New Internationalist

Making caste a thing of the past

Untouchability is something you can’t really understand unless you live it. For most of us, it’s just a word. For members of the dalit community who experience it everyday of their lives, it’s a traumatic, never-ending, recurring nightmare that sometimes kills them.

On April 14, a unique anti-untouchability project was launched by Video Volunteers. The brainchild of Jessica Mayberry and Stalin K., Video Volunteers trains young people from excluded communities to use video for change. And they are reaching young Indians through their innovative use of media.

Across India in 24 states, Video Volunteers has 65 people recording the lives of the dalit communities they live with. What makes it unique is that this is not just another outside film maker. This project has people from within the community recording their own lives.

For a while now, this team has worked on dowry demands, corruption, forcible eviction, and other ongoing issues. Right now the spotlight is on untouchability.

When I interviewed him, Stalin explained: ‘Untouchability in India, is pushed under the carpet, treated as tradition. We should focus on these issues at a national level. Media interest emerges when someone's hands are chopped off, women are stripped and\or raped, or when people are murdered. But when dalits are forced to remove their shoes in the presence of dominant castes, not allowed into tea shops, not served in cafes and roadside eateries, given separate 'ram patra' glasses, it’s not news, it’s just tradition and they have to live with it.’

He went on: ‘Someone has to be answerable. I would like to see a situation where the district collector [the senior civil servant in a district] is held accountable, He or she is, after all, the custodian of the constitution. Our idea is to try and disconnect the everyday untouchability practices from their anthropological and sociological moorings and try to see them for what they are – an offence.’

Young India has begun to respond. On the very first day the untouchability videos were uploaded on the website, 500 mostly young people responded saying 'we are with you, we support you, we want to be part of this campaign.’ The team was delighted.

Video Volunteers has an ambitious target. They plan to take these videos to police stations and courts as evidence and to begin the prosecution of perpetrators of untouchability-related offences of all forms. Every single day, dalits in India are raped, murdered and attacked. This is not an exaggeration. Every day, every single Indian newspaper reports these facts in little insignificant news items. They are so commonplace they do not make headlines anywhere. The campaign also plans to prosecute people who advertise for brides and grooms on the basis of caste in newspapers and marriage portals.

Non-dalits are the group being targeted for the first time and rightly so. We, the rest of the country, are the ones who should hang our heads in shame. The dominant castes and classes are the group that must atone for the exploitation, humiliation and degradation heaped on our own people for centuries now.

We should take the initiative to fight untouchability. The IT world, all those people who use Facebook and Twitter, must join together to ensure criminals are outed. Last Saturday’s newspaper had a tiny news item describing a 14-year-old dalit boy doused with alcohol and set alight by drunken men because he did not bring them four glasses for their alcohol. It can be as trivial as that.

He is in hospital with 40 per cent burns, fighting for his life. Yet most such perpetrators get away scot-free. We need educated young people to raise a stink and ensure the prosecution of the criminals. Only then, will there be rule of law in India. We have the world's best laws. But no implementation.

I salute the Video Volunteers group and wish them luck. And I urge young India to join this campaign. Only then will the day dawn when we can be truly proud of this country of ours.

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