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Caste complicates progress for India's Dalits

  • 01 February 2008
'I am zero when it comes to caste,' says Moses Vattipalli. 'I was told again and again that I was not fit, I was a Dalit, untouchable, low-caste man, and leatherwork, that is my caste-work.'

A rare case among Dalits to have escaped the same work as his father, 30-year-old Moses is Assistant to the National Administrator of the All India Christian Council. One of his tasks is to record abuses against Dalits on the organisation's website. 'Every day I have things to report,' he says. 'Every day killing, every day a Dalit was raped, humiliated, beaten up.'

This picture of caste-based oppression is at odds with common perceptions of modern India as an economic tiger and IT superpower. Few Dalits have reaped the benefits of the recent boom, due to lack of education and ongoing discrimination that mocks the outlawing of 'untouchability' in the Indian Constitution.

Like most Dalit children, Moses' education about caste status began early. In his own village, he knew not to take water from the well the upper-caste people used. But when visiting another village he unwittingly drew from the wrong well. 'Those people scolded me because I went there while they were drawing water. I came home crying.'

The Dalits in Moses' village are isolated on the eastern side. 'When the wind blows, the wind of the Dalits should not touch the upper-caste people,' explains Moses. Visiting the village shop, he had to stand at a distance so the shopkeeper would not be contaminated. 'When I asked for something from the shop they used to pack it and throw it. If I catch it, I catch it, otherwise things would fall on the ground and we have to collect them from the mud.' Similarly, payment would be thrown to the shopkeeper and the change tossed back.

The general rule in Indian culture that respect should flow to elders is skewed by caste. It was painful for Moses to see his father treated with disrespect by upper-caste children. 'I used to feel so embarrassed. My father might have had a problem, but he didn't do anything because Dalits think it's their fate.'

Children growing up under such conditions develop a sense of inferiority. That is precisely the intention. 'There were many times, I was told I am a Dalit and equal to any other animal,' says Moses.

On one occasion Moses was treated worse than