Friday, March 7, 2008

Outcaste is a public wall-journal that was started and is run by the Dalit Studies class under the MA English program. It functions under the guidance of Professor. K. Satyanarayana. As stated in the first issue, we would like to represent Dalit issues and debates in contemporary India. In this, the second issue, we are looking at the issue of caste in wide range contexts- from the international- the caste-race debate surrounding the United Nations conference against Racism, to the national – the Bant Singh case and to local, concerning the death of a Dalit student at Hyderabad Central University. The Journal also includes a historical piece regarding the development of the Dalit movement in India, a review of K Stalin’s documentary India Untouched that attempts to dispel myths about the disappearance of caste and untouchability in Modern India

We would like to thank Dr. Satyanarayana, the administration for their continued support of our efforts, and Mr. Dhanaraj for his time.

Editorial Board

Sukanya Basu Ray Chaudhuri
Sudhams Cherukupalli
Gaurav Rajkhowa
Aarthi Sridhar
Priya Chandran

Death of a Dalit student in HCU

The bad name that Hyderabad Central University has acquired due to the continuous atrocities related to caste discrimination inside the campus is carried on by another incident that took place recently. A Dalit research scholar of the University was found dead inside his hostel room on 25th February 2008. The victim, Mr. Senthil Kumar, was a PhD scholar in Physics. The death of the student is suspicious due to a variety of reasons, all pointing to his identity as a Dalit. As the investigation is carried out, different Dalit students’ organizations like Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) and Dalit Students Union (DSU) staged protests in the university campus. What follows is the excerpts of an interview with the President of the ASA, Mr. Dhanaraj.

Q 1. How long have you been associated with the functions of ASA in the university?

I have been associated with the functions of ASA for eight years.

Q 2. Could you briefly tell us about the problems that Dalit students in the university face?

Dalit students in Hyderabad Central University are subjected to discrimination by the university authorities and teachers. Many incidents have been reported where the students are treated badly due to their Dalit background. Harassment by faculty members in the form of grading less for work and research papers of students has always been a serious issue among the Dalit students, which is not yet solved. Another problem is the one regarding the merit-based scholarships the MA and research students get and might lose, if they fail in any of the qualifying examinations. The scholarships are to be provided based on humanitarian concerns but when they turn out to be something that is directly linked with the performance they do not satisfy the requirement of ‘means of subsistence’. There have been reports of humiliation by the dominant caste students done through name-calling and hate campaigns. There has been an even more serious incident where a Dalit woman student of the university hanged herself after she was misused and abandoned by a Reddy guy. Though such atrocities are brought to light by the Dalit associations, no initiative was taken up by the University against them. In another incident that happened in the year 2002, ten Dalit students were rusticated without even conducting an enquiry.

Q 3. Let me come back to the most recent issue in this succession of events of humiliation, the death of Senthil Kumar. Did you know him personally? What do you think must be the reason for his death?

Senthil Kumar was a research scholar in HCU. I knew him personally. He had been a victim of the same humiliation and discrimination that is imposed on the other Dalit students in the campus. He was not allotted a guide even after two years of his PhD programme. Moreover he had a backlog to clear before his viva. When he approached the faculty in this regard, the response he got from them was disappointing. Mr. Senthil’s scholarship was withdrawn due to his failure in presenting the required performance level in some subjects. Ultimately he had to end his life.

Q 4. So do you believe that Senthil has committed suicide?

Yes, given the difficult situations he underwent, it is hard to imagine that he would have died a normal death. Not only that, the primary investigation report by the police also suspected the possibility of death due to poison. Though the newspaper reports were ambiguous initially, they themselves rectified the mistakes later. Some newspapers had said there were no bruises on the victim’s body and later they corrected the error.

Q5. What do the University authorities say about this?

The University refuses to admit any allegation of discrimination on the basis of caste. The authorities are trying to manipulate the postmortem report so that they can make it appear as a normal death. The university says the death might be due to cerebral hemorrhage or cardiac attack and is trying to wash its hands of the problem.

Q6. What measures have been taken by Ambedkar Students’ Association in this regard?

