The Caste Formerly Known As 'Untouchables' Demands A New Role In India
In an amateur video, four frightened men, stripped to the waist and tethered to a truck, are publicly flogged on a busy street in broad daylight.
Their assailants accused the four men of killing a cow — a sacred animal in India. Calling themselves protectors of the cow, they filmed themselves beating the foursome with iron rods and wooden sticks on July 11 — then posted their video on social media.
The attack in the Indian state of Gujarat, the home base of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ignited widespread revulsion — and even rumblings of a rebellion against India's Hindu caste system.
For millennia, caste has been the organizing principle of society in India. Determined by birth, caste draws distinctions between communities, determining one's profession, level of education and potential marriage partner. Privileges are reserved for the upper castes and denied the lower ones. The lowliest in this pecking order are the Dalits, once called "untouchables" as they are consigned by the Hindu hierarchy to the dirtiest occupations. It's a sizable community of some 200 million people. The word Dalit comes from a Hindi word meaning "oppressed, suppressed, downtrodden."
The four beating victims are Dalits.
One of them, Vashram Sarvaiya, curls up in his hospital bed and describes how he and the other three were brutalized while they performed a job no non-Dalit would do: Disposing of dead cows. Sarvaiya insists they harmed no living cow.
"We didn't kill the cow, we just removed the skin. It's our ancestral job. Our forefathers did it," he explains.
Authorities had determined that a lion killed the cow. But the vigilantes insisted the men had slaughtered the animal, and while beating them chanted: "Dig four graves."
In Gujarat, the video went viral, kindling a smoldering sense of injustice. Dalits are denied access to temples, public wells, even barbershops. Heena Zen, a young educated Dalit woman, even testified to continued "untouchability," the practice that forbids physical contact with another caste and that was outlawed 60 years ago.
Zen says that in her rural village in Gujarat: "When we go to buy milk, they won't even take the money from our hands, we must put it down, and then they pick it up. They don't let us in their homes, we can't sit with them, we can't eat with them."
In the area near the assault, men who skin cows for a living are now on strike, and families across Gujarat are re-evaluating their centuries-old occupation. Dilip Chavda's family has skinned cows for generations. He's not repulsed by the grisly work of cleaning carcasses.
Rather he's indignant that men like him "were beaten for doing their job." He says he's inspired to find a different line of work. He and his cousin, 20-year-old Pragnesh, represent a restless new generation that bristles at being treated as outcasts.
Pragnesh says: "We'll break this caste system where Dalits do all the dirty work. Let the owners of these dead cows clean the carcasses themselves. We're determined that our young generation moves ahead."
It's not the first time Dalits have asserted the right to be treated as equal citizens. Pragnesh invokes the name of B.R. Ambedkar, a prominent politician and Dalit reformer, who called for the abolition of caste a half a century ago. The fact that Gujarat is transforming anger into action is what's different in 2016.
With traditional skinners refusing to work, the disposal of cows risks a sanitation crisis in some areas. In the central Gujarati town of Limbdi, carcasses are being tossed untreated into open pits in the garbage dump. The stench is unbearable.
"It's the first time that Dalits aren't disposing of our dead animals," says Hasmukh Sheth, a trustee with a 150-year-old animal shelter where cow carcasses have piled up. "They did it all by hand and needed no supervision. The municipality has no experience," he says.
Sheth adds that cow skinning is a billion dollar business, as everything on the cow — its hide, meat, even bones — is sold and consumed. The agents that buy the raw materials from the skinning Dalit families are typically from the higher castes.
Key sanitation jobs, like unclogging sewer drains and cleaning human excrement off the streets, also fall to Dalits. Dalit rights activist Jignesh Mevani argues that this occupational discrimination is ultimately holding India back.
"So we want to become a leading economic power but we want to continue with such obnoxious practices. Caste should be thrown into the dustbin of history. It is nothing more than the existence of feudalism," he says.
Mevani organized a rally and a march across the state in solidarity with the striking Dalits, starting on August 5 and ending on the 15th. At the opening rally, the small crowd assembled under the battle cry "Azadi" or "Freedom." "Freedom from caste-ism, freedom from social division, freedom from untouchability," they chanted.
Dalits are overwhelmingly poor and landless. One demand from the protesters: small parcels of property for community members in the name of equality.
At 78, Arjun Gohil is a Dalit who has lived through India's entire independence history. At the rally, the retired schoolteacher danced, exalting in a moment that he says is an "awakening" for a caste-free society.
Prime Minister Modi acknowledged this simmering revolt, telling the nation in his Independence Day address last Monday: "Economic progress alone does not make a strong nation, social justice is necessary."
Referencing the dispute regarding Dalits, Modi said: "Every citizen should fight against the differences in the society on the basis of caste and prevalent class differences."
But that's not yet happening in India. Jignesh Mevani reported trouble as marchers made their way to the town of Una, the site of the beating. Along the route, he says some members of higher castes hurled insults, while others assailed the marchers with sticks.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.