year in the sub-continent, where every waking (and sleeping) moment is a battle against temperatures that seem to wring out your very life energy.

Despite the struggle against the elements, I’m lucky enough to be here with my MRG colleague Kathryn as we’ve been employed by French NGO CCFD to run a training course on advocacy and human rights for Dalit organisations. My task is to teach a session on how to use the media for advocacy and I’ve been busy researching news coverage on Dalit issues in both the national and international media for the last week.

Street scene, Chennai
Street scene, Chennai

The Chennai organisation responsible for the impeccable organisation of the training is the Janodayam Social Education Centre, who provide support and rehabilitation for manual scavengers – Dalits who are forced to clean disease-ridden drains and toilets by hand. According to the rigid caste system in India if your parents were manual scavengers then you too are doomed to the same fate (what the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination calls discrimination based on descent).

Dalit women, who suffer discrimination not just for their caste but also for their gender, make up the bulk of manual scavengers at around 80%. Tuesday 31st March was the date set by the government for manual scavenging to be stopped in Tamil Nadu (although it is already illegal throughout the country) – however Janodayam hold out little hope that this degrading practice will disappear, and continue apace with their work.

Dalit hero Dr Ambedkar
Dalit hero Dr Ambedkar

We open the training with a ceremony which involves garlanding a portrait of Dalit hero Dr. Ambedkar, a contemporary of Gandhi involved in the struggle for independence, who was a lawyer and himself a Dalit. He believed that only by destroying the caste system could ‘untouchability’ be destroyed. We light candles in front of the makeshift shrine and Dr Ambedkar remains there for the rest of the week overseeing the activities with his benign gaze.

Despite the fact that the purpose of this course is to look at advocacy solutions to combat discrimination against Dalits, as the first day evolves, it becomes apparent that the participants have a pressing need to express their anger and frustration at the daily injustices and atrocities they face. The list is endless and shocking….

63% of Dalits are illiterate and 80% of Dalit women are illiterate. Discrimination in education is rampant – Dalit girls are forced to sweep floors and clean plates at meal times; Dalit children are segregated during classes and at midday meals; Dalit children are forced to use separate drinking glasses; few teachers are Dalits themselves; poor sanitation and facilities are provided in Dalit school welfare hostels.

Dalit women also suffer religious-sanctioned sexual exploitation. Devadasi literally means God’s female servant, where according to ancient Hindu practice, young pre-pubescent girls are given away in matrimony to a local religious deity. These girls are almost always Dalits and are not allowed to marry, as they are supposedly married to the temple. They ‘serve’ the priests and inmates of the temple and other local men of money and power. The ‘service’ (read sexual satisfaction) given to these men is considered akin to service of God. The Devadasi is dedicated to the service of the temple Deity for life and there is no escape for her – if she wants to escape, society will not accept her.  The Devadasi system is still flourishing in parts of India, especially in the South.

Access to justice is also a pressing issue – Dalits face a multitude of problems from the first stages of filing a complaint to the handing down of judgments. Prasad, from the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, tells us of a recent study showing that 20% of police stations don’t even allow Dalits through the front door, and when they do gain entry they face threats to withdraw complaints and repeated psychological pressure to discontinue the process. Cases have been known to take up to 30 years – justice delayed is in fact justice denied…

Many of their frustrations seem to lie in the fact that despite India’s raft of laws, provisions, reservations and schemes in favour of Dalits on economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights, impunity reigns and implementation of these protections is virtually absent. It is a marvel in itself that these 27 participants have managed to overcome prejudice and discrimination to become well-educated community leaders, lawyers and business people. How do they do it? With an iron will and hope that things will change – the caste system is around 5000 years old and we’re only 50 years into the fight to abolish it – I wonder if the grandchildren of these activists will reap the fruits of their forefathers struggle?

At MRG we’re used to minorities being fiercely protective of their identity, yet for Dalits the case is just the opposite. The impression I receive is that they want to shed the shackles that their identity gives them and escape into anonymity. Conversion to other faiths, such as Christianity and Buddhism, unfortunately doesn’t seem to have given them their longed-for freedom from the caste system – we even hear tales of Christian Dalits being prevented from entering churches.

When I flick through The Hindu, south India’s respected daily newspaper, a closer look at the lonely hearts column confirms my sense of India’s hyper-hierarchical society. Both caste and sub-caste (as well as preferred career of your loved one and skin tone) are painstakingly detailed in almost every entry – it makes for sobering reading….

Particants at the training
Participants at the training

For the Sri Lankans attending the training, enjoying a brief respite from their war-torn homeland, the right to life, peace and security seems to be the most vital when we run a session identifying rights violations. Speaking out against the government can mean risking death and courting the media to spread your advocacy message is a distant dream on the island (as evidenced by recent and fatal attacks against journalists).

Yet it’s not all bad – we begin each session with a rousing song, one from each region and language represented, the men bashing out the complicated rhythms on the desktop and the women accompanying in high-pitched voices. By the end of the week the competition is fierce – everyone is vying to sing a song in their mother tongue. Now where’s that traditional London song I keep saved for these occasions…

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.