In a uniquely Indian version of Romeo and Juliette, a teenage girl and boy were publicly lynched earlier this month in rural Uttar Pradesh. The girl’s parents and hundreds of villagers watched and applauded.
The crime? The girl was a Brahmin, Hinduism’s highest caste; the boy, a Jat, a somewhat lower, though still respectable, farming caste. The girl’s family had been ‘defiled’ by their daughter crossing the ‘pollution barrier’ to consort with a lower caste boy. The appropriate punishment was death.
At the end of August, India, a self-professed champion of human rights, will attend the UN’s conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. While the US is frantically trying to shield its protégé, Israel, from charges of racism at Durban, India is just as frantically trying to prevent its caste system, which is often called ‘hidden apartheid,’ from being put onto the conference’s agenda.
For decades, India loudly denounced discrimination against blacks in the US and South Africa. But hidden from the world’s gaze, India, according to many human rights groups, continues to practice and condone the world’s largest, most pernicious system of institutionalized racism and discrimination, the caste system.
Of India’s 1 billion people, 160 million are untouchables, or ‘Dalits’(meaning: ‘broken people’). Untouchables are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system of segregation; light-skinned Brahmins at the top. In between are a myriad of castes and sub-castes. Untouchables, India’s poorest people, are forced to perform society’s most menial, degrading tasks.
Untouchables are barred from sections of villages inhabited by higher caste Hindus. A Dalit’s ‘unclean’ shadow must never fall upon that of a Brahmin, lest he be defiled. Dalits may not draw water from higher caste wells, nor touch food implements of their betters. They may not enter higher caste temples, nor own land. Their children sit in the back of classrooms, or are simply denied schooling.
The ancient Hindu caste system dates back to 1500 BC when fair-skinned Aryan tribes invaded northern India. The newcomers conquered India’s dark-skinned indigenous Dravidian inhabitants. Though occupation and rank originally determined caste, over centuries caste came to be associated with skin color. Even in overseas Indian communities, including Canada, caste still reigns. Marriage solicitations routinely request ‘light-skinned’ boys or girls.
Fair-skinned Brahmins, 3.5% of the population, are India’s ruling elite, holding 78% of judicial positions and half parliament’s seats. In recent tests, Indian scientists discovered that high-caste Hindus, particularly Brahmins, are genetically closer to Europeans than they are to dark-skinned, Dravidian Indians. Caste became a rigid system whereby India’s fair-skinned ruling class kept lower and swarthier orders in their places – as laborers, landless peasants, and servants – exploiting them in the name of religion.
The Sikh religion and Islam both reject the Hindu caste system. Millions of low caste Indians found refuge from racial oppression as Sikhs, Muslims, and, more recently, Christians. All three religions have been and remain subject to varying forms of persecution by India’s Hindu majority.
Dalits are forced to clean public toilettes and remove human feces, usually with their hands. They sweep up after Indians defecate in the streets and move dead animals. According to an extensive report on caste by the respected Human Rights Watch, large numbers of Dalit women are routinely raped and forced to become sex slaves for Hindu priests and land owners. Of India’s estimated 40 million indentured laborers – a modern form of slavery – most are Dalit children, often sold into lifelong servitude by starving parents.
When Dalits try to defend themselves from abuse and exploitation, they are attacked by higher-caste gangs and local police. Their shanties are burned and their women gang raped. Dalits, like Muslim Kashmiris, are frequently subjected to beatings, rape, torture and arson by India’s brutal police, says Human Rights Watch.
The recent case of India’s famed Bandit Queen, a Dalit woman who killed a score of higher caste men who had raped her, is but one dramatic example of the suffering inflicted by India’s cruel caste system, which makes South Africa’s former apartheid look benign by comparison.
Modern India’s father, the great Mohandas Gandhi, struggled against caste and called for liberation of Dalits. India outlawed discrimination against untouchables in the 1950′s, and has enacted affirmative action programs for Dalits in education, voting, and government jobs. Nepal just followed suit this summer. India’s president, a ceremonial post, is a Dalit, though most of its leaders, like PM Vajypee and Home Minster L.K. Advani, are high-caste, fair-skinned Hindus.
“The Indian government has been very successful at manufacturing an image as the world’s largest democracy,” says Smita Narula, author of the Human Rights Watch report,…”but none of its (anti-discrimination) laws are implemented and the Constitution is not enforced.”
Delhi simply winks at the widescale oppression of Dalits across India, remembering them only at election time. India appears unlikely to make a major national effort to root out the deeply ingrained caste system until worldwide outrage shames India’s elite into taking drastic action. Durban would be a good start. India won’t achieve the international respect and great power status it so craves until the evil of caste is ended for good. – Eric Margolis wrote this article before the start of the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in August 2001. This conference was held under the auspices of the United Nations. Nothing much has changed since then.