Recasting Hinduism for the 21st century

24/12/2010

It is important that Hindus take the lead in acknowledging the damage that caste discrimination does and resolving to tackle it

rao

India Dalit HinduDalits at the National Conference of Dalits in New Delhi. Photograph: Manish Swarup/APCaste has become the convenient “hook” to hang the Hinduism portrait since Hinduism, that “rolling caravan of conceptual spaces”, is too complex a religion/way of life for the “people of the book” who have reigned supreme the past two millennia. Unfortunately, caste being the complex conundrum that it is, Hinduism almost always is seen through the prism of caste. 

In a newly published report, the Hindu American Foundation tackles the issue of caste discrimination, and of the immediate and urgent need for Hindus to acknowledge that caste is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism; that continuing caste-based discrimination is a major human rights problem; and only Hindus, through reform movements, through an activist agenda, and through education can rid Hindu society of the scourge of caste-based discrimination.

While there will be naysayers in the Hindu community, who wish to get into their bunkers and fight a rearguard battle to “defend” Hinduism from what they see as a concerted campaign of vilification by Christian missionaries, Muslim fundamentalists, Marxist Hindu haters, and a global-capitalist-western hegemony, it is important that Hindus bell the casteist cat themselves. In this regard, the HAF report points out that caste-based discrimination is a serious human rights issue in the Indian subcontinent, and that over 160 million people, whom the Indian government categorises as “scheduled castes” (SCs), suffer from discrimination by not only a variety of Hindu caste groups but even by “upper caste” Christians and Muslims after they have converted to Christianity or Islam.

The Indian constitution, whose chief architect, BR Ambedkar, was himself a member of the scheduled castes, outlaws “untouchability” – the act of segregating and ostracising a social group by literally prohibiting physical contact with members of the SCs. Alas, India is hobbled by a weak and sometimes dysfunctional judicial system, and therefore acts of discrimination against the SCs (or Dalits, as many of them prefer to call themselves) either go unpunished or ignored.

Other lawlessness in India goes unpunished but the challenge of dealing with caste-based discrimination has been the most disheartening. This is especially so in rural areas where caste dynamics continues to play havoc. In 2008, for example, according to the Indian government, there were 33,615 human rights violations of various types – from the denial of entry into temples to denial of service in wayside restaurants, and from bonded labour to the exploitation of women.

HAF’s report therefore begins with an important point: that Hindus must acknowledge that caste arose in Hindu society, that some Hindu texts and traditions justify a birth-based hierarchy and caste bias, and that it has survived despite considerable attempts by Hindus to curtail it. It notes that caste-based discrimination represents a failure of Hindu society “to live up to its essential spiritual teachings,” that divinity is inherent in all beings, and that caste is not an intrinsic part of Hinduism.

Sure, untouchability is practiced not just by Hindus in India and Nepal but by non-Hindus in Yemen, Japan, Korea, France, Somalia, and Tibet. But the sheer number of people who are discriminated against in India makes this a uniquely Indian and Hindu problem. Fishing in India’s troubled waters are therefore missionaries who for long have sought to make India Christian, and the left/Marxist forces in India who see only Hinduism as a problem but not religion per se. In recent decades, and especially after George W Bush became president, there was a surge in monies funneled into India for planting churches and converting Hindus. Organisations like the Dalit Freedom Network, led by and catering to mostly Christians, have gone on overdrive and sought to categorise SCs as non-Hindus and therefore arguing that they are not converting Hindus to Christianity.

HAF’s report, a first of its kind by a modern Hindu advocacy group, provides readers a handy but grand sweep of the problem of caste – from its origins to its role in the past and at present, its use and abuse, and reform movements from the earliest by the likes of Basaveshwara to the great 19th- and 20th-century reform movements like the Arya Samajmovement, and reformers like Jyotiba PhuleNarayana GuruMahatma Gandhi, and others.

