It is sixty years since India’s constitution banned discrimination along caste lines, but the millennia-old hierarchy still affects the lives of millions of Indians today. People of low caste, known as the Dalits or “untouchables” (the word ‘Dalit’ comes from the Marathi to mean ‘ground’, ‘crushed’ or ‘suppressed’) still face widespread discrimination and prejudice. A new exhibition of photographs, called ‘Being Untouchable’ has opened in London to highlight their plight.
There are estimated 166 million Dalits in India or approximately 15% of the population of 1.1 billion (though exact numbers are hard to know, because census data has not collected caste information since 1931). The exhibition aims to draw attention to the violence suffered by Dalits, who are often attacked by local communities if they are perceived to have stepped outside their station. One photo shows a girl called Kamlesh, who bears scars down her body. At seven years of age, Kamlesh was shoved onto some burning rubbish for walking with her mother on a road reserved for ‘high-caste’ people. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) which organized the exhibition, 33,000 crimes against Dalits were reported in 2008, and this figure doesn’t include the many attacks which go unrecorded.
This week, a conference was held by the National Council of Churches in India, to address discrimination against the Dalits. The ecumenical group of churches (representing 13 million members) was joined by ten other agencies and social justice groups. They met to review how the continuing inequalities in India’s society can be addressed and called any discrimination against Dalits a “sin” and “shame”.
The caste system stems from a very old Hindu social order, but even when Dalits convert to Christianity, it is still difficult for them to escape prejudice. For example, in one Catholic cemetery, Dalits are still being buried on the other side of a wall, dividing the lower and upper-caste families in the community. The Catholic Church has not taken action over the wall because it does not own the burial ground. Like other Christian churches, it is struggling to overcome the caste attitudes of its followers, many of whom bring their prejudices with them when they convert.
But there is hope for the Dalits. There is evidence that the free market created by the growing Indian economy is driving social change. A group of economists and scholars have conducted a study of more than 19,000 Dalit households in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The research compared the living conditions of the Dalits today compared to 1990. And encouragingly, there were concrete signs that the lives of Dalits have improved significantly. For example, in the two districts surveyed, 65% and 95% of Dalits lived in proper concrete houses, compared to only 18% and 38% in 1990. And more than 60% of Dalit children were found to go to school, with well over half of girls attending.
As a spokesperson for the CSW points out, with India’s booming private sector there is an increasing need for a larger, more educated workforce. Given the size of the Dalit community, these people will be needed for sustained growth and therefore it’s in India’s self-interest to address caste discrimination.