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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  1. #1 nirupama 22 May 12

    caste was basically introduced for division of work. However, over a period of time the intellectuals became brahmins and the workers became shudras and those who fight became Kshatriyas. One of the main reason for people coverting to other religions is also caste based. This is changing a lot with inter case marriages or inter country marriages but there is little one can do until the vote bank is not caste based.

  2. #2 Cavery 22 May 12

    I think we need a legal cell like the NAACP working specifically on caste crimes. Is there one already? I would like to know.

  3. #3 Gerard Oonk 22 May 12

    Untouchability is an enormous human rights issue in India and elsewhere, but it often seems that people look away from it because it is so 'uncomfortable' and painful.
    Though the Indian government tries to block any discussion on the issue at international level e.g. in the UN Human Rights Council, as world citizens we should make clear that untouchability and caste-based discrimination is absolutely unacceptable. One thing you can do is to sign the petion of Video Volunteers here:

  4. #4 Ludwig Pesch 22 May 12

    The Video Volunteers are the most amazing initiative I have come across in a long time - thanks for pointing it out to us! Something I'll gladly spread among all interested in India as it shows that there are people with courage and talent to take up pressing issues such as caste.
    My closest friend in Chennai for over 3 decades is an ’untouchable’. He lost his brother-in-law due to an unnecessarily dangerous sewage cleaning job when young. Yet his family has endured in the face of all the invisible obstacles. No outsider can imagine such conditions, living in a slum amidst ’gated communities’; with and little hope, if any for ever getting a better living environment, like countless others in the same city!
    I am just reading Jawaharlal Nehru's ’Discovery of India’ (first published in 1946) where he tries to make sense of his home country and the way customs and superstitions affect its population. And this after the proverbial ’5000 years of civilization which seems to have gained currency from this very book onwards ...) Anyway, it's touching to read his account. Surely for him, as India's first Prime Minister and a strong believer in human progress and justice, the present state of social relations in India would be as shocking as to all of us! 5000 years should be enough time to overcome caste if not hunger.
    I imagine Nehru would have supported constructive interventions as the ones as the Video Volunteers and other brave volunteers. We need them - not only in India!

  5. #5 Aloke Surin 24 May 12

    Video Volunteers should be encouraged and their work publicized through word of mouth and any and every social media platform. It is heartening to know that their footage got a great response from the best wishes for their work.

  6. #6 DavidCohen 24 May 12

    Video Volunteers Group represents an ongoing and powerful lesson in
    organizing and advancing human rights. People stepping up and taking
    responsibility for public and collective actions It moves us away from
    isolation and victimhood. It is an essential part of advancing, realizing
    and protecting human rights.

    David Cohen,
    Washington, DC

  7. #7 Stephen de Silva 26 May 12

    Intercaste marraiges should be encouraged, and education should redouble its efforts on the issue. Do not give up! Hats off to the Video Volunteers! Well done

  8. #8 Peter Berger 29 May 12

    Your focus on the hard to talk about topics is excellent. This is what is needed and it is only the younger generation who can make a change for the better. Keep it up Mari, more power to your pen and The Imternationalist for publishing articles like yours.

  9. #9 TT 31 May 12

    Thanks for this great article. I will sign the petition immediately. Thanks for highlighting and creating awareness about issues like this in your blog. Keep up the good work.

  10. #10 Susanna 31 May 12

    This sounds like a really good initiative. However, it is probably worth considering to what extent we can impose our Western cultural views of morality and human rights on this society. I'm not saying I think this appalling treatment of the Dalits is acceptable - just possibly we should be more cautious about criticising another culture's practices when we live in an unethical consumerist society ourselves!

  11. #11 mari 01 Jun 12

    Susanna, I think some things can be universally condemned. Sure every country has its problems, racism, bigotry etc. But in this day and age the brutality towards another group of people,dalits, merely because they are born into a different community, is unacceptable, to me.

  12. #12 TimothyP 11 Jun 12

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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