We have staged a dharna in front of the Vice-Chancellor’s office. We put forward three demands. i) An amount of rupees 10 lakhs should be given to the victim’s family. ii) The fellowships provided to the students are to be seen on humanitarian grounds and hence should be delinked with performance. iii) A letter has been given to the administration demanding judicial enquiry.

By Priya Chandran

Letter to the Vice Chancellor University of Hyderabad


University Of Hyderabad

P.O University of Hyderabad Campus, Gachibowli, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. Pin- 500 046,Ph: 040- 2313 5501



The Vice Chancellor

University of Hyderabad

Sub: Death of Dalit Research Scholar, Mr Senthil, under mysterious circumstances

Ref: No: UH/REG/Stud.Services/07/08 Dated 01/01/08


The Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Teachers forum expresses its deep shock at the tragic demise of the PhD scholar, Mr Senthil. The Forum has taken strong note of the untoward event and in order to pre-empt such happening in the future, the Forum seeks to suggest the following:

  • to technically delink scholarship from performance and to provide a much broader philosophical premise for the grant of scholarship. Salaries and scholarships need not be considered as parallel to one another and scholarships to Dalit students need to be perceived as source of subsistence. The Forum assumes that the Government of India has a responsibility of providing subsistence to all its citizens and it credits the University of Hyderabad for translating this responsibility into action through implementing the scholarship scheme for all students on the campus. As you are aware, Mr Senthil’s scholarship was withdrawn due to his lack of adequate performance in some subjects and this seems to have caused him considerable anxiety. In some sense, withdrawing of subsistence due to non-performance is not morally tenable and therefore the Forum urges the University to revise this short-sighted policy of linking scholarship with performance. Though the latest guideline via letter No: UH/REG/Stud.Services/07/08 does not deny the university fellowship for PhD scholars on the basis of one’s course performance, this useful guideline was completely ignored in Senthil’s case and the Forum perceives this to be a grave omission
  • to make the procedures of allotting supervisors to doctoral candidates transparent in certain departments, so as to facilitate a much more open policy of the University towards various sections of society including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribe doctoral candidates. It is very unfortunate that even after two semesters into his PhD programme, Mr Senthil was not allotted a guide. On the other hand, the approach of open policy is already evident in some departments and schools of the University and needs to be emulated across other schools and departments
  • to expedite the inquiry in order to earn the trust and confidence of the Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe community at large which has been shattered by this tragic event. The University should come clean and it should not leave any stains behind this gruesome incident

Even as the Forum expresses its skepticism regarding certain aspects of the culture of University of Hyderabad, it has deep and abiding faith in its scholastic traditions and practices that it has evolved over the years.

We hope you receive these suggestions with equanimity and grace of a public functionary and do the needful.

Thanking You



P.Thirumal,Wilson Naik.B

Bant Singh’s Story

On the 5th of January, 2006, 40 year old Bant Singh, a resident of Jhabbar in the Mansa district of Southern Punjab was beaten with iron rods by a group of Jat youths, resulting in the amputation of both his arms and a leg. Doctors are still struggling to save his remaining leg. The attack was a result of his efforts to secure justice for his daughter which was seen as a Dalit assertion in an essentially upper caste dominated society.

In 2000, Bant Singh’s eldest daughter, Baljeet Kaur, then a minor studying in the ninth standard, was raped. Their family was pressured to accept cash to keep the incident quiet, and threatened with violent repercussions if they didn’t. The Village Panchayat told them not to go to the police – no one would marry Baljeet if the assault became public. They were offered 10 lakhs, gold ornaments and a scooter to make up for a brutal gang rape. Bant Singh, however, refused to stop short of anything but justice.

In 2002, District Court ruling sentenced Mandheer Singh, Tarsem and Gurmail Kaur to life imprisonment. This was the first time a Dalit had secured a conviction against a member of the upper caste.

Mandheer Singh filed an appeal in the Punjab and Haryana Court, whereupon Baljeet Kaur started being threatened with dire consequences if she did not retract her statements. She was sent to live in another village for two years for her protection, where her hosts too were offered money to make her drop her charges.

