News at Tipitaka Network
An unwanted destiny: Dalits in India
By Piya Kochhar, RNW, Friday, October 31, 2008
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The caste system in India is about 3000 years old. I always thought it was a relic of this country's past until I spoke with those at the lowest end of the caste spectrum, the Dalits.
For them, despite a rapidly modernizing country, caste is still very present...sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. They say that their caste is their destiny... which works great when you're at the top of the hierarchy, such as a Brahmin, but when you're at the lowest end of the caste spectrum, each day is a fight for dignity and equality.
That's what I learned when I spoke with a spirited young lady named Smita Patil, pictured right, who shared some of her experiences of being Dalit with me. She told me that Dalits have been called the "untouchables"; they're the laborers, the garbage pickers, the people on the margins of this culture...their caste and class puts them at the bottom of this society.
Smita has broken away from her past in a sense. She and her family converted to Buddhism (a common practice amongst those in the "lower" castes) and she has just completed her PhD on Dalit women's rights from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. But Smita says that this still doesn't change the way people treat her.
"India claims to be modern but the mindest is not very modern. Your religion doesn't matter but your caste is very important. Because whatever you are in your original; your past will always haunt you in the present."
Smita told me stories of Brahmin classmates of hers not taking a glass of water touched by her because they didn't want to get "polluted", or of friends not inviting her to dinner because their parents wouldn't be ok with their children associating with Dalits.
This is in a modern India; in the villages, Dalits often face graver injustices... and Smita says that many of their stories are never heard.
Extraordinary love story
I also spoke with a couple who are taking a very personal stand against this type of injustice. Rakesh Singh and Chanda Nigam, pictured right, have created an NGO called Safar to advocate for minority rights.
Rakesh is from the upper-caste and Chanda is a Dalit, so theirs is an intercaste marriage, considered a taboo in this society. They invited me over to their house for dinner, and even though in many ways they're an ordinary Indian couple, there is something extraordinary about their love story and the happy space they've created for themselves and their family.
"It is chance that we became husband and wife. But the aim behind this meeting was work, social work. I mean there should be no discrimination in this society on the basis of anything. But today we have discrimination... Gender based discrimination, religion based discrimination, caste based discrimination... you name it, we have it. So we think if we can contribute even a little bit ...even an inch... we will have done something."
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