We’re a country of opinions. What movie should be played in the theatres; what a woman should wear when she steps out the door; who should marry whom; what laws should be made; and what a child can be when he’s born.
Contrary to what we may like to believe, the caste system is not a thing of the past. The 21st century India is still struggling to accept the fact that class determines the life of a child. From the veiled question, “What’s your surname?” to the sentiment of “You don’t belong here,” the country depends on the caste to figure out how a person should be treated and what he or she is entitled to.
But do you know what’s worse than being a Dalit in this country? Being a Dalit woman who can be exploited, assaulted and punished for committing two sins at once: Being born a woman and being born in a lower caste family.
The dilution of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act has started a wildfire in the country, with Dalit organisations and government parties protesting to safeguard the law that was meant to protect the marginalised section of the society: the lower castes. If the ruling is withheld, the most likely scenario is that women, as a consequence, will be pushed further down in the vacuum, with no light in sight.
On average, a Dalit woman dies 14.6 years younger than a woman from the upper castes, according to the UN’s Turning promises into action: gender equality in the 2030 Agenda report. They lack basics of amenities such as clean water and sanitation; they are denied access to healthcare services; and they are more vulnerable to physical and sexual assault both in the society and at the workplace.
The rapes of Dalit women have doubled in the last decade. So, if we start the #MeToo movement for Dalit women, countless hands will be raised in the air. Raised, but probably not seen.
Sexual assault is not reduced to a number for the lower classes; it’s an everyday reality. Most crimes against Dalits involve violation of women, the data published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) from 2016 revealed. Most perpetrators are upper caste men and Uttar Pradesh tops the charts when it comes to atrocities against Dalits. But what’s really worse is that most cases are not filed because of intimidation and threats, and the accused are often acquitted.
Bhanwari Devi, a woman who wanted to stop a child marriage in her village, was sexually assaulted, but the rape charge was dismissed because “upper caste men won’t touch a Dalit woman.” Two years ago, a Dalit woman was gangraped a second time by the same perpetrators as a punishment and it made international news. In another incident, a Dalit woman was paraded naked in her village in Maharashtra by a mob of upper class men.
Lower class women are pushed against the wall, their voices muffled and their protests unnoticed. These women don’t always make the news. These girls don’t get candle marches. These incidents rarely shake up the system. Why? Because no one can see them. The “Untouchables” are also invisible. Hence, 90% of crimes against Dalits were still awaiting trial in 2016.
The outlawed Devadasi pratha is the practice of marrying off a young girl to a temple or a deity and turning her out of her home before she reaches puberty. Girls of lower classes suffer this fate, while the upper class men participate in their exploitation. These Devadasis are forced into prostitution at a young age and their daughters are pushed onto the same path.
The practice has been outlawed all across India since 1988, but the enforcement of the law is lackadaisical. There were 46,660 Devadasis in Karnataka in 2007, according to data provided by the Department of Women and Child Development. Combined, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have 80,000 Devadasi women, another report revealed a few years ago.
Did you know that there are men and women who clean dry toilets—human excreta—with bare hands? Across the country, they handle human waste without any gear or protection, which often leads to death by toxic gases. And 90% of these manual scavengers are women!
These women can’t find other jobs, if that’s what you’re thinking, because upper classes won’t let them enter their houses, let alone hire them as cleaners or cooks. Again, manual scavenging is illegal in India. However, the prohibited practice is still rampant in the country, with Uttar Pradesh taking the lead.
You’ll be surprised to know that lower class students in schools and colleges are discriminated against and it’s hard to find people from SC/ST in corporate leadership positions.
In an episode of Satyamev Jayate, when Aamir Khan was championing the cause, Dr Kaushal Panwar said, “I went to JNU for my doctorate and my roommate was a Brahmin. She did everything she could to make me leave the university. In the end, she told me, ‘Ek bhangi ke saath rehne se achcha hai main hi room khali kar dun’.” It didn’t stop there—the humiliation followed her to the classroom and then the home where her mother was asked to clean the house by the landlady.
Rohith Vemula, more recently, ignited another debate when he committed suicide. His last note read, “My birth is my fatal accident.” This was all the reality check that we needed that casteism isn’t an embarrassment of the past—it’s a shame of our present.
There’s more: 94% top jobs in private companies went to Brahmins and Baniyas, a study by JNU professor Surinder Singh Jodhka showed. In private companies, the representation of lower classes is negligible. Dalits are marginalised, whether we talk about rural India or urban. Fundamentally, we all have the right to equality. Grassroot reality is that we don’t.
Personally, I have heard accounts from a friend in Bengaluru who has dealt with it first-hand, from someone refusing to come to her house because of her caste, to asking her caste in school to determine whether they can be friends. Aghast, I had tried to reason that I wasn’t a part of it, but it didn’t change the truth: she, and countless others, face it on a daily basis and the worst part is that we don’t even realise its complete infestation in our society.
Recently on POPxo, users voted that if they could change one thing, they would change the caste system in the country. As a country, we need to follow the lead of these women and rejig our list of priorities. Instead of being outraged at a movie or conviction of a criminal, it’s time that the country opined that caste doesn’t matter, the person does.
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