The dalits are India’s outcasts, condemned from birth by a rigid caste system. They live in constant fear of arson, beatings and worse inflicted on them by social superiors desperate to protect their caste privileges. These are the poorest of India’s poor. The untouchables. Pawns in a power struggle being waged in India’s Hindu heartland. Poverty stricken, powerless, and under attack from every quarter, many dalits are turning to Communist guerrillas for help. But the battles are only getting bloodier.
“The dalits are dirty and they are small. We pay them and then they can die”, states landlord, Jintander. He belongs to the warrior caste and is at the top of village hierarchy. He rarely talks to his dalit servants as they fulfil their traditional role in life, cleaning excrement from his courtyard floor. Dalit are not allowed to enter his house. In fact, Jintander values them below his buffalos.
In places like Jintander’s village, where dalits are in the extreme minority, enforcing this rigid hierarchy is easy. Any sign of dissent is immediately crushed. A common punishment is to poison the dalit well, forcing them to go without water. “They want us to drink filthy water, filled with shit. They want us to be slaves”, laments one dalit.
In other areas, discrimination goes far beyond water poisoning. Mohammed Sheikh was beaten so badly by his employer that he had to have his legs amputated, Tota Ram and four friends were murdered by Hindu extremists after being accused of skinning a sacred cow. “Their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken”. In another case, a dalit boy and a high caste girl who had married ‘against tradition,’ were murdered by village elders. Now their murderers claim the couple were struck down with heart attacks by God.
Faced with constant discrimination, the dalits are starting to fight back. When Mr. Babulhal was fined for swimming in a high caste bathing area, he refused to pay. Thousands of other dalits rushed to support him, triggering a caste war which involved 20,000 people. In response, panicking Hindus set up Ranbir Sen, whose death squads are responsible for some of the bloodiest reprisals seen so far. Other dalits are turning to communist guerrillas, who have taken up their cause.
Many Hindus interpret the dalits’ calls for equality as an attack on their religion. As Priest Akkilesh explains; “The caste system is written by God. Who can erase it?” According to Hindu beliefs, a person’s caste is determined by their actions in a previous life. As Baba Sadha states; “dalits suffer because of their Karma, because of what they did in their previous life”.
But some dalits manage to escape their destiny and ascend Indian society. Most, like Mr Shahid, do this by changing their religion and embracing Islam. “There was no other way to get out of the untouchables’ community”. But his new Muslim neighbours have no idea about his dalit past. He lives in fear of them finding out. As his story shows, without any meaningful social reform, all dalits will continue to suffer.