New Internationalist

Caste – India’s curse

22.10.15-Dalit-children-590x393.jpg [Related Image]
Dalit children. Thessaly La Force under a Creative Commons Licence

Another day, another Dalit death. We must hang our heads in shame, writes Mari Marcel Thekaekara.

It’s been a nasty, brutish week. On the heels of 2 little girls being raped, India awoke to another horror story: just outside Delhi, 2 Dalit children, aged 9 months and 2.5 years, were cold-bloodedly burnt to death in a ghastly tale of revenge and caste hatred.

To settle scores from an older feud, some men from a dominant caste crept up to the house of a sleeping Dalit family and poured petrol from an open window onto their bed. They set it alight and bolted the family in from outside. The children died before they arrived at a Delhi hospital. Their mother, Rekha, suffered serious burns and is battling for her life. Their father, Jitender, also received burn injuries while trying to save his family.

Yet their deaths have not stopped traffic in Delhi, nor seriously hit Indian TV channels. These are routine deaths. Dalit deaths. Expendable people. Caste tension is the reason attributed to their murders. Flip the page. It’s not really newsworthy. Just some dead Dalits. Been going on for thousands of years. No-one is shocked. No-one gives it a second thought.

When will Dalit deaths cease to be ignored in our country? How can we even pretend to aspire to a global ranking in the ‘developed’ world when we allow our most vulnerable people to be raped, tortured, beaten and murdered every single day, with total impunity? We continue to be a wretched, shameful country, even though we prattle on about our great and glorious heritage.

Unless casteism is eliminated from our villages, we will always remain a backward, primitive, despicable society. We rape Dalit women to teach their menfolk a lesson and keep them in their place. We kill Dalit men because they are getting too big for their boots. We prevent Dalits from studying or following their aspirations because they must stay in our villages to work, exploited and underpaid so we can prosper.

I have visited Dalit villages in every corner of my country. I have witnessed their pain at close quarters. I’ve heard Dalits scream, ‘Enough. When will it end?’

We have to acknowledge the evil in our past and atone for it. We cannot provide justice to the billions who died aeons ago, but we have to punish the guilty today. The rapists and murderers of Dalit women, men and children have been given impunity for centuries. They deem it their birthright.

Our Constitution, brilliantly framed by a Dalit, is moving in its rhetoric and passion about justice for all. Yet caste is the antithesis of all democratic values and belief, by its very nature. It proclaims that some people are born to be slaves to others. For millennia, dominant castes considered it their prerogative to persecute and enslave those decreed their inferiors. An enormous percentage of our population still believes this is their birthright. And they will kill to enforce these beliefs to show their power over what they believe are ‘lesser’ humans.

Although we have powerful laws to enforce justice for the vulnerable, they are rarely used. Unless this changes, our society will continue to remain feudal, nasty and brutish. We can preen ourselves on the wonders of ancient India. But any thinking Indian knows that, in reality, with things the way are at present we can only hang our heads in shame.

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  1. #1 David Cohen 23 Oct 15

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's powerfully blog brings tears to my eyes
    and brings back powerful memories of the steady violence against
    African-Americans in my own country until 40 years ago.

    We are from perfect still. The police violence in Ferguson, Missouri
    and the wanton killing in Charleston, South Carolina tells more than
    enough. Sadly the story continues.

    I think it is perfectly appropriate to raise these issues about violence
    in the US in international fora. I say that even though I think important
    efforts have been made to address these issues-- important, but not
    perfect-- by the Obama Administration.

    What we are witnessing in India, the rapes and burnings, the steady
    violence requires pressuring India, from within India, and outside of
    it to have its failure to address the violence issues in India come in
    front of international fora at the UN and elsewhere.

