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Caste complicates progress for India's Dalits

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Dalit Family'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 an animal. He and his father had been invited to an upper-caste wedding. Moses was performing well at school and expected to be treated well. He was in for a rude shock. 'When the time for the feast came they asked us to sit on the mud where the cattle and cycles travel.' Not wanting to upset the people who had invited them, they stayed. 'There were people walking that way and I remember the sand and dirt was coming into our food. It was such a humiliation.'

As his education began to empower him, Moses sensed the contradiction between his knowledge base and the respect afforded to him in the village. He argued with an upper-caste colleague in senior high school: 'I shouted at him, and he went and complained to his parents. His parents came and shouted at my parents and my parents shouted at me. Ultimately, I had to realise what is my place.'

Freedom, to some extent, came when he moved to the city, where his caste identity wasn't so obvious from his family name. Further emancipation came from his study of the Bible; he took solace in the Christian perspective that, contrary to his upbringing, everyone is born equal.

Two years travelling on the Christian ship MV Doulos, where he was one of a multicultural crew, exposed him to a different world, where he could be judged more by his ideas and behaviour than his birth. 'I had a difficult re-entry, because your friendships, your way of socialising, was totally different on the ship to back home.'

The most insidious characteristic of the caste system is the deliberate attempt to brand each human with a designation that determines their dignity and life expectations. 'It's always in the back of my head that I'm a Dalit and I'm not a first class citizen,' says Moses. The system he describes as 'evil' continues to haunt him and all Dalits. 'We can run away from it but we can not get rid of it.'

Moses married and has a young daughter. With his colleagues at the All India Christian Council and Operation Mercy Charitable Company, he is working to educate Dalit children and help Dalit families develop economically, so that his daughter may grow up in a different India.

There is a positive correlation between abuses of Dalits and regions where there have been improvements in the living conditions of Dalits. With extremist Hindu groups like Rastriya Swam Sevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad unlikely to back down, further empowerment will come at a cost.

Still, Moses is committed. 'I want to work with my people, help them, encourage them.' For Moses, there is no next life. He decided long ago to make the most of this one.

Peter Hodge (no picture)Peter Hodge works as a teacher and freelance journalist. He is the author of Volunteer Work Overseas for Australians and New Zealanders.




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Existing comments

Dear Peter, it's really a very good article on Dalits. I come from Dalit background from north India. The situation is very worse. Thanks

Sunil Gautam | 23 May 2008