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Freedom's just another word

Velmurugan and Ramesh are good friends. Yet, Ramesh can never visit his classmate?s home because Velmurugan lives in the Dalit colony, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2006 05:12 IST

Velmurugan and Ramesh, who study in high school in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore district, are good friends. Yet, Ramesh can never visit his classmate’s home because Velmurugan lives in the Dalit colony. Velmurugan’s hut has no electricity, so he often goes to his upper-caste friend’s home to study. He is the brighter student, and helps Ramesh in his school work. But he is never permitted to proceed beyond the verandah, and is rarely offered food. The few days that he does eat in his friend’s home, it is on a separate plate earmarked for the Dalit house servant.

Children in rural India learn early the rules of caste, even as their country races into the 21st century. A survey of practices of untouchability in 565 villages in 11 states reveals that in as many as 38 per cent government schools, Dalit children are made to sit separately while eating. In 20 per cent schools, Dalit children are not permitted to drink water from the same source.

The recently released report of perhaps the first nationwide survey of the continued prevalence of untouchability, jointly authored by Ghanshyam Shah, Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande, Amita Baviskar and myself, finds such untouchability in all local state institutions. A shocking 27.6 per cent Dalits are prevented from entering police stations and 25.7 from ration shops. Thirty-three per cent public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes and 23.5 per cent Dalits still do not get letters delivered to their homes. Segregated seating for Dalits was found in 30.8 self-help groups and cooperatives, and 29.6 per cent panchayat offices. In 14.4 per cent villages, Dalits weren’t permitted to enter the panchayat building. They were denied access to polling booths, or forced to form separate lines in 12 per cent of the villages surveyed. Despite being charged with a constitutional mandate to promote social justice, various local institutions of the Indian-State clearly tolerate and even facilitate the practice of untouchability.

Dalit settlements are most often segregated from the main village. Such traditions are reproduced by government, when building Indira Awaas housing colonies for Dalits, or by NGOs such as in the post-2001 earthquake reconstruction programmes in Gujarat. In nearly half the surveyed villages (48.4 per cent), Dalits were denied access to water sources. In over a third Dalits were denied entry into village shops. They had to wait some distance from the shop, the shopkeepers kept the goods they bought on the ground and accepted their money similarly without direct contact. In teashops, Dalits were denied seating and had to use separate cups.

There was found to be great, and at times violent, intolerance of displays of well-being, or public celebrations by Dalits. In many villages, bans operated on wedding processions on public (arrogated as upper-caste) roads. In 10 to 20 per cent villages, Dalits weren’t allowed even to wear fashionable clothes or sunglasses. They could not ride their bicycles, unfurl their umbrellas, wear chappals on public roads, smoke or stand without head bowed. Restrictions on their entry into Hindu temples averaged 64 per cent in 11 states, ranging from 47 per cent in UP to 94 per cent in Karnataka.

The research established that such restrictions endured even after conversion of Dalits to egalitarian faiths. In punjab, 41 of the 51 villages surveyed reported separate gurdwaras for Dalit Sikhs. Dalits who worshipped in gurdwaras frequented by upper-caste Jats were served in separate lines at the langar and were not permitted to prepare or serve the sacred food. In Maharashtra, despite mass conversions of the Mahars to Buddhism, Dalits were denied temple entry in 51 per cent villages. In Kerala and Andhra, there are  divisions in the church between Dalit converts and others, and discrimination even against ordained Dalit priests.

Untouchability persists even into death. In nearly half the villages, Dalits were debarred from access to cremation grounds. In Maharashtra, Dalits have their own cremation grounds but these are permitted only on the eastern side of the village, so that the upper-castes aren’t polluted by the winds that pass from west to east.

The study reports discrimination against Dalits in the labour market. Although normally Dalits are coerced into agricultural labour in unfavourable conditions, sometimes even of bondage, they are excluded in the lean agricultural season, when work is scarce for all, and therefore upper-caste workers are preferred. In 25 per cent of the villages, Dalits were paid lower wages than other workers. They were also subjected to much longer working hours, delayed wages, verbal and physical abuse, not just in ‘feudal’ states like Bihar but also notably in Punjab. In 37 per cent of the villages, Dalit workers were paid wages from a distance, to avoid physical contact. The study also found evidence of discrimination between non-Dalit and Dalit workers, evidence of caste surmounting proletarian solidarity.

The large majority of Dalits is landless. In the few cases where they were landowners, they were denied access to water for irrigation in more than one-third of the villages.  In 21 per cent villages, they were denied access to grazing lands and fishing ponds, and violent upper-caste opposition was reported when Dalits encroached onto or were allotted government lands for cultivation or housing.

Untouchability was found to extend to consumer markets. Dalit producers in 35 per cent villages were barred from selling their produce in local markets. Instead, they were forced to sell in the anonymity of distant urban markets where caste identities blur. This imposes additional burdens of cost and time and reduces their competitiveness. Caste taboos apply particularly to products like milk — in as many as 47 per cent of the villages with cooperatives, Dalits were not allowed to sell milk to the cooperatives or private buyers. In a quarter of the villages, they were prevented from buying milk from cooperatives.

Dalits are therefore not only disproportionately burdened with poverty to start with; caste discrimination in labour and consumer markets condemns them to lower wages with harder work in uncertain employment and restrictions on their access to natural resources as well as the markets for their products.

Even more than in secular and religious public spaces, the practice of untouchability endures most in upper-caste rural homes, in what people regard to be their private sphere. Our survey confirmed that in as many as 73 per cent of the villages, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit homes, and 70 per cent would not eat together. Even Dalit researchers in this study were denied entry into upper-caste homes.

With untouchability thus persisting unashamedly in state institutions like schools and police stations, in public spaces like temples and shops, in farms and markets, and in homes and hearts, the Dalit still lives in India waiting hopelessly, and sometimes in anger, for the long-betrayed dawn of equality.

The writer is the convenor of Aman Biradari, a people’s campaign for secularism, peace and justice.