Indian Untouchables Are Not A Thing Of The Past
by K Stalin - courtesy Huffington Post
Ten years ago this month I started on a journey to document practices of untouchability across several states and religions of India. Four years later I put together a documentary called India UNTOUCHED.
The primary reason for making this film was to challenge the belief of most Indians that Untouchability is a thing of the past.
Little Has Changed in 10 years
In the years since the making of that film, little has changed. We still receive reports of barber shops refusing to shave Dalits. Children segregated and discriminated in schools, women not allowed to draw water from wells, families pushed out of temples. Segregated mosques, churches even crematoriums. Pervasive violence aimed at those who challenge caste discrimination. Social and economic boycotts for those who dare to transgress caste boundaries. Rapes. Acid attacks. The list goes on shamelessly.
What is more shameful still is that, these practices are manifestations of a belief that views certain castes as nothing but an impure sect, which should remain servile and accepting of its lesser status.
Our failure is to see this belief as endorsing of and perpetuating criminal behavior.
Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that: "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law." However, society continues to look on Untouchability as a social given, grounded in 'tradition.'
Instead, we should see such practices for what they are: criminal acts. Such a luxury is not afforded, however, to Dalits facing discrimination and persecution.
The laws in place to address the scourge of caste-based discrimination may be progressive, but the mechanisms that exist to enforce legislation are quite simply regressive.
Problem With Law Enforcement Agencies
A large part of the problem is that law enforcement agencies operate in a reactive rather than proactive manner.
Despite the prevalence of caste-based behavior leading to Untouchability (criminal offenses) these agencies wait for an aggrieved party to file a complaint -- and report violation of Article 17 -- rather than do their job in enforcing the law!
How else does one explain the fact that police stations and courts have not taken any suo moto cognition of these everyday events? How else can we understand that there are no public or government campaigns to remind citizens that Untouchability has been abolished, and that those practicing it will be treated as criminals?
In order to fall in line with the shifted morality and ethics of our time, we need there to be a strong and proactive law enforcement mechanism. We do not have this in India.
On April 14, 2012, we launched a campaign at Video Volunteers to draw attention to the issue of Untouchability. To date, we've collated 30 videos that document breaches of Article 17.
Together with the videos, we collected 2,800 signatures that were sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes with an appeal that the videos be taken as evidences of offenses, and that those involved be prosecuted. Despite submitting the petition and video evidence twice over, we've not received any sort of acknowledgement -- let alone action -- from the NCSC.
We have now sought answers with an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act! It's a sign of the times when one needs to file an RTI with the institution responsible for protecting the rights of Scheduled Castes, just to find out what is going on.
No wonder we have these problems in 2013!
As a society, when we hear about Untouchability practices we should feel outraged, as we would with other criminal acts like murder and rape. It's time we accepted that the practice of Untouchability is not the vestigial remains of some backward, social phenomenon or tradition: it's a criminal offense.
Let's start calling it what it is!
”The primary threat to democracy in Europe is not ‘Islamo-fascism’—that clunking, thuggish phrase that keeps lashing out in the hope that it will one day strike a meaning—but plain old fascism. The kind whereby mostly White Europeans take to the streets to terrorise minorities in the name of racial, cultural or religious superiority,” Prof Dilip Simeon wrote to me in a message on my Facebook profile. This was after I wrote that zealots and terrorists of all sorts live in a zone where it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Dilip is a younger contemporary from our days at St Stephen’s College. He faced a murderous assault in Ramjas College, Delhi, where he taught, and emerged as a major human rights voice after the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi in 1984.
The Norway massacre of July 2011 is indeed Fascism with thick overlays of Racism and Xenophobia.
Islamophobia was common on the World Wide Web. So was Islamic intolerance of Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist and Sikh minorities in West and South Asia.
Islamic terror is well documented, more so since the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York and the rise of the Al-Qaeda. Despite Osama bin Laden’s assassination, it remains under the hawks-eye of the US and West Europe intelligence, who share their information on a real-time basis. It is also well documented in India where not only government agencies but also the common people—driven by the ceaseless propaganda of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, lapped up eagerly by our Hindi and English language TV channels—keep track of all things “suspicious” in their neighbourhood.
Analysis of majority terrorism have, for now, overwhelmed www portals in the wake of the Norway bombing-and-massacre by the Christian gunman and bomber, Anders Behring Breivik, who singlehandedly killed 76 youth in his twin acts of violence. There is some emerging evidence that the killer, a drug user, may have himself largely used the Internet to keep abreast of, if not actually in personal touch with, political allies as far away as in the United Kingdom. He was also in touch with the webpages, if not some webmasters, of the Sangh Parivar in India. In another chilling parallel, he too used large quantities of phosphorous and nitrogenous fertilisers in his car bomb, the same ingredients used by the perpetrators on the recent serial bombings in Mumbai, and in earlier bombings traced both to Islamic and Sangh groups.