Bant Singh was assaulted on two occasions; both times the police in Joga released the accused on bail. On January 5th, 2006, he was attacked while returning home from the fields in the evening. While one Jat youth held a gun to prevent him from fleeing, six started mercilessly beating him with iron hand pump handles, sticks and axes. He was left bleeding in the field, until former Sarpanch, Beant Singh was informed that his man lay dying.

Bant Singh was rushed to Mansa Civil Hospital, but the doctor, Purushottam Goel refused to touch him without a Rs.1000 bribe. Singh lay in the hospital for thirty six hours and was finally bandaged on January 7th. On January 8th, the hospital authorities informed the family that they did not have adequate facilities to treat him, and he was shifted to PGI Hospital in Chandigarh. But by then, gangrene had already set in and Singh lost three of his limbs.

Significantly, the Jats of the village do not deny the assault took place, or that it was intended to silence Baljeet Kaur and serve as a warning to any other Dalit who dared assert himself/herself against the upper castes. Witnesses say they heard the Sarpanch ordering the men to break Singh’s arms and legs. It is believed that the attack was orchestrated by Sarpanch Jaswant Singh and former Sarpanch Niranjan Singh. Nothing has been done about these suspicions so far.

Of the seven convicted for the attack, two are the sons of Jaswant Singh, and two of Amreek Singh, a ration shop owner, who Bant Singh closed down on account of his hoarding goods. Amreek Singh is also a relative of Mandheer Singh who was sentenced in Baljeet Kaur’s rape. The police, however, maintain there is no connection whatsoever between the assault and the rape, that the two are separate incidents and the assault was the result of an unspecified “personal enmity”.

Dr. Pramod Kumar, Director of The Institute of Development and Communication says, “If the rapist is a Jat, it is not even considered a crime and the victim’s father is told to keep his daughter in check. But if a Dalit is accused of rape, they let the law take its course.”

Jeeta Kaur, the state organizer of CPI (ML) states,” after the attack, we contacted the media, but even local papers did not report the beating up of a Dalit. It was only when his limbs were amputated that journalists seemed to find the incident newsworthy.”

The number of cases reported under The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has increased over the years. From 4 rapes and 7 murders in 1992 out of 18 cases, the figures have gone up to 3 murders and 10 rapes out of 66 in 2000; and 13 rapes and 1 murder out of 94 in 2004. However there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that most crimes against members of the lower castes are not legally dealt with. Bant Singh’s wife, Harbans Singh, spoke of a minor beggar girl who had been raped at a gurudwara a month before her husband’s ordeal, which had gone unreported and ignored. Another minor was gang raped at Nayagaon, near Chandigarh. Her father, a police constable, too had faced threats from the upper caste rapists if he pursued the matter.

Bant Singh has now been heralded by the media as a symbol of Dalit defiance and refusal to relent in the face of oppression. His message of hope and his unbreakable spirit have found their way into a photo-essay by Raghu Rai, the images of which have been displayed here. Sanjay Kak’s documentary on him, titled “Bant Singh can Still Sing”, is available on the video bar.

By Sukanya Basu Ray Chaudhuri

Recast: rethinking issues of caste and race

In August 2000, the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolution 2000/4 on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent. This addressed the issue of caste, and aimed at reaffirming that discrimination based on work and descent was in violation of international human rights laws. In 2001, the addition of caste to the agenda of the United Nations World conference on Racism at Durban brought the discussion of caste and race to the forefront within the public domain. This was done by classifying caste as a system of social stratification based on descent and occupation and, as such, it would fall under the purview of Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), therefore allowing its issues to be treated on parity with those of racial discrimination.

The Government of India vehemently opposed its inclusion on the agenda of an inter-governmental conference as it felt that caste was an internal matter. Attorney General Soli Sorabjee, at a regional preparatory conference at Tehran, said that efforts to connect the issues of race and caste were ‘misconceived’. As caste discrimination was constitutionally recognized and prohibited and the governments at the centre and state have taken step towards its elimination issues of caste had no place at an inter-governmental forum.

