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A 'Broken People' in Booming India
Low-Caste Dalits Still Face Prejudice, Grinding Poverty

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 21, 2007

DALLIPUR, India -- The hip young Indians working inside this country's multinational call centers have one thing in common: Almost all hail from India's upper and middle castes, elites in this highly stratified society.

India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society here. The Dalits, once known as untouchables, continue to live in grinding poverty and suffer discrimination in education, jobs and health care. For them, status and often occupation are still predetermined in the womb.

While some Indians had been hopeful that urbanization and growth would crumble ideas about caste, observers say tradition and prejudice have ultimately prevailed.

"There's talk of a modern India. But the truth is India can't truly move ahead with caste in place," said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit writer and expert on India's caste system. "In all ways, it's worse than the Jim Crow laws were in the American South because it's completely sanctioned by religion. Despite so many reforms, the idea of untouchability is still very much a part of Indian life."

As India's economy surges, one of the country's most serious and stubborn challenges is how to combat entrenched caste prejudice. Dalits, along with other "backward" castes, make up the majority of India's 1.1 billion people, and social scientists here worry that these groups are being left behind.

The contrast between the gleaming call centers of rising India and the abject poverty that is the reality for many Dalits is all too obvious here in Dallipur, an impoverished village on the outskirts of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh state.

Without electricity, paved roads or running water, the hamlet is home to landless Mushars, the lowest social stratum of Dalits, who work as shoeshiners, trash pickers, toilet cleaners and street sweepers. Those occupations are still regarded in much of India as "polluted" and not deserving of respect.

Here amid the straw and mud villages, two children died of starvation last year -- not for lack of food in the area, but as a result of prejudice.

Chandrika, a 24-year-old Dalit mother, recalled carrying her crying 2-year-old son and her weak 20-month-old daughter to a nearby health center. There, she pleaded for a card that would entitle her malnourished children to free milk.

But before the nurses could examine her children, she was mocked and shooed away by doctors, who told the young mother to go beg in the market.

"They said again and again, 'We don't want to see you Dalits here bothering us,' " said Chandrika, a thin, dark-skinned woman who wept as she recounted how her children died. "My milk had dried up from stress. There was no work for me. There was no one to hear my plight."

Local government leaders who came to investigate her children's deaths insisted that the shy mother and her fellow villagers build a raised concrete stage -- Dalits could be addressed by upper castes only from a higher platform, Chandrika and other villagers were told. The three-foot-tall dais remains here in Dallipur today, the only outcome of the investigation.

An Inherited Burden

By virtue of birth, some castes inherit wealth; the Dalits inherit debt.

Caste often determines Indians' spouses, friends, residence and, most important, occupation -- part of a Hindu belief that people inherit their stations in life based on the sins and good deeds of past lives.

Some Indians believe that the spread of capitalism in urban areas has in some ways dissolved caste by creating new occupations and eliminating obsolete ones. For instance, with the growing use of flush toilets in Indian cities, the disposal of human waste, once a job for Dalits, is now done with a simple pull of a lever.

In booming evening bazaars in Mumbai and New Delhi, lower castes sell cellphones, leather tennis shoes and grooming kits from small shops and curbside pushcarts alongside higher castes, with everyone "in a capitalist rush to make money," said Prasad, the writer. "A lower-caste businessman may even enjoy an evening cigarette with a higher caste, completely taboo even 50 years ago."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently compared India's caste system to apartheid in South Africa, calling it not just prejudice but "a blot on humanity."

Critics say that such statements are simply meant to garner votes from lower castes and that any gains made by Dalits have been marginal.

"India is not a true democracy," said Anup Srivastava, a researcher with the People's Vigilance Commission on Human Rights in Varanasi who is investigating complaints filed by Dalits about discrimination among neighbors, in schools, at hospitals and at work. "The country is independent. But the people aren't. How can there be a democracy when there are still people known as untouchables who face daily discrimination?"

Experts say more and more Hindus are rejecting their religion because it sanctions caste. Last month in Mumbai, thousands of Dalits converted to Buddhism, which in posters and newspaper ads describes itself as a "caste-free faith."

