Saturday, December 27, 2008

Am I not Human? Blog Campaign: The Untouchables in India

Although this story is about one of the most aggregious forms of human-against-human abuse ingrained into a long-established social system, it also brings one of the most moving triumphs over such oppression.

Oppression and discrimination are almost set in stone, it seems, for the lowest group in the Hindu caste system in India, the Untouchables. Considered as if less than human, even though such caste discrimination is now illegal in India (per the Untouchability Act of 1955), their plight is unimaginable in every way. From simple things like being able to obtain water from a well - they are considered to "unclean" and cannot touch the pump, but must wait until a higher caste woman takes pity on them to pump water for them - to social punishment for success - such as happened to a leatherworker whose business and financial success led to his family being beaten, his home burned down, and tractor stolen by a gang from a higher caste for "rising above" - it is really the human soul and dignity that they aim to destroy. The reality of this caste system is so horrific as to be almost unfathomable.

To be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world's longest surviving forms of social stratification. Embedded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years, the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal. The ranks in Hindu society come from a legend in which the main groupings, or varnas, emerge from a primordial being. From the mouth come the Brahmans—the priests and teachers. From the arms come the Kshatriyas—the rulers and soldiers. From the thighs come the Vaisyas—merchants and traders. From the feet come the Sudras—laborers. Each varna in turn contains hundreds of hereditary castes and subcastes with their own pecking orders.

A fifth group describes the people who are achuta, or untouchable. The primordial being does not claim them. Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India's people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down.

They are also called "Dalit":

Dalit, a term that has become synonymous with Untouchable, is the name that many Untouchables, especially politically aware individuals, have chosen for themselves. The name means "oppressed" and highlights the persecution and discrimination India's 160 million Untouchables face regularly. First used in the context of caste oppression in the 19th century, it was popularized in the 1970s by Untouchable writers and members of the revolutionary Dalit Panthers (the name was inspired by the Black Panthers of the United States). Dalit has largely come to replace Harijan, the name given to Untouchables by Gandhi, much like the Black Power movement in the United States led to the replacement of the labels colored and Negro with black. For some activists, Dalit is used to refer to all of India's oppressed peoples whether Hindus, Muslims, Christians, tribal minorities, or women.

In 1997, K.R. Narayanan, an Untouchable, was sworn in as President of India, marking progress in the banning of discrimination against Dalits. In cities, that is. But in the rural areas, that prejudice is being largely practiced, due to ignorance and poverty.

One of the most inspiring stories about conquering that discrimination, which shows a path toward fighting oppression and ignorance in the most effective and miraculous way possible - using, of all things, health care - is here - in the story of Untouchable women selected by a group called Jamkhed to be health workers for their respective communities in rural India. Their transformation from outcasts to respected community leaders, performing most of the functions of doctors and to some extent city (or should I say village) planners, from "stones without a soul" to vibrant, life-saving and heroic human beings and role models is truly amazing.

This excerpt lets the miracle-workers speak for themselves:

The real benefits, the women say, cannot be measured in rupees. "When I started, I had no support from anyone, no education, no money," said Sathe. "I was like a stone with no soul. When I came here they gave me shape, life. I learned courage and boldness. I became a human being."
In 2005 Babai Sathe, Untouchable, was elected the sarpanch—village leader—of Jawalke.

(Jawalke is her village.) Even the most heart-rending tragedies can have a transformative, compassionate, uplifting ending - if we work together on it. If India can conquer their long-standing institutionalized oppression, certainly the rest of the world can learn from that, too. But there is much left to be done in India, too, of course. At least this is a start.


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