Unlike Eliot Ness’s squad of prohibition cops, the untouchables of India are a far far more fearsome proposition.
The dalits or harijans are people who were part of the castes who were associated with the traditionally unclean work. Leather work (hindus still wear leather despite not consuming cows), slaughter house work (the crime is in the killing not in the consumption), removal of rubbish and in one of the most abusive aspects of human existence, in the removal of human waste from latrines. The practice has died out in most of the cities but in rural areas it still persists. Which means its wide spread. Remember nearly 70 percent of India lives rural. Much like the 1950s and america, there is segregation in India. The idea is that uncleanliness is contagious and that contact with the dalit means that you are tarnished by association. Still many places have a practice where they refuse to let the dalit touch the same wells or even drink from the same cup. They will pour out water for you and you sip from the stream rather than a cup. Different temples, schools and funeral areas. They stay in their own ghettoes.
The practice is not restricted to Hinduism. Many of them in order to escape the prejudice of their peers convert. Only to find the system is that of society rather than of religion. They find the exact same prejudice whether they are Christian or Muslim. Only the Sikhs are relatively free of this due to their anti caste stance that is ingrained into their faith and even there its present. Its supposed to be illegal but people get away with it. People still decide on who to marry based on caste and people still vote on caste lines. And this is lethal. Dalits make up 10% of India. The scheduled castes (only slightly better off) make up a further 40%. Together they make up one of the most powerful voting blocks and caste politics has resulted in the rise of a monster we call Mayawati. Corrupt to the bone, she is tolerated by her voters because there is no other vote. Her state is the counterbalance to indian progress.
The issue is so laden with feelings. Indians of both sides are being discriminated against. Highborn indians do not have the government quotas to guarantee them a job while a lot of low caste indians who don’t need the quota still have it applied to them because the quota is based on caste not on economic status. Its hard to draw the line of what’s acceptable and what’s not.
But lest we forget that the abuse still takes place amongst the poorest of the Dalits and they have no escape. Except through the acquisition of wealth or being powerful enough to overturn their status and even then there is still discrimination.
I suggest people see the Being Untouchable exhibit by Marcus Perkins. They are graphic and disturbing, so be warned.
But they are dangerous, from their ranks rises the Maoists movement of the Naxalites whose struggle rages across central India and whose victory means a horrific repeat of the cultural revolution. From their ranks rises the most fundie of Christian, eager to wage religious warfare on their old tormentors. From their ranks rises the heart of caste based voting and the encouragement of corrupt politics.
It is them who have the lowest life expectancies and the highest infant mortalities. They themselves are hotbeds of serious diseases due to the poor healthcare. Their healthcare facilities are actively targeted by violent attacks and doctors are often scared off from treating them making it hard to fight against diseases. Likewise they are often forced out of education by their peers and by social pressure making it impossible for social uplift to occur.
Sometimes the worst whips are the whips inside your own mind. The dalits can win their fight for equality, without having to rely on making deals with the devil. But its a case of whether they can unite behind a socially mobile leader who is not corrupt or who isn’t sectarian.