"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

For India’s untouchables social distancing has always been the daily reality of their lives Featured

 

Gurpreet Singh

The COVID 19 pandemic has resulted in anxieties and mental health stress for many in an era of self-isolation in places like North America But a group of oppressed people in the world’s so called largest democracy, has been enduring social ostracizing for centuries.

Dalits continue to face blatant discrimination under a brutal caste system practised by Indian society, in accordance with orthodox Hindu traditions, despite tall claims of the country’s progress.

April, which is celebrated as Dalit History Month, not only revives ugly memories of the past when the community was subjected to the most inhuman treatment, it brings into focus what has really changed over the years.

One of the most well respected Indian scholars and the architect of the Indian constitution, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, was born on April 14, 1891. A diehard Dalit activist, he faced caste-based oppression while growing up in Maharashtra and experienced humiliation on many occasions even after he started working.

Dalits are the lowest on the ladder of caste structure that puts the priest class on the top, followed by the rulers and traders. Those below in this hierarchy are considered as untouchables. They have been forced to survive on menial jobs, such as scavenging and cleaning gutters, removing human excreta and dead animals. Despite many constitutional safeguards, society hasn’t transformed, and these people are not  allowed to come out of this situation. So much so, they do not have access to drinking water from public wells, leave aside the question of letting them into temples in several parts of India. The strict laws against untouchability have not deterred the self-styled custodians of upper caste interests from denying them equal rights. They are still seen as “polluters” and discouraged from maintaining physical contact with upper caste people.

Ambedkar was frequently forced to sit separately from the upper caste kids at school. That was a long time back, but only last year, a school in Uttar Pradesh segregated Dalit students from others to serve them mid-day meal.  

This explains why they are usually forced to live on the peripheries of towns and villages, away from the mainstream.

While some affirmative action has helped Dalits to get into the parliament and top positions, many of them have been appropriated by the ruling parties of the day and hardly raise tough questions about these ugly realities.

Unlike Ambedkar, who had to take many challenges for talking back to power, these spineless Dalit leaders have succumbed to the current right wing Hindu nationalist government under which the attacks on Dalits and other minorities have spiked during past several years.

It is pertinent to mention that Ambedkar’s grandson-in-law, renowned author and activist Anand Teltumbde, was arrested on April 14, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Dalit President Ram Kumar Kovind were paying tokenistic tributes to Ambedkar. 

Teltumbde’s only fault was that he had raised his voice against growing attacks on minorities and political dissidents in an intolerant regime through his writings. A real Ambedkarite found himself in jail under malicious charges for merely standing up for the constitutional rights of the citizens of India.

Coming back to COVID 19, the present crisis has made the lives of Dalits even more difficult by not only further strengthening the walls of the caste system, but by increasing the dependency of the privileged society on them to work at the frontlines without proper equipment and getting exposed to the infection.

Next time you hear about polls and surveys suggesting that some of us are suffering because of loneliness and boredom, think about how those Dalits have been living for so long with such pain, caused by the structures of society. It’s time to use our privileges to lend a voice to their ongoing fight against this barbarity.

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