Proddatur (Andhra Pradesh), India 2004. Photo: Paul van der Stap

Essay published in Leven als Dalit: ‘kastelozen’ in hedendaags India / Dalit Lives: ‘outcastes’ in Contemporary India by Paul van der Stap (photos) and Elisa Veini (Titojoe Documentaries 2005. ISBN 90-809375-1-7).

Martin Macwan likes to tell of the amazement of the public when he called for attention to the problem of discrimination on the basis of caste in the UN conference against racism in Durban in 2001. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), of which Martin was the chairman, had been recently set  up to address caste discrimination as a violation of human rights. It became clear in Durban that even many human rights activists were not aware of the injurious aspects of the caste system. India enjoyed the general reputation of a peace-loving country that had supported the South African anti-apartheid movement, and it was unknown to many that India is today the largest country, in which there is caste discrimination. Even less well known was that people are systematically discriminated on the basis of their work and descent in Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Japan and certain African countries as well. Although the conference did not pass a resolution on caste discrimination, the silence was broken. The ‘hidden apartheid’ had entered the international arena.

There are more than 170 million Dalits in India, known as ‘untouchables’ or ‘outcastes’, more than one-sixth of the Indian population. They experience violence, discrimination, and social exclusion on a daily basis. In spite of laws prohibiting caste discrimination, Dalits are socially and economically the weakest group of society. Already in the time of Gandhi, quotas were established for Dalits and other oppressed groups at universities and in government jobs, but these provisions have improved the situation of only a small group. The discrimination has remained intact. In many ways the situation of the Dalits has even worsened in the last few decades. Violence against Dalits has sharply increased. The Dalit Human Rights Monitor of the human rights organisation People’s Watch Tamil Nadu reported nearly two hundred atrocities against Dalits in the first three months of 2004 alone. The reported cases are only a small share of the atrocities that take place, as most cases are never reported to the police. According to Henri Tiphagne, the director of People’s Watch, the increase in atrocities is directly linked to growing awareness among Dalits; dominant groups in society accept with difficulty the Dalits’ demand for rights. The shelves in the documentation centre of People’s Watch are filled with extensive, well-documented accounts of murder, rape, torture by the police and private gangs, social exclusion, slavery and humiliation. In more than three-quarter of the cases the victims are Dalits.

The murder of two Dalits from Sennakarampatti village in Tamil Nadu is painfully illustrative of the pitfalls obstructing a fair trial. The victims were wage workers who were murdered in 1992 by villagers of a higher caste after they had acquired land at a public sale that used to belong to a temple. It was unthinkable for the higher castes to have Dalits living on temple ground. Sennakarampatti is one of the innumerable villages where Dalits are not allowed to enter the temple; the main roads are forbidden to them as well. In the village the Dalits form a minority of not more than fifty families in contrast to the thousand families from the land- owning kallar caste. The judge knew that there were caste tensions in the village, but he refused to take  them into account. According to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (SC/ST Atrocities Act) which has existed since 1989, a judge can be dismissed if he consciously ignores the facts. The lawyers’ collective SOCO Trust, which advocated the interests of the victims’ relatives, appealed on the basis of this act and succeeded in bringing the case to the High Court. It is now twelve years and five murders  later. Murugesan, a Dalit and the leader of the village council, was murdered together with four other Dalits because he intended to question the proceedings. After Murugesan’s death, some compensations were paid to the relatives, but the court has failed to pronounce a verdict. The murderers are still free and the frustrated Dalit community is strongly divided. Lajapathi Roy, advocate and human rights consultant in SOCO Trust, says that the courts regularly ignore the caste  dimension of atrocities. The victims are seldom compensated for the damage done by persons from higher castes. The offenders are rarely sentenced, and it requires a great deal of effort to have a case re-opened.

Paul Divakar, the present chair of NCDHR, has his doubts about the will of many judges to really implement the SC/ST Atrocities Act. NCDHR was founded in 1998, when various organisations started to monitor the failing compliance with the anti- discrimination laws. Today, NCDHR is the pivot and the uniting power of the Dalit organisations. Such an umbrella organisation, says Divakar, was unheard of as recently as fifteen years ago. The attention paid to their rights has enhanced the self-confidence of the Dalits as a community, and the international break-through in Durban has given new courage to the Indian supporters. The authorities are now forced to accept NCDHR as a serious partner. The change is tangible, although it will still take a long time before Dalits will count as full members of society.


