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A study on untouchability practices in 1,589 villages in Gujarat provides critical data for the Dalit movement to shape its interventions at the national and international levels. By ANUPAMA KATAKAM

DESPITE laws making it punishable, untouchability continues to exist in the country in a vicious manner. A study titled “Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 villages”, conducted in Gujarat by the Navsarjan Trust, an organisation that promotes the rights of Dalits, in collaboration with the Robert E. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, puts together staggering data on the obnoxious practice that gets neglected by both the State and Central governments. The survey was conducted from 2007 to 2010.

A sample of the findings indicates how deep the rot is. In 98.4 per cent of the villages surveyed, inter-caste marriage was prohibited, and inter-caste couples would be subjected to violence and would often have to leave the village. In 98.1 per cent of the villages, a Dalit could not rent a house in a non-Dalit locality. In 97.6 per cent of the villages, Dalits touching the water pots or utensils of non-Dalits was considered defilement. In 97.2 per cent of the villages, Dalit religious leaders would never be asked to perform a religious ceremony in a non-Dalit area.

The report says it is essential to note that while citizens’ groups and human rights activists have been advocating Dalit rights, the lack of political will has been a major setback to attempts to abolish untouchability. The introduction to the report states: “There is systematic underestimation of the practice of untouchability within modern India; the perpetuation of a wide variety of abuses is allowed to continue with impunity; there is a general lack of awareness and sensitivity to the pervasiveness of the problem; and, consequently, there is limited political will to address and change the situation.”

Martin Macwan of Navsarjan, who spearheaded the study, says, “Navsarjan has experienced first hand that a deeper understanding gained by intensive data collections leads to the development of more effective strategies to address the continued practice of untouchability.” The organisation expects the study will provide critical data for the Dalit movement to shape its interventions at the national and international levels. According to Macwan, untouchability is a deeply complex problem. “It is a crime to practise untouchability, but the caste system is not a crime, which is the root of the problem. People believe it is part of a belief and nothing is wrong with that,” he says.

Most people tend to look at untouchability in isolation, he says, while it is in reality closely linked to the economic, social and political structure. Citing an example, he says the government itself marks out separate burial lands for Dalits. The politician will not oppose it, says Macwan, but rather encourage it for short-term gains.

Although the study was conducted in Gujarat, Macwan and his team believe it is a pointer to a problem that exists across the country on a similar scale. The report says: “The issue of untouchability is one of the most divisive issues in the country’s history and a lived experience of all people in India, including both Dalits, who number over 164 million, and non-Dalit perpetrators and witnesses.”

To meet the study’s goals, an international team of human rights activists, lawyers and academics with distinct areas of specialisation assembled in 2007 to define the diverse set of practices that constitute the legally and almost conceptually amorphous term “untouchability” in a manner that would reflect the experiences Dalits live through every day. Explaining its methodology, the report says the study did not seek Dalit communities’ opinions on the various conditions and practices to which they were subjected (for instance, what they feel about these practices). Accordingly, the resulting research is intended to be a census of untouchability and not a public opinion survey.

The study team conducted the census at the community level and the household level involving the entire Dalit population in a village. A randomisation process selected which locale would be subject to which approach.

Untouchability index

The team spoke to 5,462 respondents in 1,589 villages over a two-year period. The researchers formulated an index of untouchability after identifying 98 distinct practices of discrimination and clustered them into eight categories: 1) water for drinking, 2) food and beverage, 3) religion, 4) touch, 5) access to public facilities and institutions, 6) caste-based occupations, 7) prohibitions and social sanctions and 8) private sector discrimination. The survey was on both vertical and horizontal discrimination, that is, discrimination by a non-Dalit against a Dalit and discrimination by a Dalit against another Dalit. Seeking to understand the pervasiveness of untouchability, the surveyors asked the villagers a series of questions pertaining to their everyday lives, such as “can you get water from the village well without assistance?” The answers helped in collating crucial and relevant data.

A practice most prevalent across all the villages examined (at 98 per cent) was the failure to serve tea to Dalits in non-Dalit households. Even if tea was served, it was done so in a separate cup called “rampatar”—vessel of Ram.

In approximately 96 per cent of the villages, Dalit labourers were served lunch separately from other workers. Any leftover food touched by them was thrown away, untouched by any non-Dalit. Further, in 94 per cent of the villages, when the community gathered, Dalits were asked to sit in a separate place to eat, to bring their own plates, or to eat after non-Dalits had finished.