    India, cannot do what authoritarian governments have done, and say
    matters are domestic and violate sovereignty if they are discussed in
    international arenas. Those days must end.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    October 23, 2015

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow

  2. #2 priya thomas 23 Oct 15

    You are right mari-for mainstream India the dalits don't figure-this was the first time in fact I realised this-this horrendous incident did not have the tv hosts screaming hoarse the day it occurred-it seems as though the nation didn't want to know-it was only considered worthy of primetime tv 24 hours later-two Dalit babies burnt was not as newsworthy as why were children being used as a part of protests in Punjab or cancellation of some kabaddi tournament -guess you are correct-for mainstream India the Dalit's life seems to be expendable -shameful that we don't realise that all humans are equal in the sight of God irrespective of caste or creed or colour

  3. #3 Laura Tomlin 24 Oct 15

    So sorry to hear the awful news Mari.I remember hearing Winston (an activist who was born into the dalit caste), speak about the plight of his family in the 2005's Development From The Inside course, Mysore, India. It shocked me to the core. I remember crying a lot and thinking how could this still be happening in the 21st century.  I admire you so much for giving your life to the cause. I can imagine how draining it can be at times. I am so grateful there are people in this world like you.  The tide is changing slowly, hang on in there.Much love and peace. Laura xxx

  4. #4 Communal 24 Oct 15

    We petitioned President Obama to NOT endorse India's UNSC bid till Modi regime gives GUNS to India's Untouchable/Dalit for their self-defense/resist oppression;

  5. #5 Betty 25 Oct 15

    I can't blame the caste system for this heinous crime.

    Paedophiles do not represent Catholicism, ISIS doesn't exemplify Islam nor does gratuitious killing based on casteism typify Hinduism.

    The deed was done in ignorance and hate. But, in Hinduism,one reaps what what sows, so the perpretators will get their just desserts in their next life.

    The silence of the Press is unforgiveable.

  6. #6 Debjani 26 Oct 15

    I think that Hinduism needs an internal reformation to tackle the inherent injustices in its caste system, and in particular, the plight of the Dalits with their seemingly unalterable social identity and status even when they attain educational and economical mobility.

    But, it’s pie in the sky, why will the so-called upper castes voluntarily give up their hereditary perks.

  7. #7 Srikanth C 26 Oct 15

    Nine years since the Khairlanji massacre, Dalit deaths continue to remain of little value to the consumers of mainstream news media. A wretched, shameful country we are indeed.

  8. #8 ludwig pesch 28 Oct 15

    Debjani's comment, namely that ’Hinduism needs an internal reformation to tackle the inherent injustices in its caste system’, made me look into earlier attempts to achieve just that: in particular, the lifetime task Rabindranath Tagore set for himself. Mari's post, a timely reminder that atrocities go on a century later, makes the following passage all the more poignant; so I have typed it over to share with her and fellow NewInt-readers:
    “Whenever I realise the hypnotic hold which this gigantic system of cold-blooded repression has taken on the minds of our people whose social body it has so completely entwined in its endless coils that the free expression of manhood even under the direst necessity has become almost an impossibility, the only remedy that suggests itself to me and which even at the risk of uttering a truism I cannot but repeat, is – to educate them out of their trance.” – Quoted in Uma Das Gupta. Rabindranath Tagore: An Illustrated Life. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013 (p. 61, written 1911 in response to a letter by Myron Phelbs, an advocate for Indian freedom, seeking his support)
    So let's not get stuck in the past - Tagore cared for ’world citizens’ looking forward while attending to any task at hand (as did his friend Gandhi, though informed by more traditional values than Rabindranath).
    Can anything be done to change the lives of millions if even great leaders and social reformers like Gandhi or Tagore couldn't succeed? Giants who not just risked but willingly offered their very lives? (Tagore got close to being assassinated - by a Hindu-fundamentalist during a US-visit!)

    Every small step matters and true to Tagore's vision, education must start at the grass root level - wherever people's minds would otherwise get indoctrinated; and time and again, victimise their fellow human beings; rather propagating the worship of an iconic farm animal than kindness to those exposed to endless suffering for no fault of theirs.

  9. #9 Krishna Bahadur Thapa 09 Dec 15

    I am interested to get a copy of this publication Caste-India's curse. Where from I can get a copy of it. Thank you.

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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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