This correspondent has some experience of xenophobia, both at the academic level and at personal level when he was living abroad as a journalist in the late 1980s, and saw Britani’s skinheads wreck havoc on lonely passers-by on the underground railways late at night both in London and in Germany, or desecrate Jewish graveyards. Recent visits show that neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism remains an issue in West Europe. Even in Poland, a devout Catholic country, the authorities are looking deeply at signs of emerging anti-Semitism and fascist youth groups who in a unified Europe can travel across borders with ease. The fact that Poland is where the Nazi Germans set up the notorious mass murder camps of Auschwitz makes the task of containing these groups so much more urgent. Poland, the current President of the European Union, is, however, taking transparent measures to check this political trend.
However, some other countries have appa-rently started going the xenophobic way in the wake of the economic meltdown, particularly in Germany, Ireland, even Greece, Spain and Portugal. At a recent international seminar in Holland, this correspondent came face to face with how governments can take wrong decisions when pressured by populist moves from the Opposition or ruling political groups and their cohorts in the masses. Holland itself has not a very clean image on racial issues despite the large number of descendants of migrants from former African and Indonesian Dutch colonies. But it is now monitoring, in a scientific way, hate speeches and hate documents. The law-makers are also waking up to face Right-wing politicians who work on the people’s insecurities, economic or personal. Demanding cultural assimilation, specially from Muslim migrants, but also, for instance, from Sikhs, is the tip of the iceberg. Majoritarian xenophobia is dangerous, and Europe has long been Islamophobic, one can go all the way back to the first Crusades to wrest the Christian Holy Lands from Muslim control.
The examples that were cited from Ireland, however, took the xenophobic cake. Ireland—south or Republic of Ireland—has had good relations with India for more than a century, sharing an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist history opposing British domination. Ireland also has a wonderful history of trade unions. Former Indian President V.V. Giri was a respected trade unionist in Ireland before he came back to Indian politics. Irish freedom fighters borrowed the weapon of peaceful hunger strike from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and many Irish youth died in jail while on fasts-unto-death. Irish men and women themselves suffered anti-Celtic racism when they came down to England looking for work.
And yet, Ireland is now in the midst of installing a system to stop “birthing tourism”. Ireland has a policy, like some other countries, which grant automatic citizenship to a child born in the land. Apparently, leveraging this law, many pregnant women from poorer countries would take a flight to Ireland in the last month of their pregnancy, deliver a child in Ireland, and then stay back as a family of the newborn “citizen of Ireland”. Efforts are now on to plug this “loophole”. Birth Tourism will be soon a memory. For Indian Catholics, it may be salutary to remember that Ireland has hit out sharply at the Vatican, attacking the Pope on issues of protecting children from sexual violence.]
WHAT should ring alarm bells in New Delhi, indeed in the whole of India, is the real or make-believe environment in which the Norwegian young man of the unpronounceable name reached his delusional but fatal conclusions. His personal manifesto hails Hindutva, noting that the goals of the Sanatana Dharma nationalists were identical to Justiciar Knights, a future group, and therefore it could be a key ally in a global struggle to bring down democratic regimes across the world. That future campaign would wage a campaign that will graduate from acts of terrorism to a global war involving weapons of mass destruction—aimed at bringing down the “cultural Marxist” order. Breivik acquired some 8000 e-mail addresses of “cultural conservatives” not just across Europe but North America, Australia, South Africa, Armenia, Israel, and India—ensuring scrutiny of anti-Muslim groups far beyond Europe.
Western media noted that India figured in a “remarkable” 102 pages of the 1518-page manifesto. “Hindu nationalists are suffering from the same persecution by the Indian cultural Marxists as their European cousins,” he noted, condemning the Manmohan Singh Government for “appeasing Muslims and, very sadly, proselytising Christian missionaries who illegally convert low-caste Hindus with lies and fear, alongside Communists who want total destruction of the Hindu faith and culture”.
An interesting sweep, as he goes on to applaud groups who “do not tolerate the current injustice and often riot and attack Muslims when things get out of control”. His advice is that the Indian groups “instead of attacking the Muslims, should target the category A and B traitors in India and consolidate military cells and actively seek the overthrow of the cultural Marxist government. It is essential that the European and Indian resistance movements learn from each other and cooperate as much as possible. Our goals are more or less identical.” Organisations figuring in that deadly manifesto include the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. They will have some explaining to do as the manifesto pledges military support “to the nationalists in the Indian civil war and in the deportation of all Muslims from India”.
American newspaper Christian Science Monitor’s Delhi based columnist Anders Behring notes that in the case of India, “there is significant overlap between Breivik’s rhetoric and strains of Hindu nationalism—or Hindutva—on the question of coexistence with Muslims”. Behring records that human rights activists have long decried such rhetoric in India for creating a milieu for communal violence and for anti dalit violence, “and the Norway incidents are prompting calls here to confront the issue”.