Another opponent to the inclusion of caste was anthropologist Andre Beteille who put forth the argument that the idea of caste as race had origin in the pseudo-scientific discourse of late 19Th and early 20Th century Europe. The move to include caste discrimination under racial discrimination would, for Beteille be ‘flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture,… seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists’. As many critics rightly point out, while Beteille focuses on the survival and redefinition of his discipline, he seems to miss out on the larger picture of discrimination within society today. Another aspect he neglected to mention was that race, like caste, based on scientific research is no longer viewed as a biological or genetic fact. One valid issue he does raise is that in the pan- Indian context there exists no uniformity of race between all the Scheduled Caste taken together and all the Brahmins similarly grouped together. The Human Rights Watch, an organization working for the discussion of caste at the international level, recognizes this criticism; and while it admits to an outsider that there are no visual markers that separate the castes of India, it points out that as per the International Committee on Racial Discrimination, "the term `descent' contained in Art. 1 of ICERD has its own meaning and is not to be confused with race or ethnic or national origin.

On 7Th May 2001, a group of 40 academicians, jurists, and representatives of NGOs and Civil society organizations, mostly from Dalit communities, had a conference at Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, where they put forth the notion that `Caste is Race Plus' as it has been ‘inflicted by birth, sanctified by religion, glorified by tradition, Caste has had brutal repercussions for a fifth of India's population through the generations’. They argued that caste was race in the Indian context and the Indian government that had been at the forefront of the movement against apartheid in South Africa now chose to ignore the prevalence of apartheid within its own borders. In relation to the government of India’s rejection of caste as race, they argued that the Indian constitution recognized in many of its articles a parity between racial and caste discrimination.

The Human Right Watch sought to show that issues of caste were not only relevant in the India, but it was a widespread problem that warranted international attention. According to its report there existed caste discrimination against the Dalits of South Asia-including Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan-the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria's Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania. There existed similarities in the modes of discrimination practiced against these groups with relation with marriage, labor, access to education, access to land, debt bondage and slavery. With its association as a system based on descent and occupation, in order to stress the global dimensions of the issue, caste effectively gets de-linked with the practices of religion when it is defined as ‘a distinct form of racism affecting victims equally irrespective of religion’, which goes against the grain of the arguments of many Dalit intellectuals, most notably Ambedkar. Kancha Iliaih puts forth an interesting argument that proposes a greater international stake in the removal of caste discrimination as "[t]he colonial world benefited from the cheap labor of the adivasis, Dalits, and OBCs," "the capitalist west owes a moral responsibility to uplift [the lower castes] as much as the upper castes of India do".

Finally due to protests of the Indian government, caste was not to be included in the Durban declaration. One of the key elements of protest was that the representation of the Indian state as a racist regime is in complete opposition to its self-understanding and image. Therefore as the debate progresses, the issue of caste and race becomes less about a need to equate the two, but rather to show that while racial and caste discrimination may not be identical, they both require international attention so as to avoid being swept neatly under the rug of India’s new found global image as a country of progress.

By Aarthi Sridhar

The Dalit Movement: From where, where to

The Dalit movement is regarded by many scholars as the most influential social movement in Independent India. While in the wider sense of lower caste struggle against Brahminical hegemony, the ‘Dalit movement’ has coexisted with the idea of caste itself; the movement as we know it – as a front of organized political resistance against caste oppression in Hindu society – may be seen to have emerged only in the colonial times. The British colonization with its bourgeois liberal ethos coupled with the imperatives of their ruling strategy created space for the working up of subaltern identities, mainly in terms of caste and religion. The changes during colonial rule – institutional, social, economic and cultural – gave an added impetus to the aspirations of the lower castes and created the environment for the emergence of an opposition to Brahminical hegemony on the basis of strong modern values of liberty, equality and fraternity; while the strategic compulsions of the British allowed an opportunity for deft political maneuvering within electoral and representational quotas.

