November 6, 2012
The Untouchables in India Today
This past week, I read an incredibly fascinating, and deeply disturbing article in National Geographic about the plight of the 'untouchables,' or 'dalits' in modern India. One of out every six Indians lives a life of poverty, shame, and hardship, simply because of an accident of birth. You see, for thousands of years, India has maintained a rigid system of social stratification. Priests, warriors, landowners, and peasants make up this system. Over time, hundreds of subdivisions within these castes have been created. Simply stated, the higher caste you are, the better your life will be. However, there is one group of people that is not even considered to be a caste. They are the untouchables. These are Indians who look no different then anyone else, and behave no differently then their neighbors. However, because of the rules of this strict system, they cannot associate with anyone else in a higher caste, live in their neighborhoods, eat their food, or do any work other than extremely menial jobs. They are attacked, their daughters and wives are raped and beaten, and they cannot do anything about it. After all, that's life. The untouchables are considered too impure and filthy to be considered real human beings. They are socially shunned, insulted, and spat on. Ever since India declared independence, caste discrimination has officially been banned, and is deemed unconstitutional. However, this is rarely enforced. Untouchable men have to do cheap, menial labor. They often have to cover themselves in feces in order to unclog sewers, sweep streets, dry cow dung for fuel, and work with leather, since all other Hindus refuse to work with cow skin. Untouchables routinely die from gas poisoning in the sewers.
But it's not all bad news. It seems that the most violent, and overt forms of caste discrimination have generally disappeared. Untouchables have made some real signs of progress. Before independence in 1947, untouchables were beaten even if their very shadow touched a higher caste person! India's constitution mandates that a certain number of seats in the Indian legislative body be reserved for untouchables. Gandhi, the famous Indian revolutionary and human-rights advocator took up the cause of the untouchables as his own. He renamed them harijan, or, 'people of God.' He also accepted untouchables to his ashram, or communal settlement. This was a huge step in changing deep-seated Indian and Hindu beliefs about how their society should function.
In many respects, the situations of women in China and untouchables in India are very similar. Although discrimination is not as extreme in China, in both cases, antiquated social systems and castes are still used to bar the 'other' from playing a part in society. The huge irony is that both China and India have so much potential for growth and success. They are pioneering new innovations in fields like medicine, engineering, and computer technology, as well as living modern lives. However, these two countries both demonize, shame, and bar others from being able to succeed. This is anathema to morality in every sense of the word. It greatly saddens me that people who call themselves religious would believe that God wants them to rape, throw acid, and spit on other human beings, as happens in India, and decreasingly in China.
Other countries, specifically western democracies, have been called on by some to help the untouchables gain the rights that they deserve in India. Other political commentators argue that we have enough domestic issues to worry about before solving other countries problems. This rings very true. However, as a human being, I feel that I have a moral imperative, and a religious obligation to help those that are suffering at the hands of other human beings. This kind of cruelty, intolerance, and small-mindedness cannot be tolerated in the 21st century. India needs to wake up, and start a new revolution. A revolution of acceptance, tolerance, and love.
O'Neill, Tom. "Untouchable @ National Geographic Magazine." n.d.: 1-31. Untouchable @ National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic. Web. 06 Nov. 2012. <http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0306/feature1/>.