One of the benefits of travel is learning the stories and the circumstances of people in other places. Today’s activities opened our eyes to horror stories in tragic circumstances.
In previous days we learned that the caste system, which has its origin in the Hindu religion, is active and strong in India. We learned that the lower caste people, long referred to as untouchable, choose to be called Dalit. It translates to ‘broken people’. We also learned that the reality of Dalit life often results in broken dreams and no hope for a better life.
Such broken dreams played out in national news on January 17, less than two weeks before our arrival. A PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after experiencing what he perceived as Dalit discrimination since the previous July. More sadly, his is not an isolated case. Among other effects, the caste system determines what kind of work one will do. In one real-life story, a woman was a sanitation worker. She died, and her son, who holds a master’s degree, was offered her job. He asked about a better job and was told that his caste dictated that he should do the same work as his late mother, regardless of his high education level. So what, you ask? Let’s dispense with the euphemism “sanitation worker” and the related term, “manual scavenging”. The work this man’s mother performed, and which he was expected to perform because of his caste, was to collect and dispose of human waste by hand from homes and city sewage systems!
To gain further insight into the caste system in India today, I urge you to take 11 minutes to watch a YouTube video, “I’m Dalit How Are You”. Click this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBxy1R0jitM or search for the title on YouTube.com.
The information we learned today came from our visit to the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI), where we met with Annie Namala, the Executive Director. We also met there with N. Paul Divakar, Chair of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum. Part of the work of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum is watchdog activity to see that funds budgeted to help the Dalit people are spent for the intended purposes.
The weekly news magazine India Today for February 16 included an article, “The Dalits: Still Untouchable”, that coincidentally reinforced the information and stories we learned at CSEI. Statistics include the following: every day, 2 Dalits are murdered, 3 Dalit women are raped, and 2 Dalit houses are destroyed. Dalits are denied entry to police stations in 28% of villages, and Dalit children are required to eat separately in 39% of government schools. They are denied access to water sources in 48% of Indian villages.
CSEI works for justice and equity for Dalits, Muslims, and tribal people, all of whom are discriminated against in Indian society. They also address patriarchy, which operates at all levels of society, and makes the situation of women even more difficult than described above. About 200 million people are affected by the caste system, out of a national population of 1.3 billion, or about 15% of the population.
One might point out that the India Constitution, adopted shortly after the nation’s 1947 independence from England, outlaws discrimination against untouchables. That’s true, but those provisions are not enforced. The effectiveness of those laws might be compared to the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws in U.S. communities in the 50’s and 60’s where the law enforcement officials were active members of the local Ku Klux Klan. Government officials are usually higher caste people, and there are many reports of police taking part in the violence against Dalits listed in the news article. The human suffering is systemic – a deep, deep stain in the fabric of the culture.
In the afternoon we visited a local slum built on occupied government land. We met with children in a program that supplements their education and promotes their self-esteem and formation of dreams. Some high school students stopped by also. One of them had won a singing competition, and another was well along the way to becoming a teacher. Seeing the attitudes, behavior, and achievement of all the students – hopes and dreams revived – was a breath of fresh air, and a testament to the strength of human character in such surroundings. It is also a tribute to the leadership work being done by CSEI.
A puzzling reality of the slum is that the government doesn’t acknowledge the right of the people to live on the government land, and it provides no services for sanitation, public health or safety, or anything else. However, they send a tanker truck of potable water every several days. Outside the homes (hovels) in the community, 5-gallon jerry can style containers could be seen chained up, ready to take to the entry of the community when the next water truck arrives.
The best summary of a Christian’s perspective on the sobering information we learned today came from Rev. Deenabandhu Manchala, our Global Ministries Executive for South Asia, who said, “Caste and Christ cannot go together.”
The agencies we visited today are related in part to the Church of North India. Your individual donations to Global Ministries, and your congregation’s gifts to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) in the UCC, and to Disciples Mission Fund in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), help support the fight against the injustices of the caste system in India.