By maggie canty-shafer
November 15, 2011
When one first looks at Kamlesh, it’s hard to tell she is a woman. For some, it’s hard to tell she’s even human. To many in her country, she isn’t considered either.
When Kamlesh was 6 years old, her family lived in a rural Indian village where they worked lowly jobs and survived, by most standards, on very little. But it had always been like that. Kamlesh didn’t know any different.
Early one morning, on her way to the field her people used as a toilet (the town was largely without running water) Kamlesh took a shortcut in front of a neighbor’s house.
Before she made it through the yard, several men seized her, bound her and threw her into a bonfire—punishment for trespassing. As she screamed in agony, her mother was held in front of the fire, forced to watch Kamlesh’s tiny body be consumed in flame. By the time the villagers allowed her mother to retrieve her, the child was burned beyond recognition and on the brink of death.
The scars that now cover Kamlesh may disguise her identity to some, but to her, they serve as a constant reminder. She is a Dalit. An untouchable. Trash.
The violence Kamlesh suffered is the result of a social hierarchy known in India as the caste system. Designed to separate groups of people by their worth and purpose, the caste system drastically stratifies the nation, and has been used as a tool to systematically oppress lower castes for more than 3,000 years.
As a member of the Dalits—the lowest caste—Kamlesh is seen as less than human, unclean and only fit for society’s dirtiest jobs. The Dalits make up the gravediggers, the street sweepers, the toilet cleaners—the jobs beneath the rest of society. They are the least recorded, the least counted, the least defended and therefore the most vulnerable to trafficking and violence.
To her assailants, Kamlesh’s very presence near their home was offensive and deserving of punishment. An example had to be made of her.
The belief in the caste system is one so deeply entrenched in Indian society that efforts to reverse its effects have been largely ineffective. It is a system that is both familiar and comfortable to those who benefit from it—those who have been given wealth and power not based on merit but caste. Sociologists cite the system as the largest obstacle to social mobility and India’s advancement as a nation—an ancient weight tied to the feet of a progressing people.
The creation of caste
Several theories of the caste system’s origination exist, but most at least partially attribute it to the ancient law of Manu—a tenet of the Hindu Scriptures. According to the law, the God Brahma created man from the different parts of his body, intending each part for a different purpose. Those created from Brahma’s head were to be the priests, called Brahmins. Those from his shoulders were the Kshatriyas, made especially to rule and fight. His trunk and thighs created the businessmen and traders, called Vaishyas, and those from his feet, he deemed the Sudras for serving.
These castes—also called Varnas—were then divided into several sub-castes, based upon various regions and labor needs.
The lowest castes—including the Dalit—were formed outside the body of the god, marking them as impure and unfit to be integrated into the rest of society. Their filth was seen as a contagion, and extreme measures were taken to isolate them. Dalits—also called untouchables—were kept out of schools, politics and temples, and banned from participation in Hindu social life.
“The India I live in is a country built on inequalities,” says Dr. Beryl D’Souza, the founder and director of an anti-human trafficking initiative based in Hyderabad. “This has made the common man hopeless and yet adjusted to his situation. It is very difficult for a man to strive for more when he is living in desperate poverty and need.”
However cruel, the caste system was not without purpose. In India’s early stages, dividing society into the various necessary labors ensured their completion and allowed for greater specialization. It also kept the peace. Within one’s caste there was little hierarchy—among your own, you were an equal.
But the social divisions also produced a deeply rooted discrimination and hatred for lower castes, leaving India behind countries advancing toward equality and revealing the brokenness of a system built on birthright.
“ this is a very blatant exploitation of human rights going on here.”
—Dr. Beryl D’Souza
The caste system has been challenged numerous times in the last thousand years, perhaps most famously by Gandhi. The practice of untouchability was outlawed by the constitution in 1950, but many Indians, especially those living in rural areas like Kamlesh, have yet to feel the effects of reform.
Modern India, ancient hate
Today, a visitor to Delhi, Mumbai or any other progressive Indian city may believe the apartheid-like system abolished. Few outward signs of the social hierarchy are visible to the unassuming eye. This newfound subtlety is what some believe has made the caste system even more dangerous.
“The caste system’s effectivity and intensity have hardly mellowed down,” says Dr. Udit Raj, the National President of the Justice Party and Dalit activist. “The so-called upper castes are not tired of boasting that the system is a phenomenon of the past, but the essence of the caste is more or less the same.”
Newspaper personals and job offers request same-caste applicants. The professional and political arenas are dominated by upper castes, and many lower castes have little or no access to education, keeping them cemented in the lowest income bracket. Worse than the social discrimination is the violence.
In her career as a medical professional, D’Souza has cared for thousands of lower caste members suffering from afflictions brought on by their status. Rape, murder, beatings, hunger and environment-related disease are all too familiar to the young doctor.
“Atrocities against Dalits and caste-based violence is a part of everyday life,” D’Souza says. “They’re struggling to even receive the most basic preventative health care. This is a very blatant exploitation of human rights going on here.”
Thus far, government action has been inadequate. Through a system called “reservation,” which is closely related to Western affirmative action, the government requires a percentage of representation from Dalits and other repressed castes in parliament, educational institutions and other “nation-building activities.”
Wary upper caste members see the introduction of lower castes into these arenas as a challenge to their natural born status. Changing the system without changing the heart of the people has led to another set of tragedies.
Most recently, the rise of suicide among Dalit students in higher education facilities has come to light. Many blame harassment and rejection from upper-caste students and professors for their isolation and hopelessness.
Earlier this year, Anoop Kumar, a Dalit advocate based in New Delhi, released a list of suicides documented since 2007 among Dalit students in India. The record included 18 names from many of India’s top institutions, and has continued to grow since its release.
These names serve as testament to the corruption and ineptitude of the reservation system. Many have realized laying sole responsibility on the government to topple this ancient social hierarchy is ineffective. If true lasting change is going to be made, it must come from somewhere much deeper.
yet there is hope
Raj, a former practitioner of Hinduism, believes the religion is largely to blame for impeding real change. Because Hinduism has theoretically and institutionally justified the stratification of society, its followers—80 percent of India—have no real impetus or moral obligation to reform.
“It will take a generation of courageous, self-aware individuals to bring about change,” D’Souza says. “Change will not happen on its own. It has to be ushered in.”
Under the caste system, D’Souza, a child of mixed caste parentage, is considered an outcast, below even a Dalit. Raised in a Christian home, she attributes her own self-worth and belief in human equality to her faith in the God of the Bible. The same God she believes will one day restore India.
“Faith is primary to my strength and my belief society will change,” she says. “Faith is beyond what is obvious and seen. God is a God of justice, and He hears the cry of His people.”
Dalits make up about 16 percent of the population in India, but it's estimated they only control 5 percent of the country's resources. According to a 2007 study by human rights watch, 64 percent of villages forbid Dalits from entering temples, 70 percent of villages do not allow Dalits to eat with Non-Dalits and 37 percent of schools force Dalit children to sit separately from Non-Dalit children.