In the pre-Independence period, the anti-caste movement comprised strong non-Brahmin movements in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu as well as Dalit movements in Maharashtra, Punjab, western UP, Bengal, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, coastal Andhra and Hyderabad. Independent India saw two decades of silence through the Nehru era, before the issue of caste once again burst onto the national consciousness with the founding of the Dalit Panthers in 1972 and the emergence of the Dalits as a major electoral force through the 1980s and 90s.

The start of the Dalit movement can be placed around the 1920s with the emergence of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar, who was almost the sole national voice of the Dalits in the first 30 years of the movement, provided it with its ideological framework which demarcates the general rubric for Dalit resistance even today. Ambedkar’s resistance, in many ways, drew on the ideas of the 19th century Dalit reformer Jyotirao Phule and yet, in other was markedly different. Ambedkar, like Phule attacked Hindu society from a metaphysical perspective and shared his stand on the complete dismantling of an innately anti-democratic and anti-modern Hindu religion as the only way to do away with entrenched hierarchies of domination and subjugation. Both propagated an idea of an equalitarian society with decidedly modern ideals. Phule, influenced by the European ‘Aryan theory of race’ and the doctrines of the ‘Right of Man’ proposed that Dalits and the Shudras were the original inhabitants conquered by the invading Aryans. In this, violence and ideology were the driving forces of history. Phule propagated the replacement of Hinduism with a more universalistic, equalitarian and rationalistic religion which Phule called the ‘sarvajanik satya dharma’. Ambedkar, on the other hand, rejected the overbearing racial element in Phule, believing the caste system to have come into being through practices of excommunication long after the intermingling of Aryan and indigenous races. Ambedkar chose to look at the caste system as a construct of power relations, as more of a social phenomenon. Moreover, while Phule’s criticism is directed more at the oppressiveness of Hinduism and calls on a discourse of benevolence and compassion; Ambedkar’s focus is on the irrationality and superstition of the religion, and he felt comfortable only with an alternative like Buddhism - which had effectively rationalized God – that would allow him recourse to the call of ‘reason’.

The 1920s and 30s saw Ambedkar’s increasing radicalism, and it is in these years that a number of his most crucial ideas were put into practice, like the right of untouchables to pubic utilities with the Mahad satyagraha in 1927 and the entry of untouchables into temples in Nashik in 1930. Through the 30s, Ambedkar became an increasingly controversial character on the Indian political scene for his dogged insistence on holding to communitarian identities amidst a strengthening nationalist freedom movement built on modern, secular ideals. Ambedkar, like Phule, was willing to appreciate the positive aspects of British imperialism, in that they were harbingers of modernity in feudal India and had been instrumental in alleviating the conditions of the Dalits, in whatever small measure. While he declared categorically his opposition to any form of imperialist hegemony, his primary concerns lay with his own Mahar community’s plight, as was clear in his advocacy for reservations for Dalits in jobs and electorates in British India.

In 1936, Ambedkar founded the Independent Labour Party (India), which won 15 seats in the 1937 elections to the Central Legislative Assembly. The party, the movement’s first attempt at formal political organization stuck to Ambedkar’s Dalit agenda but also broadened the scope and support for the movement by taking up peasant and workers issues which ran closely with those of caste discrimination. As a result, in 1937 the party pushed for legislation on the abolishment of the oppressive khoti landlord system prevalent in many parts of the country at the time. As the agitation reached its climax in 1938, Ambedkar was able to conduct a successful one-day general strike of Bombay textile workers in support of the peasants. In 1938, Ambedkar’s ILP joined the one-day general strike against the Bombay Industrial Dispute Bill, with its Dalit cadres fully in support of the workers.

In his attempt to weld together the class and caste movements, it would seem that Ambedkar would have a natural affinity to the Marxist movement which was also gathering strength at the time. But this was not to be, for a number of reasons. The main disagreement between Ambedkar and the Marxists was on the centrality of the caste question. For the Marxists, with their mechanical understanding of class, caste was a comparatively irrelevant category as it was only an outcrop of feudalism that would disappear with a successful class revolution. For Ambedkar, on the other hand, India could be mobilized to revolution only once its intense caste consciousness had been dismantled, which meant that caste was the bigger problem. For the Marxists, the main enemy was the imperialist, while for Ambedkar, it was upper-caste hegemony. Moreover, Ambedkar alleged casteism even within the ranks of the Communist movement, which drew its members primarily amongst the educated, upper-caste, university-educated bourgeoisie.