Noting that there are defenders of the caste system, not just the curmudgeon and cruel among Hindus, but the likes of Voltaire and Diderot who fought against the monotheistic intolerance of Christians and Muslims, to sociologists like Louis Dumont who argued that the “distribution of functions leads to exchanges”, to the great Indophile,Alain Daniélou who argued that caste does not equate to “racist inequality but … a natural ordering of diversity,” the HAF report argues that a birth-based hierarchy is unacceptable, that inequities against and the abuse of the Dalits/SCs is a human rights issue, and that the solution to this social ill is available within Hindu sacred texts themselves, and that Hindus should be at the forefront of putting an end to the system of birth-based hierarchy as well as taking the lead in energising the Dalit community to fight discrimination.

As the British seek to draft a new bill of rights, and from what one hears,equate caste with racism, similar to what was sought at the United Nations Durban conference on racism and racial discrimination, as western Europe and US-based missionary groups ratchet up the calls for actions and sanctions against India, and as we move into a new era of global interaction, it is time for Hindus to act.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/21/india-hindu-dalit


NEPAL: Discrimination continues against Dalits

24/12/2010
Dalits are still regarded as “untouchables”

KATHMANDU, 24 December 2010 (IRIN) – Dalit communities, the lowest of the 100 caste groups in Nepal, continue to be marginalized, despite the fact that caste-based discrimination was abolished in 1963, activists say.

“Untouchability and discrimination were legitimized by the state over a century ago,” said Bhakta Biswakarma, national head of the advocacy group, Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization (NNDSWO).

“Today we see the state doing little to change the situation. Discrimination against the Dalit as the untouchable caste is still practised so rigidly – especially in the remote areas.”

The 1854 Civil Code, introduced by the Rana regime, explicitly declared the Dalits untouchable, the lowest status within the Hindu social hierarchical structure.

This imposed strict regulations on where the Dalit were allowed to live (they could not enter temples or use the same tap water as higher castes), forbad them from education and from participating in community festivals.

Those who defied the law of untouchability were punished; the state imposed the practice of discrimination on society, said Suman Poudel, an official with the Dalit NGO Federation (DNF).

Little has changed for the estimated 23 Dalit communities in the country’s hill and Terai regions, despite the propagation of legal rights.

Impoverished and neglected

Dalit communities have the lowest human development rankings in the country: 49.2 percent live below the poverty line compared with a national average of 31 percent, according to the World Bank.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) says discriminatory labour practices persist in the Terai, where the majority of Dalit live. During annual harvest seasons (March-May and September-November), high-caste landlords reportedly continue to use debt bondage to secure unpaid labour from Dalit labourers.

In the Terai, many Dalits are landless and live on less than US$1 a day, Poudel said, while UNDP assessments reveal that their annual per capita income is less than half that of higher castes ($764 to $1,848) across the rest of the country.

With a literacy rate of less than 33.5 percent above grade six (against 67.5 percent among higher-caste Brahmins), and high rates of school dropout, improving the social condition of Dalit communities is a challenge.

Weak implementation

And while caste discrimination was officially abolished in 1963, experts say the government has been weak in enforcing the ban.

“There are a plethora of policies and laws that have been drafted to protect the Dalit,” said Oxfam’s Robert Sila, a social inclusion and civil society expert. “But there is no seriousness on the government side when it comes to implementing these policies.”

One of the pillars of the government’s poverty reduction strategy for a long time has been social inclusion, but there is little evidence of that, Sila says.

However, Sudha Neupane, under-secretary for the gender equality and social section of Nepal’s Ministry of Local Development, says the government is focusing heavily on combating discrimination.

“The government is very sensitive to the issue of discrimination against the Dalit,” Neupane said.

A starting point would be addressing the controversy over population size. Government statistics show that the Dalit make up nearly 13 percent of the 29 million population, although the Dalit put that figure at more than 20 percent.

“A government cannot effectively address the needs of a population if it doesn’t have their exact numbers. It should do a fresh census to determine the real numbers,” said Sila.

Nepal’s last national census was done in 2001 and a new one is expected in 2011.

nn/cm/mw

Theme (s): Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=91437


Upper caste students refuse meal prepared by Dalit cook

20/07/2010
Upper caste students refuse meal prepared by Dalit cook
Sanjay Pandey, Lucknow, July 9, DHNS:
Students belonging to the upper castes have refused to eat the food cooked by a Dalit woman at a primary school in Uttar Pradesh’s newly created Ramabai Nagar district, about 200 kilometres from here.
The incident came to light on Thursday, when it was found during a routine inspection of the school that the upper caste students were not eating the mid-day meal as it was prepared by a dalit woman. “There are 137 upper caste students in the school and all of them had refused to eat the food prepared by a dalit woman,” education department officials said.

