The Untouchables:Children of a lesser god

February 13 2003 | by

During the presidency of John F. Kennedy, according to a passing remark in the book: A thousand Days, the United States actually tried to nurse India into a malleable Asian power on whom it could rely to checkmate the influence of China. The cold war was already on and in Asia, like elsewhere in the world, the US needed allies.

India, of course, had no such ambition, partially because it was already blinded by internal strife, bloody religious conflict and a volatile political climate. The very fabric of society was being threatened, and so the ambition of growing into a regional power was a luxury it had little time for. Even today, fifty-one years after the end of British colonial rule, this south Asian country still looks like a house divided against itself. Religious bloodbaths and gory tales of Man’s Inhumanity to Man continue to spawn. Indeed, it can be said that if the Nazis organised a pogrom against the Jews, and Soviet Communism reduced its victims to human vegetables, the Hindu Caste System of India has subjected the Untouchables to a purgatory of unbridled anguish.

The Untouchables! The name itself is misleading. In its ordinary usage, the word ‘untouchable’ denotes something that is impossible to touch... or someone whose excellence in some respect cannot be rivalled.

But not in India. And why not? Who knows, perhaps it has to do with the fact that one of India’s surviving legacies of British colonial rule is a twisted form of Queen’s English. Here, many newspaper editors are said to have developed a near incorrigible love for tautology. It is indeed common on Indian newspaper pages for simple, correct sentences to be jettisoned for high sounding, egoistic ones. Therefore, in this country of 940 million people where the bastardisation of the English language by the media seems like a way of life, the word ‘untouchable’ must mean something different.

Making up one-sixth of present day India’s population, the dark-skinned Untouchables were, originally India’s first inhabitants. Centuries ago, they were conquered by Aryans and, as a mark of servitude, were assigned the lowly tasks of cremating dead bodies, skinning carcasses and emptying latrines, among other chores. And this fire of damnation, like a yoke-devil, has remained their totem and their cross to this day.


Piling on the humiliation

In many villages across India, these poor and wretched Untouchables are compelled to live on the leeway – the side toward which the wind blows – so that the wind that touches their bodies may not defile members of the upper-castes who are either their landlords or employers or ‘slave’ masters. These so-called ‘inferior’ beings are easily identifiable by their mode of dressing which is usually the traditional loincloth or dhoti, and their young ones are often bare-chested. It has been said that they may be subjected to punishment, including beating, if caught wearing wristwatches or trousers.

To keep them within the limits of their own breed, they are forbidden from entering temples and are not allowed to fetch water from the same wells as members of the upper-castes. And on no account may an Untouchable male be caught with a higher-caste woman. Both could be executed. What is worse, on the Untouchable’s wedding nights, their higher-caste landlords had, for a long time arrogated to themselves the jus primae noctis, the customary right to deflower the brides even before the Untouchable grooms have had access to their matrimonial beds.

The grim reality of Indian society seems stranger-than-fiction but, until recently, very few people outside India were aware of it. But not any more. In 1996 an Indian writer, Rohinton Mistry, published a revealing story of torture of low-caste villagers by the higher-castes during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, in a book titled: A Fine Balance. It became an award winner. And in 1997 another Indian writer, the sweet-faced Arundhati Roy, published her sensational first novel: The God of Small Things which tells the story of a forbidden love affair between an Untouchable and the daughter of his higher-caste employer. This haunting story has a tragic climax as should be expected, and it won Britain’s coveted Booker Prize (which in the past had been won by another native Indian, Salman Rushdie). And, besides being translated into 27 languages and becoming an international best-seller, it sold like hot cakes in India because it touched raw nerves.


The caste-system hierarchy

The Hindu Caste System which created this caste discrimination has been in existence for upwards of 2,500 years; it derives its ‘wisdom’ from Hinduism’s ancient sacred tests called ‘Upanishads’. The relevant verse reads: Those whose conduct on earth has given pleasure can hope to enter a pleasant womb, that is, the womb of a Brahman or a woman of the princely class. But those whose conduct on earth has been foul can expect to enter a foul and stinking womb, that is, the womb of a bitch, or a pig, or an outcast.
In the caste system’s hierarchy, the priestly Brahman is placed at the top because his work brings him in touch with the gods. He is followed by the Kshatriya (the warrior), the Vaishiya (the people) and the Shudra (the servants). From these four main divisions, known as Varnas, more than 3,000 sub-castes have been created based on the ‘purity’ of their professions. The Untouchables are not even on the last rung of this ladder, they are far beneath and cannot be classified. They are the outcasts.

It is therefore no surprise that they, being largely illiterate, live below the poverty line, with no access to health care. Their offspring constitute the bulk of Indian children forced into slave labour. According to a Time magazine estimate, between 73 million and 115 million Indian children are forced into slave labour, the highest number in the world. And in the committee of nations, this gives India its first gold medal.


Sold into bondage

A grim picture was painted by Time, of several Indian children in the centres of the hard-knotted carpet trade of Mirzapur and Bhadoi, sitting from sunup to dusk in poorly lit mud-huts twisting yarn and tying minuscule knots; some of them as young as six, most sold by their parents to carpetmakers, to satisfy family debts. Child labour is a big racket in India. The bulk of these child labourers work on farms, an estimated 300,000 are employed in carpet factories, the remainder - anywhere from four million to twenty million - work in metal factories, mills and sweat shops.
Comparatively, China, with a population of 1.2 billion has an estimated five million child labourers while Pakistan has eight million out of its population of 120 million. It has been said that child workers in India take jobs that might otherwise be given to adults whose number of unemployed is estimated at more than 100 million. The ‘good fortune’ of being able to pay as low as 30 cents for 12-hour workdays make factory owners prefer child workers who, in any case, can be bullied to work longer hours without complaint.