On similar grounds he laid out his opposition to the Congress party, which he labeled as also being a preserve of Brahminical hegemony. He accused the Congress of creating the delusion of a unified India, calling it an artifice to maintain the status quo in a country where caste forms the primary identity. He took particular exception to Gandhi’s ascriptive and patronizing use of the word ‘harijan’ and denounced Gandhism as unscientific, traditionalist and as still being within the clutches of Hinduism’s oppressive spiritual doctrines. The Dalits, Ambedkar claimed could never be represented by the Congress.

Thus, Ambedkar’s radicalism set him at loggerheads with the two strongest political forces of the time, thus foreclosing any possibility of support from them.

The 1940s saw escalating Hindu-Muslim tensions and increased political maneuvering in the run-up to Independence. In 1942 he formed the All India Scheduled Caste Federation (AISCF) which remained mainly as a pressure group to secure better conditions and legislation for Dalits in the soon-to-be-independent India. This party, after Ambedkar’s ambitious effort at a radical fusion of caste and class resistance, seemed lukewarm in comparison. But it was him only trying to make the best of his tactical position to strengthen the community in terms of both social standing and political representation.

As India entered the 50s with a new Constitution framed by Ambedkar’s Drafting Committee, he began to look towards a spiritual resistance to the hegemony of Brahmanism. Months before his death in December 1956, Ambedkar along with thousands of his supporters, converted to Buddhism as the ultimate sign of protest. In Buddhism, Ambedkar found a rational, equalitarian philosophy which he found in agreement with his political principles. Through his conversion to Buddhism, it can be said that Ambedkar intersected the ideas of both Phule and Periyar in that all three believed in the need for a weapon at the metaphysical level to combat Hinduism in all its claustrophobic irrationality.

After the death of Ambedkar, however, the Dalit movement began to lose its vitality. The Republican Party of India, which was again an attempt to try and make the AISCF’s narrow caste agenda into a broad-based movement against inequality, discrimination and injustice. The party, however, proved to be only a name-change and in the post-Independence Nehruvian utopia of industrialization and secular modernity, the call of the Dalits was either ignored or pacified.

But by the 1970s, as promises of development grew stale and the old resentment began to resurface, the Dalit movement returned in a decisively more militant mode. In 1972, the Dalit Panthers came to the fore with the stated intention: “We don’t want a little place in Brahman galli; we want the rule of the whole country.” Strongly influenced by the Naxalite movement, the Dalit Panthers showed no aversion towards violence – meeting Shiv Sena cadres in open street confrontations – and looked to define ‘Dalit’ in a far broader sense, looking to rally not just the untouchables, but workers, women and all other oppressed sections of society to a people’s revolution. The Dalit Panthers, in an attempt similar to what Ambedkar tried in the 30s, welded together disparate issues of land reform, untouchability and communalism. Like Ambedkar, the Panthers also stood as a critique of both the Congress Government and the facile, sold-out Left, and tried to bring together the most diverse groups as a viable political alternative. The group was active through the 70s but by the 1980s, it was rife with internal splits that rendered it ineffective.

With an apparent exhausting of the militant solution, the Dalit movement began to become politically more assertive as caste-based parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party started to gain political weightage. The 1990s have come to be defined by caste politics, particularly with controversy on the Mandal Commission report on reservations in government jobs at the start of the decade becoming a high point of the Dalit struggle.

In the new decade of coalition politics, as caste-based regional parties gain prominence, a few questions still cast a shadow of doubt. Throughout the Dalit movement, its response has always been tactical in nature, depending upon the incumbent circumstances. Consequently, one may at times find the movement's political positions to be in apparent contradiction – their use of caste identity in an attempt to fight caste inequality; their seemingly favourable stance towards British imperialism in India as against their opposition to globalization.