Meanwhile, the Dalits have made political gains. Last month, a Dalit woman, Mayawati Kumari, was elected to the top post in Uttar Pradesh in a landslide victory in which she was able to garner support across castes, including from high-caste Brahmins. Her election was as significant to the Dalits as John F. Kennedy's presidency was to America's Irish Catholics, many caste experts here say.

The resistance to dissolving caste comes from a deep-rooted fear among the elite that economic power will be taken from them and given to the poor. To the extent that caste creates informal labor unions, the rejection of caste would effectively destroy those unions in a country where people far outnumber jobs.

For nearly 60 years, affirmative action programs have offered limited help to Dalits and other low castes. Those programs have long been highly controversial, and tainted by politics.

In what has been dubbed "the race to the bottom," a powerful group of shepherds in Rajasthan state demanded this month to be "socially downgraded" so they could be entitled to government and education programs. The shepherds, known as the Gujjars, blocked roads and train routes and burned down businesses. Indian army troops and police clashed with the Gujjars, leaving 23 people dead before the government promised to consider their demands.

The Gujjars, like the Dalits and other backward classes, were fighting for a stake in India's economic boom, some experts said.

Experts also say that American-style materialism and even the hiring practices of American and multinational companies are actually hardening class, color and caste distinctions.

"International corporations running call centers and IT operations in this country don't realize India's complex caste system is really a form of racism," said S. Anand, who runs the independent Navayana Publishing house, which focuses on books about caste. "How will the big global companies deal with caste with so many Dalits not even able to go to school?"

Young, higher-caste urban professionals, who have better access to good schools than their lower-caste compatriots, are being hired by the IT and call center operations, say Indian caste analysts.

"Multinationals are not here to push social reform," Anand said in his Delhi home, amid shelves stacked with books by B.R. Ambedkar, a Buddhist and India's icon of the anti-caste movement. "They're here to make money."

The other problem is that India's elite do not fight oppression or push for working-class egalitarian ideas.

"There's not even the pretension to fight caste. It's not trendy or a Bollywood star's cause celebre to say you care about the working-man untouchable," Anand said. "In fact, people are still willing to kill themselves to retain their supremacy. The society has been so structured for so long. It's seen as the ultimate threat of their livelihoods and Indian identity."

A Life's Work Lost

Everyday vocabulary reinforces caste. In casual conversations, Indians frequently dismiss certain professions as "backward," and people inquire about the professions of one another's fathers. Dalits themselves protested the use of the term "untouchable," preferring Dalit, which means "broken people."

In Dalit villages, many like Chandrika, the mother who lost her two children, say that they are provided little dignity and that they're persecuted daily by other low castes seen as being just above them.

Last month, Bechan, a thin Dalit with long, wavy hair and bloodshot eyes, went fishing in a village pond, only to return to find his home destroyed.

His two huts were burned to the ground, turning his wheat, vegetables and entire savings for his daughter's wedding into a pile of smoldering ash. The pond allegedly belonged to the Patel caste, and Bechan had trespassed.

"They told me I couldn't take any big fish out of the water," he said, his voice quavering and his eyes beginning to water. "They surrounded me from all sides and beat me. When I hobbled home, my life's work was on fire. Even my daughter's dowry was burnt."

Bechan, 45, is now living under a tree, with oily shirts stretched out over the branches to shade him from the 120-degree heat. He filed police reports. His daughter's wedding was called off.

Convening a group of Patel women to tell their side of the events, Hirvavatt Devi, 45, shook her head and said the Dalits "burned down their own huts to get money from the government. You see they're not smart people. To be very frank, they're very dirty."

Some here hope that Kumari, the Dalit leader elected chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, will take up their cause and hundreds like it. Meanwhile, tempers are rising as fast as the gray smoke that still fumes here.

"They abuse us as they always do," cried out Rajender, a 40-year-old Dalit trash collector, tossing up his hands. "We hear India is booming. But India is becoming powerful with our blood and our labor. And we still cannot fish here or touch this land or that. We still live half lives."

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