The officials were shocked and surprised to know that the students were asked by their parents to refuse the food. “My parents have asked me not to eat the mid-day meal as it is prepared by a lower caste woman,” said Shivam, a second standard student at the school.

“The parents have made it clear that they will prefer to withdraw their wards from the school than allowing them to have meals prepared by a dalit woman,” the officials said. The dalit cook Shanti Devi is deeply hurt. “I repeatedly requested the upper caste children to eat the mid-day meal but they refused,” she said.

District basic education officer Sanjai Shukla said that the officials were trying to persuade the parents to allow their wards to eat the meal. Principal of the school Maan Singh has been suspended for trying to cover up the issue.

“It has been like that for many days but the principal, instead of contacting the senior officials and trying to resolve the matter, tried to cover it up,” the officials said. The National Programme of Nutritional Support to Primary Education, also known as Mid-Day Meal Programme, is a centrally-sponsored scheme and was launched on August 15, 1995.

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/80467/upper-caste-students-refuse-meal.html


India’s “Untouchables” Face Violence, Discrimination

11/07/2010
Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2003

More than 160 million people in India are considered “Untouchable”—people tainted by their birth into a caste system that deems them impure, less than human.

Human rights abuses against these people, known as Dalits, are legion. A random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tells their story: “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers”; “Dalit tortured by cops for three days”; “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar”; “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool”; “7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash”; “5 Dalits lynched in Haryana”; “Dalit woman gang-raped, paraded naked”; “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits”.

“Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same wells, attend the same temples, wear shoes in the presence of an upper caste, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls,” said Smita Narula, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, and author of Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables.” Human Rights Watch is a worldwide activist organization based in New York.

India’s Untouchables are relegated to the lowest jobs, and live in constant fear of being publicly humiliated, paraded naked, beaten, and raped with impunity by upper-caste Hindus seeking to keep them in their place. Merely walking through an upper-caste neighborhood is a life-threatening offense.

Nearly 90 percent of all the poor Indians and 95 percent of all the illiterate Indians are Dalits, according to figures presented at the International Dalit Conference that took place May 16 to 18 in Vancouver, Canada.

Crime Against Dalits

Statistics compiled by India’s National Crime Records Bureau indicate that in the year 2000, the last year for which figures are available, 25,455 crimes were committed against Dalits. Every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched.

No one believes these numbers are anywhere close to the reality of crimes committed against Dalits. Because the police, village councils, and government officials often support the caste system, which is based on the religious teachings of Hinduism, many crimes go unreported due to fear of reprisal, intimidation by police, inability to pay bribes demanded by police, or simply the knowledge that the police will do nothing.

“There have been large-scale abuses by the police, acting in collusion with upper castes, including raids, beatings in custody, failure to charge offenders or investigate reported crimes,” said Narula.

That same year, 68,160 complaints were filed against the police for activities ranging from murder, torture, and collusion in acts of atrocity, to refusal to file a complaint. Sixty two percent of the cases were dismissed as unsubstantiated; 26 police officers were convicted in court.

Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned when India adopted its constitution in 1950, discrimination against Dalits remained so pervasive that in 1989 the government passed legislation known as The Prevention of Atrocities Act. The act specifically made it illegal to parade people naked through the streets, force them to eat feces, take away their land, foul their water, interfere with their right to vote, and burn down their homes.

Since then, the violence has escalated, largely as a result of the emergence of a grassroots human rights movement among Dalits to demand their rights and resist the dictates of untouchability, said Narula.

Lack of Enforcement, Not Laws

Enforcement of laws designed to protect Dalits is lax if not non-existent in many regions of India. The practice of untouchability is strongest in rural areas, where 80 percent of the country’s population resides. There, the underlying religious principles of Hinduism dominate.

Hindus believe a person is born into one of four castes based on karma and “purity”—how he or she lived their past lives. Those born as Brahmans are priests and teachers; Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are merchants and traders; and Sudras are laborers. Within the four castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, defined by profession, region, dialect, and other factors.