The Hindu’s correspondent Praveen Swami, derided often for his apparent toeing of the line of the Indian Intelligence Bureau in his reportage, strikes a similar note saying: “Like Europe’s mainstream Right-wing parties, the BJP has condemned the terrorism of the Right—but not the thought system which drives it. Its refusal to engage in serious introspection, or even to unequivocally condemn Hindutva violence, has been nothing short of disgraceful.” “Liberal parties, including the Congress, have been equally evasive in their critique of both Hindutva and Islamist terrorism,” he adds.
Human rights activists second the view that there are important lessons for India in the murderous violence in Norway: lessons it can ignore only at risk to its own survival.
It was left not to an Indian newspaper but to the Christian Science Monitor to recall that East Delhi‘s former BJP Member of Parliament, Baikunth Lal Sharma ‘Prem’, held a secret meeting with key members of a terrorist group responsible for a nationwide bombing campaign targeting Muslims. He has been quoted as saying: “It has been a year since I sent some three lakh letters, distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat but these Brahmins and Banias have not done anything and neither will they do anything. It is not that physical power is the only way to make a difference, but to awaken people mentally, I believe that you have to set fire to society.”
In recent weeks, we have seen a sharp rhetoric coming from the BJP opposing the draft Communal and Targeted Violence Prevention Bill written by the civil society members of the National Advisory Council of the Government of India. The BJP rhetoric seeks to rouse the common Hindu population by falsely trying to create fear among them from religious minorities. The BJP and RSS leadership, which targets individual activists as much as the NAC as a body, says the Bill criminalises the Hindu community while empowering the Muslims and Christians. This is a blatant lie. The draft Bill—which has not yet been presented to the Union Cabinet and is still far away from the final shape that will be visible when it comes up before the Rajya Sabha—merely ensures that a government response is triggered at the first indication of communal violence, and that the authorities are held responsible because it is their lethargy and complicity that has aggravated riots in the past.
Not surprisingly, mainstream political parties, among them the Congress, the Marxists and the socialist or Dravidian parties, have so far not challenged the BJP rhetoric. No senior leader has come before the media to denounce this blatant effort to whip up passions.
IT has been left to the two persons outside the official power structure—Mani Shankar Aiyar and former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh—to come down to brass tacks and identify the Sangh Parivar for threatening Indian secularism and unity, and for itself being a purveyor of terror, including terror bombings.
Digvijay Singh is on record for saying repeatedly that bombings take place when the BJP is “politically cornered over something or the other. The timing of the bomb blasts is quite uncanny. Why does it always happen when the BJP is in trouble? That needs investigation.”
Digvijay, an archetypal politician, speaks of the coincidences. “When the tehelka issue was to be discussed in Parliament, the House was adjourned for three days. Then when the expose was to be discussed, the Parliament attack took place. When the Godhra incident took place, the Congress was doing exceedingly well in the local body elections and Narendra Modi had won by only 6000 votes as a Chief Minister and that too with great difficulty. During the recent Karnataka elections, there was a bomb blast in Hubli on the very first day of polling. Similarly, two days before the polling in the second phase in the Karnataka elections, there was a bomb blast in Jaipur. It really needs an investigation.”
Whatever investigations have taken place have unearthed a pretty large and well-oiled ring whose nodes and modules involve Army officers, sadhus and sadhvis and men at the top of the RSS, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and other groups. The national intelligence agency’s charge-sheets in court make for chilling reading.
Digvijay Singh adds to the charge-sheets by way of background: ”In 1992 there was a bomb blast in the VHP office in Madhya Pradesh, where one VHP member died and two were injured while making bombs. Then in 2002, there was a bomb blast in a temple in Mhow. When the police arrested the VHP activists after investigation, they confessed that they were even given training to manufacture bombs. I have a videocassette of that confession. Again, in 2006, in Nanded, there was a bomb blast in the house of a RSS activist where two RSS activists died. After that in March 2008, there were bomb blasts at two places in Tamil Nadu. Then too VHP activists were arrested by the Tamil Nadu police who confessed that they were involved. And how did the Gujarat Police suddenly find eighteen bombs planted on trees in Surat? RSS, VHP activists have been caught making bombs, material for preparing bombs have been found at their office and there are three-four clear cases where they have been arrested and a case has been registered. Why is not anyone looking into this?”
It remains a moot question why there has not been a real investigation into the Right-wing majority extremism in India. Intelligence agencies are looking to the political leadership to show some willpower in decision-making. The Central Government is so beset with its own problems of shrugging off charges of corruption against half the Union Cabinet—a crisis that also afflicts the BJP in Karnataka and other States—it has little energy and less time to devote to deeper threats to the Indian Union.
As far as the Church is concerned, it may support media-driven anti-corruption campaigns, but is far too timid to either research or speak about issues as grave as racism, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism and majority communalism.