Caste System and Untouchability in Modern India, with reference to the documentary ‘India Untouched’

Untouchability is abolished – this is the primary belief of almost all of us living in urban cities. We don’t think caste system holds value anymore in the India of the 21st century. I thought so too, until I watched the popular documentary by directed by Stalin K. and produced by Drishti, titled ‘India Untouched’. The documentary offers a poignant insight into the caste hierarchies still existing not only in rural villages but also in metropolitan cities. Most people in our country mix culture and caste to be the one and same thing. They say that the Laws of Manu state that the Brahman was born out of the mouth of the Almighty, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaisyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet. The documentary shows Hindu priests arguing that human beings can neither create nor abolish caste. It is the will of God, the result of one’s karma in the past life. Some even go so far to say that Indian culture has caste in it; to abolish caste would be to abolish Indian culture! Some went on to say that Dalits were not oppressed nor was their growth and development restricted by the higher castes. It was impossible for someone of their background to develop simply because they are inherently stupid, while a Brahamin gains knowledge through his ancestral genes. It is all a matter of heredity, and only after considering their mental traits did the Almighty assign jobs to each caste. Some were even proud to report that they did indeed practice untouchability as they were advocates of the Hindu Shastras or holy books. Even below the lowest of all castes Shudras comes the Dalits or Avarnas, those who are discriminated against even by the lower castes, who are discriminated against by the higher castes.

HIERARCHICAL SEGREGATION OF CASTE THAT REGULATES ACCESS TO OPPORTUNITIES AND RESOURCES:

The term ‘Dalit’ literally means oppression. Children in many parts of the country are taught while they are still young about caste and untouchability. They are taught to never enter a Dalit’s house nor accept food or water from them. They also shy away from such a person’s touch. In certain villages of Kerala, the Dalits are required to walk barefooted in those areas where the members of upper castes reside. While visiting shops, they are forced to take off their footwear outside the store. Sometimes Dalits are not allowed to board public transport vehicles as the driver is afraid that their presence might scare away other passengers. In the tea stalls at Tricy in Tamil Nadu, Dalits are served tea in glass containers while other customers are served tea in steel containers. After they finish drinking they have to wash the vessels themselves. Moreover they are expected to use the same container every time they visit the shop. Musahari Dalits are not allowed to eat inside the house of upper-caste men, or attend their weddings. It is ironic to however note that the first person a high-caste baby sees is a Musahari Dalit, since many of their women are employed as midwives in the village. Similarly absurd discrimination is practiced when Dalit masons are not allowed to set foot in the houses they themselves had previously built, once it has been occupied. However when men from a higher caste visit the dwelling areas of the Dalits, which is always situated away from the actual village, the Dalits are expected to stand up immediately in respect to them. If a man from a higher caste condescends to
visit the house of a Dalit, all the family members have to sit on the floor while their guest sits above. It is impossible for members from a higher and lower caste to sit on the same level. The Dalits are also not allowed to call a member of a higher caste by their first names, without the respectful suffix of ‘ji’ or ‘sinh’. Even if the Dalit is 80 year old and the Rajput a 10 year old boy, the Dalit man has to bow before the child and treat him as a superior. Breaking these taboos results in physical abuse in most cases, and death in the most extreme cases. Food taboo is perhaps the most rigid amongst all others. Dalit servants are always made to eat outside the house, often in a ditch dug for them. Even in a public venue, Dalits cannot eat in the same place as their superiors. A Dalit man who during a funeral feast presumed to eat along with members of the higher caste, was publicly humiliated by the village headman who was attending the same feast. He was first beaten up and then the headman spat into his face in public and strongly abused him. He was also threatened that he would be killed for his presumptuous act, unless he paid 12,000 rupees. Left with no alternative the man paid up. In a village in Rajasthan the Rajput men, who form the dominant group of the village, proudly proclaimed that even if any Dalit man presumed to report a case against them for violation of his human rights, the police would first call him up to ask for his permission before filing an FIR. Such exploitation of Dalits and such blatant abuse of laws continues unabated in many villages across India.

In 1932, The Hindu of Chennai described the Purada Vannans of Tinnevelly as a caste of ‘unseeables’ who ‘are not allowed to come out during day-time because their sight is considered to be polluted’. The hereditary occupation of these people was to wash the clothes of the other caste members. They worked between midnight and daybreak, and it was with much difficulty that the reporters from the paper managed to interview them. They only came out after much repeated persuasion and insistence, and even then with ‘their whole bodies shaking and trembling’.

This discrimination is not limited only to such rural villages. A senior orthopaedic surgeon from the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi was also shown talking about the discrimination he faces at his workplace, where facilities such as allocation of operation theatres for practice are more often given to his juniors and in larger number than to him. In the tanning industry in Punjab it was noted that only members of the lower caste termed as ‘chamars’ worked with the raw hides of the animals. However the people at higher positions of management solely hail from the higher castes since despite the repulsion they feel towards this job (and the reason it was originally assigned to Dalits) is overcome by the economic gains of the leather industry. In the villages of Gujarat where the milk co-operatives are the norm, certain amount of milk is usually set aside for being locally sold in the village. Milk from a Dalit’s house is never sold locally to the members of the higher castes. In Rajasthan when a Dalit comes to purchase milk from a member of a higher caste, the milk is poured into his container from above, and care is taken to make sure that the vessels don’t touch each other. In certain major towns of Gujarat, Dalits are not permitted to buy or rent a house in an area where most of the residents are from higher castes. They are forced to live in the outskirts of the city in poorly constructed buildings. The Wankar caste of the same state are not permitted to draw water from the village well. They must ask somebody else to draw it for them, and then pour it into their buckets, without touching the two containers of course. Sections of a river too are segregated on the basis of caste. A Dalit family’s house was stoned by the higher caste members because they had dared to wash some carrots in the upstream of the river, which is normally reserved for the higher castes. The biggest irony is that both the victims and most of the perpetrators, especially the children who just emulate what they see their adults doing, are unaware of untouchability being a crime. It is an age-old custom, they say. It has always been so. It’s not a crime!

DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF CASTE IN SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS OF EDUCATION AND MARRIAGE:

It is sad to note that the system of untouchability spreads as far as education institutions, especially village schools. Instead of being harbingers of social awareness, these institutions further pushes back the country into the depths of dark ignorance. In certain village schools, the students are expected to perform chores at school, which include sweeping the grounds and cleaning the toilet. The children from higher-castes like the Patels or the Shioryas, are exempted from this work, and the brunt of the chores, especially the most menial jobs like the cleaning of school toilets fall on the Dalit children. A case was reported in the documentary about a young boy in ninth Standard whose school principal was not allowing him to enter the next grade because his parents refused to let him wash the school toilets. The parents complained that as they themselves were forced to clean toilets in the village, the reason they enrolled their son in the school was so that he could have a better future. Other parents too angrily questioned what traits made a Brahmin or Kshatriya child better than theirs. In short, the Indian Constitution has granted equal rights to all castes, but Dalits are rarely made aware of these rights nor are they allowed access to them.

The discrimination spreads so far as to the classrooms. In a shocking case study, the documentary showed a Rawat (non-Dalit) teacher who discriminated amongst his own students, by only allowing those from the higher castes to sit in front of the classroom while the Ravidas (Dalit) children are pushed to the back. He also seldom pays any individual attention to the Dalit kids, and they are primarily ignored in the classroom. Even when they are served their regular mid-day meal, the so-called ‘untouchable’ castes are made to sit apart from the other students while eating. Such biases in the education system only reinforces cruel and unfair practices like untouchability among the next generation. Unfortunately this discrimination is not confined only within rural schools. Examples were taken from one of the biggest universities in our country, and one located right in the heart of our capital, namely Jawaharlal Nehru University. An M.Phil. student reported a personal incident wherefore she a Dalit herself had a friend from a higher caste. When he friend fell ill, the lady in question took care of her during the period of convalescence. Yet when the friend learned that she hailed from a low caste background her friend insulted her by saying that as she had taken care of her, she had now become polluted. Roommates hailing from different castes have been known to use partitions to seclude each other, because as one boy stated he did not want the face of a Dalit to be the first thing he saw every morning after waking up. An example was also given of a girl whose fiancé rejected her after he learned that she was a Dalit, and he a Brahmin. Marriages in India are still most often primarily based upon caste, as any matrimonial column of any popular newspaper would reveal. Even in urban cities like Mumbai, well-educated citizens commented that though they did not believe in caste discrimination or the practice of untouchability they would prefer marrying into their same caste. Caste endogamy, it then seems, is a living reality till date.

REGULATION OF RELIGIOUS INTERCOMMUNICATION:

Entry to temples has been banned to members of the lower caste since pre-Independence. Shnava Dalits, for example, are not allowed to enter the temple but they can pray to the deity from a distance. Offerings too are distributed to them by priests, but away from the actual temple, whose premises they can never enter. Shnavas are however enraged if it is suggested that they are discriminated against, since they are at least allowed to pray from a distance, which is a luxury allowed to few people of their status as ‘untouchables’. It was partly being fed up by this unfair discrimination against them that many Dalits converted to other religions. Yet all religious converts, before being converted, had a particular caste whose shadow they carried along with them. Though the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, preaches equality among all castes, each and every Gurudwara is built with four doors – one for each caste. The member of each caste is supposed to collect the holy offerings from the door made for their caste. Incidents have been reported of those who tried to fight this discrimination by asking for offerings from another door, and was killed for their efforts. This lead to the formation of separate gurudwaras in the village, and similarly separate churches for Christians and separate mosques for Muslims, all based on caste lines. Separate cemeteries soon followed. 85 percent of Muslims are said to be Dalit converts. The holy Koran considers all Muslims to be equal, but yet Muslims are still often categorised in Indian in separate castes like the Sheikh, Bakho, Bati, Sayed etc.

CASTE AND WOMEN:

Being a woman in orthodox Indian society in itself results in a lot of strict rules and regulations that acts as fetters to freedom and liberty of a female. Being a woman of a lower caste can result in what is popularly known as a ‘double whammy’. Lower caste women are often largely exploited by men from higher castes. Rape and sexual abuse is a tool of subjugation for these men. Some are branded as a witch and publicly physically tortured. A Dalit woman who refused to work under a high-caster landowner because of low pay and unfair working conditions, was branded a witch and publicly kicked and beaten by the villagers. The villagers also wrapped her arms in cloth and set them on fire. Another lady who refused to sell her land to the zamindar was made to watch helplessly as her husband was strangled to death, and later threatened to be burnt alive along with her children if she did not assent to their demands.

The Father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi had termed untouchability as ‘the hateful expression of caste’. He had devoted his entire life in trying to uplift the status of these oppressed members of the Indian society, and his dream for an independent India was one where members from all caste lived equally. Even after 66 years of Independence, his dream is still far from being a reality.

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