Lalitha Devi is 65 and remembers how, during her childhood, when she worked in the fields of a high caste landowner, she used to get thirsty and ask for water.
The lady of the house would emerge with a round steel water pot and pour the water into the air near Devi who had to catch it in her cupped hands to drink
“I wasn’t allowed to touch any utensil of hers because my touch would contaminate it,” recalls Devi who is a dalit, a member of India’s poorest and most oppressed caste.
Like most Indian women who have spent their lives in poverty, Devi looks 20 years older than her age. She left her childhood village in Haryana long ago when she moved to the dusty, ugly suburb of Johripur, about an hour’s drive from the centre of the Indian capital, Delhi.
Devi says caste discrimination or “untouchability” (when low caste people are kept at a distance by the upper castes because their touch is considered polluting) has lessened over the decades, particularly in the cities. Unlike in villages, where everyone knows a person’s caste, cities provide some degree of anonymity, she believes.
“In cities, a dalit can walk into a restaurant and who knows he is a dalit? He will eat off the same plates and no one will ask questions,” Devi says.
Devi’s belief that caste bigotry is lower in Indian cities is widely-held among Indians. So is the belief that caste discrimination has reduced since law passed in 1955 made caste discrimination a crime.
But a new survey published earlier this month had a nasty surprise: it showed that three-quarters of those surveyed in rural Rajasthan and 48 per cent – almost half – of all respondents in rural Uttar Pradesh still practice untouchability. These are two of India’s largest states.
More surprising still was a figure showing that half the respondents in the big urban centres of the two states also admitted practicing untouchability. Even in New Delhi, 39 per cent of those interviewed said that regarded low castes like dalits as untouchable.
The survey, Social Attitudes Research for India, was conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
One of the authors, Amit Thorat, a scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told the Indian media: “These trends are indeed quite worrying. While they do not bode well for the long-term growth of the economy and development of society at large, they also in many ways indicate a worsening of the social mindset.”
Another researcher, Diane Coffey, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, said the figures exploded the view that caste hatred had faded.
“The most startling thing about the data is just how big the numbers are. Too often, people who look towards a modern future dismiss casteism or patriarchy as a thing of the past – and instances of discrimination as meaningless, isolated anecdotes. What these big numbers reveal is that prejudice remains very common – too common,” she told the Indian Express.
A fatal accident
One man who was not surprised – disappointed, but not surprised – was Ashok Bharti, chairman of the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations (NACDOR).
“Every day I am looking at far worse figures, such as these,” he said, pointing a a sheet of paper he has printed out.
On it is a table showing 799 murders, 2545 rapes and 35,692 atrocities committed against dalits in 2016. These are official figures, which he has collated. In addition to these crimes, there are the daily endless humiliations and slights that are woven into a dalit’s life, particularly in the villages: being denied access to the village well, living in segregated huts, roadside eateries that keep a different set of cups in which tea is given to dalits, children not just segregated in the classroom but forced to clean the classrooms and toilets, and dalit children seeing upper caste classmates refusing to eat school meals cooked by a dalit.
“My birth is my fatal accident,” wrote dalit student Rohith Vemula in his suicide note in 2016 – a cry of despair for the indignities and contempt that dalits have to endure while dreaming all the time of a better life.
“The most progressive institutions in India – the most progressive – are guilty of caste bias because all institutions, including the judiciary, are reflective of Indian society and also reflect the power dynamic, and in this dynamic, dalits have remained excluded from socio-economic empowerment,” said Bharti.
The survey’s findings that show that even those who had five years more of education were just as bigoted about dalits. It was no surprise, Bharti said.
“In India, we often confuse mere literacy with education. Real education is something different and there is nothing in the education system to overcome prejudices against dalits. When schools themselves practice untouchability, what hope is there? There is nothing in the curriculum to teach children to think differently.”
When Bharti spent four years in Adelaide as a representative of international students at the University of South Australia, he noticed how Indians abroad were less openly discriminatory towards him.
“They know instinctively that the social ethos in Australia won’t allow them to express prejudices and they know the law will be invoked if they do. They also realise that the society there [Australia] is based on the individual and that individual’s worth, not on communities,” he said.
NACDOR’s project manager in Johripur, Ganesh Gautam, like Devi, has a painful memory of caste hatred from his childhood. It was the time when the upper castes in his village, angry over some incident, forbade dalits from going to relieve themselves in the fields. With no toilets in their homes, the fields were the only option but even this was denied them. “People had to creep into the fields at night so that no one would notice them,” he said.
However, since then, Gautam has seen change. It’s not just the symbolic changes, such as India’s current vice-president, Ram Nath Kovind, being a dalit. These appointments are often purely symbolic and not indicative of change on the ground. As an educated dalit, Gautam mixes with some upper caste people in Johripur. When an acquaintance from the high Brahmin caste invited him to his son’s wedding recently, Gautam noted with approval the change in social attitude it indicated, and accepted.
However, he added that he would only attend the wedding if the Brahmin promised to come to his nephew’s wedding a few weeks later. Both men attended the respective weddings.
These small changes are important for Gautam. An intense man, he can see the problem from both sides and believes dalits also need to raise their game.
“Look, it is human nature to want to socialise with your equals. If a dalit is uneducated, lives in a hut and doesn’t wear decent clothes, then how can you expect an upper caste person to mix with him? Of course I know the dalit is poor and uneducated because of centuries of discrimination but the brutal fact is that, while fighting discrimination, we must also lift ourselves up,” Gautam said.
One young dalit who has moved on to better things is 23 year old Tridev (he goes by only one name) who has been trained by NACDOR to become an entrepreneur, offering housekeeping services online. He has all the confidence and optimism of many dalit youths – until, in some cases, it is crushed by the contempt of others.
“The upper castes don’t want us to rise and become their equals because that way, they lose their superior status. So they will do anything to hang on to their higher status,” Tridev said.
So far, though, Tridev has been spared the worst kinds of scorn. He is friends with some upper caste young men and they eat together. He has not, however, invited any of them home yet. When asked why not, he smiles and says, “Not yet. Let me give it some time”.
The same slight ambivalence can be seen in Neha Kumar, 24, who has also been trained by NACDOR in conjunction with an NGO to provide online services to help Indians apply for official documents such as ID cards. Kumar says she has seen neighbours’ attitudes in Johripur change over the years.
“When they see us wearing nice clean clothes, speaking well and eating well, they engage with us,” she said.
Still, she is aware of the limits.
“My upper caste friends are fine with me but their parents are wary. They keep a distance and are not very friendly when I run into them.”
The caste system has been entrenched in Indian society for centuries. Based on their occupations, people belong to one of four main castes. The first and highest are the Brahmins, who are mainly teachers and priests; the next group are the Kshatriyas, mainly military and administrators; the third are the Vaishyas, traders; and the last and lowest are the Shudras, the people who do menial work. Outside this system altogether are the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, who form about 16 per cent of the Indian population.