Beyond chronic poverty, what seems to make the Untouchables dispense with their children so easily is the fact that, like in many other third world nations, they, the poor, have a habit of producing more children than they can adequately care for. It is not uncommon to see a poor Untouchable husband and wife, living in a tiny, uncomfortable hut and unable to feed themselves, with up to ten children, none of whom may have access to education. The parents build up debts they cannot pay and consequently, child labour becomes the only way out of their predicament. It is not known if inadequate information and lack of access to health care are the only reasons why family planning is almost zero among the Untouchables.

But the Untouchables also face other more serious problems. They still suffer frequent violence engineered by their ‘superiors’ because, as the upper-castes say, although they do not really believe in killings, they are sometimes compelled to kill for fear that the Untouchables may consider them weak if they do not. So sensitive is this situation that India’s prolific film-makers have sensibly (?) steered clear of the subject in their movies, preferring to stick to themes of love and native heroism (apart from one very notable exception, mentioned below).

But today things have reached boiling point. On December 8, 1997, in the village of Laxmanpur Bath in the north Indian State of Bihar, more than 200 armed upper-caste men reportedly raided several mud huts of the Untouchables in a planned vendetta over a piece of disputed land the Untouchables allegedly tried to harvest a day earlier. In two and a half hours, they created an obscene spectacle, slaughtering at least 61 people, most of them women and children.

In the face of such loss and glaring humiliation, the survivors of that massacre have vowed to fight back, if nothing else, to topple the 2,500-year-old Hindu Caste System that treats them like the scum of the earth. They have also decided to stop using the name Untouchables, preferring to call themselves ‘Dalits’, meaning ‘the oppressed’ in Hindi. But, in anticipation of this revolt, the upper-caste landowners in Bihar have raised a private army of more that 1,000 men.


The Bandit Queen

The stage, it seems, is being set for catastrophe. Already, in some Indian states – notably Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – the unrest has begun. Not only are the Dalits refusing to carry out their menial tasks, they have also torched some upper-caste homes. According to Time, even the most nonsensical incident can trigger a bloody outburst. In Bihar’s Belaur village, an argument between Untouchables and upper-caste Bhumihars over a pack of cigarettes led to a mini-war that left 16 people dead and dozens wounded. And in Tamil Nadu State, a game of tag between upper-caste and Untouchable schoolboys led to the beheading of an Untouchable and a revenge killing of 13 people on both sides of the caste divide.

Perhaps this appalling scenario has its precedent in what happened some years back when an Untouchable lady named Phoolan Devi was systematically raped by upper-caste men of her village. She became something of a phenomenon when she organised an all-female gang that unleashed terror on her erstwhile tormentors; she was accused of murdering at least 22 of her presumed upper-caste rapists. She later surrendered herself and was jailed for nearly a decade. It was indeed her story that inspired the movie Bandit Queen (a joint India-UK production).

Today, Phoolan Devi is widely seen as the national symbol of the fight against social injustice. But beyond her, things are beginning to happen. Though the wind of change may be slow in coming, many see it as inevitable. With many Dalits acquiring education and venturing into politics, it has been said that their greatest weapon would be knowledge, administrative positions and the power of the vote. Today, more and more illiterate Untouchables are finding some means of providing education for their children. And with this new reality comes greater awareness among them of the works of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who died in 1956. An impoverished Untouchable, Ambedkar managed to secure a scholarship that enabled him to study abroad. He later became a lawyer and politician and, wait for it, the author of the Indian constitution.

He advocated the abolition of the odious Hindu caste system and secured guarantees for the advancement of outcasts though this was, for decades, blocked by upper-caste bureaucrats. But things may yet change, as is evident in Uttar Pradesh state, where the Untouchables hold 150 positions in the élite 540-member Indian Administrative Service. Further, this oppressed class of Indians is becoming a major factor in elections.


A political force

In the past, the Untouchables had to support their upper-caste landlord’s candidates for public office or be beaten away from polling booths. Not anymore. All national parties are now said to be wooing these Dalits as their voting power continues to be a force to reckon with in Indian politics.

Significantly, one hitherto unheard-of Untouchable from the state of Kerala, Kocheril Raman Narayaran, recently rose from poverty and obscurity to become India’s president, a largely ceremonial position except in times of political crisis. And political crisis is what India has had in abundance in recent times. In late November 1997, after only seven months in power, the coalition government of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral came tumbling down, leaving the president with the prerogative of determining the nature of India’s fourth government in less than two years.

In times like this, President Narayaran, once a deprived Untouchable, automatically becomes the most powerful man in the country, making it relevant to ask: Has the stone the builders rejected become the head of the corner? Perhaps not yet. Not yet because the Untouchables themselves are not united. Among them, caste rivalries reign supreme. Amazingly, some 900 Untouchable ‘sub-castes’ have been identified in the country, and between them, conflicts flare up regularly.

And as benefits from their struggle for emancipation begin to accrue, it is feared that the conflicts between the sub-castes will become more pronounced. Still, many observers believe that, notwithstanding this oddity, the Untouchables’ peculiar suffering and anguish which, like a virus in the blood, roils every one of them, would prevent them from giving up the struggle. The war, they say, is not over yet.

All the same, the obvious cannot be overlooked. Sub-castes within the ranks of Untouchables – who are not even on the last rung of the ladder in the Hindu Caste system’s hierarchy - spell, without doubt, double discrimination. It is a sad commentary on human nature. And so, for many observers of the caste war and the plight of the untouchables - the Dalits - this indeed seems like a case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. 

Updated on October 06 2016