With regard to practices concerning religious activity, the study suggests that in almost all of the villages surveyed (97 per cent), Dalits were not allowed to touch articles used for religious rituals. In 96 per cent of the villages, non-Dalits would not come to Dalit localities to perform religious services.

The report states that in 90 per cent of the villages, Dalits were not allowed to enter public temples. In 92 per cent of the villages, prasad, or a portion of the food offered to the deity, was thrown to Dalits without any physical contact.

The study also found that in approximately 96 per cent of the cases, it was forbidden for a Dalit to enter an upper-caste house.

In less than half (44 per cent) of the villages, it was considered defilement if Dalits splattered water on a non-Dalit even at common bathing places or when a Dalit washed his or her hands or clothes. Additionally, in 38 per cent of the villages, a Dalit even accidentally touching a non-Dalit was considered defilement.

Some of the clearest forms of vertical caste discrimination were in restrictions with regard to private and public spaces. In 87 per cent of the villages surveyed, Dalits were not allowed to hire cooking pots for wedding ceremonies. Further, Dalits could not use the services of local barbers (in 73 per cent of the villages), potters (in 61 per cent of the villages) and tailors (in 33 per cent of the villages).

In 29 per cent of the villages, Dalits were denied access to common wells or taps, and in 71 per cent of the villages, there was no water tap in the Dalit area of the village. “Given that water is essential for so many aspects of life—especially in a rural context —this form of discrimination is especially inhuman. Particularly astounding is that, in 10 per cent of the villages, Dalits were not able to receive the services of the village’s private doctor, even though failure to do so is potentially fatal,” says the report.

Horizontal discrimination

The researchers also highlight a few practices that are not in the index. For instance, in 95.8 per cent of the villages, Dalits belonging to a dominant sub-caste would enforce the practice where lower sub-caste Dalits must remove carcasses. In 92.4 per cent of the villages, all Dalits did not have access to Dalit burial grounds. In 91.4 per cent of the villages, lower sub-caste Dalits had to collect the clothes discarded at burials, and they are expected to wear them as their clothing. Dalit children were always segregated and made to sit separately in classrooms.

Akin to vertical discrimination, but apparently not as severe, is the discrimination by a Dalit against another Dalit. The report says that in almost all villages, lower sub-caste Dalits had to sit separately from the rest of the Dalit community during special meals. In 78 per cent of the villages, lower sub-caste Dalit farm workers were not provided with water on a higher sub-caste Dalit’s farm. “With regard to perhaps the most valued of resources, those at the bottom are consistently discriminatory toward others who share their plight,” the report says.

Another most prevalent form of horizontal discrimination concerns religious activity. Specifically, in 80 per cent of the villages, lower sub-caste Dalits were not allowed to sit with higher sub-caste Dalits when a religious discourse was on even if the discourse took place in the home of a Dalit.

In 64 per cent of the villages, despite there being a law that reserves a certain proportion of seats for Dalit panchayat members relative to the Dalit population, including having a provision to elect a Dalit head of the local governing council, lower sub-caste Dalit members of the panchayat had to often sit on the floor.

Other forms of discrimination include Dalit midwives refusing to assist lower sub-caste Dalits or some others refusing to be treated by lower sub-caste nurses. An important area of concern is Dalits’ access to gauchar land, a public grazing area, which is required for their livelihood. In 59 per cent of the villages, gauchar land access was restricted to lower sub-caste Dalits. In some cases, lower sub-caste Dalits were not allowed to dance at a Dalit-specific village celebration.

Radical changes requiredThe study emphatically points out that “understanding untouchability is crucial to ending untouchability. Without understanding the problem, the Government of India will never be able to fully address the issue and fulfil the human rights obligations owed to Dalit citizens.”

It makes several critical points about the current status of untouchability. Given the situation at the panchayat level where a Dalit cannot even sit on a chair, reservation is not enough, it says. Additionally, India’s human rights obligations are deficient, say the researchers. “Faced with poverty, oppression and exploitation, Dalits have a very difficult time reporting atrocities or other violations of law and realising their constitutional right to non-discrimination,” says the report.

The Navsarjan Trust believes that the data provided could be used to make effective intervention towards eradicating untouchability in India.


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