While such a strategic approach may have worked well until now, there is a need to think seriously on the question of ‘what is to be done’, now that the movement is gaining some measure of power – what is the agenda the movement can offer the country as a whole? What is required is a genuine ‘view from below’ based on a solid theoretical foundation, rather than purely empirical assertions. A viewpoint that can build a Dalit critique in every field of study and provide an alternative vision of the world.

By Gaurav Rajkhowa

India untouched :Stories of people apart (2007)

India Untouched - Stories of a People Apart”, a film directed by Stalin. K., takes us through eight states and four religions as he explores different aspects and mutations of untouchability in India. The film brings to light many interesting aspects of the problem of untouchability as he places the problem in a diversity of environments and contexts. The documentary, through narratives of pain and humiliation, is a strong account of ongoing injustice, gross denial of human rights, atrocities and the pathetic state in which Dalits are living in this country.

The film, for a start, points out one of the most basic misconceptions about caste in India – that it is limited only to Hinduism. Stalin is able to highlight the prevalence of discrimination not just among Dalit sub-castes in Hinduism, but also in religions like Islam, Christianity and Sikhism that one thought to be caste-free.

The film documents the pervasive domination of the upper castes that often takes extra-judicial forms. For instance, the film shows a Rajput who holds that the police must consult their community before filing a case of atrocity against them. These statements depict the failure of the legal system in protecting the basic right sanctioned to every citizen of India by constitution.

The film on one hand portrays the sense of superiority prevailing in upper castes and on the other, we see the plight of “oppressed classes” because of ‘pollution’ bestowed on them by religion. It looks at how scripture and ritual play an important role in the perpetuation of caste. The film portrays the stand of several spiritual heads on the issues of caste and untouchability.

The film destroys any illusions one might have about caste discrimination being a primarily rural phenomenon, enforced through rituals of purity and pollution. It is shocking to know that discrimination is seen even in premier institutions like JNU. The experiences of a doctor who is subjected to discrimination on the basis of caste is the perfect example to show the ‘operation’ of caste in a sophisticated way in the present day world. The doctor calls it “Hi-tech discrimination”: even highly educated and meritorious Dalits are also subjected to untouchability and discrimination. In the light of these incidents, even education is not going to eradicate discrimination and untouchability. The prevalence of discrimination on the lines of caste in states like Kerala - which is recognized as a progressive state for its cent percent literacy, development and communism - is astonishing. It is shocking to know that even now in this so-called globalised world, Dalits are being denied a basic right like being allowed to draw drinking water from public wells.

Discrimination makes itself felt even in the education sphere. Dalit children are made to sit in the last row of the class and they are made to clean the toilets. The film depicts how a school going child in whose mind the seeds of discrimination are sown mindlessly end up unwittingly practicing untouchability in some form or the other. The film shows the pressing need to find an answer to the abomination of caste.

However, the film which highlights various form of discrimination, atrocities, and the plight of dalits end with a note of hope. The vibrant music in the film demands a change - a change that will bring for the oppressed Dalit equality, protection of his basic human rights and his life. The film calls for immediate action which will help those sections of people who are denied rights and are subjected to oppression for ages. Prevalence of caste discrimination and untouchability is certainly a black spot on the image of progressive India.

About the Director:

Stalin K. is a human rights activist and award-winning documentary filmmaker. In recent years, he has become known for his pioneering 'participatory media' work with urban and rural communities, in which local people produce their own videos and radio programs as an empowerment tool. He is the Co-Founder of DRISHTI - Media, Arts and Human Rights, Convener of the Community Radio Forum-India, and the India Director of Video Volunteers. He is a renowned public speaker and has lectured or taught at over 20 institutions ranging from the National Institute of Design and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India, to New York University and Stanford and Berkeley in the US.

'INDIA UNTOUCHED' is Stalin's second film on the issue of caste — his earlier film 'Lesser Humans,' on manual scavenging, won the Silver Conch at the Mumbai International Film Festival and the Excellence Award at Earth Vision Film Festival, Tokyo, and helped to bring international attention to the issue of caste.

By Sudhams Cherukupalli