Untouchables are literally outcastes; a fifth group that is so unworthy it doesn’t fall within the caste system.

Although based on religious principles practiced for some 1,500 years, the system persists today for economic as much as religious reasons.

Because they are considered impure from birth, Untouchables perform jobs that are traditionally considered “unclean” or exceedingly menial, and for very little pay. One million Dalits work as manual scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. Millions more are agricultural workers trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.

Although illegal, 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits, are bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published in 1999. These people, 15 million of whom are children, work under slave-like conditions hauling rocks, or working in fields or factories for less than U.S. $1 day.

Crimes Against Women

Dalit women are particularly hard hit. They are frequently raped or beaten as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance. They are also subject to arrest if they have male relatives hiding from the authorities.

A case reported in 1999 illustrates the toxic mix of gender and caste.

A 42-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped and then burnt alive after she, her husband, and two sons had been held in captivity and tortured for eight days. Her crime? Another son had eloped with the daughter of the higher-caste family doing the torturing. The local police knew the Dalit family was being held, but did nothing because of the higher-caste family’s local influence.

There is very little recourse available to victims.

A report released by Amnesty International in 2001 found an “extremely high” number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, frequently perpetrated by landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 percent of attacks are registered, and that police officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false.

The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women’s husbands. Little or nothing is done to prevent attacks on rape victims by gangs of upper-caste villagers seeking to prevent a case from being pursued. Sometimes the policemen even join in, the study suggests. Rape victims have also been murdered. Such crimes often go unpunished.

Thousands of pre-teen Dalit girls are forced into prostitution under cover of a religious practice known as devadasis, which means “female servant of god.” The girls are dedicated or “married” to a deity or a temple. Once dedicated, they are unable to marry, forced to have sex with upper-caste community members, and eventually sold to an urban brothel.

Resistance and Progress

Within India, grassroots efforts to change are emerging, despite retaliation and intimidation by local officials and upper-caste villagers. In some states, caste conflict has escalated to caste warfare, and militia-like vigilante groups have conducted raids on villages, burning homes, raping, and massacring the people. These raids are sometimes conducted with the tacit approval of the police.

In the province Bihar, local Dalits are retaliating, committing atrocities also. Non-aligned Dalits are frequently caught in the middle, victims of both groups.

“There is a growing grassroots movement of activists, trade unions, and other NGOs that are organizing to democratically and peacefully demand their rights, higher wages, and more equitable land distribution,” said Narula. “There has been progress in terms of building a human rights movement within India, and in drawing international attention to the issue.”

In August 2002, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) approved a resolution condemning caste or descent-based discrimination.

“But at the national level, very little is being done to implement or enforce the laws,” said Narula.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/06/0602_030602_untouchables_2.html


Caste divide follows dalit Christians even in death

11/07/2010

2010 july

June 8: Humiliating discrimination on the basis of caste does not spare some even in death. In the heart of Tiruchy city, a huge wall separates the burial grounds of dalit and non-dalit Christians at the Warehouse Cemetery in Palakkarai. Though they are all Roman Catholics, the mortal remains of dalit Christians from areas like Uppuparai, Sengulam Colony, Mallikaipuram, Kemps Town, Kooni Bazaar and Kajapet are buried on the left half of the burial ground while upper caste ‘Pillai Christians’ are buried in the other half.

“We have appealed to the authorities to raze the obnoxious wall but there has been no action yet,” said Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam president Kolathur Mani. “We will lock the office of the civil rights protection wing in Tiruchy on August 15 to protest against the inaction.”

While the state police maintains that untouchability is not prevalent in the state, the PDK has come out with a long list of tea stalls where the ‘twin-tumbler system’ in which different sets of tumblers are used for dalits and caste Hindus is still followed.

According to Mani, the practice is rampant in Oddancharram constituency in Dindigul district and Palladam and Kundadam regions of Tirupur district. “After a detailed field study, we have sent a list of 40 tea stalls in Palladam region alone with the details of the owners,” he said. “Untouchability is practised in every other village in Oddanchatram region but the authorities refuse to take cognisance of it.”

http://www.deccanchronicle.com/chennai/caste-divide-follows-dalit-christians-even-death-608