The caste system originates in the Vedas, the classical Hindu writings that divide society into four major castes, or varnas. The position of each caste depends on its descent from a certain part of the body of Brahma, the god of creation. The highest caste, brahmins, originate from the mouth of Brahma. The ksathriyas originate from the arms, the vaishyas from the belly and the shudras from the feet. Accordingly, different tasks are ascribed to each of the four castes. The brahmins are thinkers, philosophers and priests who lead society spiritually.  The ksathriyas are rulers and soldiers who guard the state against enemies. The vaishyas are merchants and landowners, and the shurdras are workers. The place of the individual person depends on the social position of his caste and the merit, or karma, that he gains in order to prosper more in the next life. Because the shudras are not born twice like the three other castes, they must serve the others. The Manusmiriti, or The Law of Manu (700 A.D.) states that all lower castes belong to the shudras. Here, there is no mention of the ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’, who would be ritually too impure to be able to belong to the shudras. The separation of the ‘outcastes’ dates probably from the later division in sub- castes, or jatis: social groups within which one marries. Over the course of time, the jatis became decisive for all social relations.

Although India today is a secular, multi-confessional and multi-cultural state, Hinduism continues to dominate culturally and socially. In certain ways, modernisation has led to individualisation of society – for instance, one’s profession does not necessarily depend on the jati anymore – but none the less the old, hierarchical relations between the groups have remained intact. The ambivalence towards marriage is a good example; marriage is a market-place of seemingly individual choices, but the choice is still made along the lines of caste, not across them. One still marries within one’s own caste with an arranged partner who has been found either through family relations or the new opportunities offered by internet. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta finds a general link between increasing social intolerance and modernisation. According to him the membership of a caste or sub-caste is now negotiable. Ever more often people choose their caste strategically in order to belong to a certain political group, but at the same time they make an effort to legitimise their descent with complex genealogies.1  The hierarchy gains new weight, because the caste lines have become more elastic, but they are also more ambivalent. The hierarchy is so  tightly woven into the social fabric of India that Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus also employ the discriminatory categories. Dalit Christians will be segregated from other Christians, and there is mention of Dalit Muslims who are set apart by other Muslims. The vicious part of this system is that it is valid even within the Dalit community, and that the worst oppressors of Dalits are the groups that are just ‘above’ them in the hierarchy. In South India, these are the land- owning farmers for whom Dalits work. Not so long ago farmers would shout out their commands from across the field, so as not to have the air of the Dalits on their face. Mainly in rural areas it still happens that Dalits are not allowed to wear shoes, and that they must bow their heads when they are addressed by a person of a higher caste. Nor has the prohibition of entering the village temple or accessing the common well disappeared, and it is still common to find Dalits living outside the village. If it is not possible to banish Dalits, a wall may be built to keep them from the immediate neighbourhood. Time and again, justification for the systematic segregation of the ‘untouchables’ is found in the supposed idea of purity. People who labour physically carry all sorts of impure matter with them: dirt and earth, but also sweat. How relative the dirtiness of the ‘untouchables’ is becomes clear in the fervent pursuit of Dalit voters before elections. Sometimes Dalits even pass as members of the ultra-Hindu parties – provided they renounce their origins and community.


On a September afternoon in 2003 Muthumari, a 38 year-old wage worker from Thirumangalam in Tamil Nadu let her cow out to pasture. In the field she came across her neighbour Raja. She had successfully ignored the advances of Raja for a couple of months, but this time the man would not take no for an answer. When Muthumari still resisted, he tore her sari and called her a ‘casteless dog’. The episode ended with Muthumari’s escape, but that evening, Raja, his wife and other land-owning kallars, who dominate in the village, paid her a visit. After a short but rough argument, Raja’s wife poured a bowl of human excrement on Muthumari. The local police first refused to do anything about the incident and Raja and his wife were only pursued after an NGO took up the case. The incident resulted, however, in the landowners’ refusal to employ any Dalits, knowing full well that the landless wage workers are completely dependent on them. They also require Dalits to get off their bicycles and take off their shoes before entering the village.

Sexual assault and rape of Dalit women and girls occur on a daily basis in rural India. Women are  generally seen as dependent appurtenances of men, and marriage is not only taken for granted, it is also seen as  a girl’s duty. In all social strata, women have to face a difficult struggle if they want to lead an independent life. Equality to men is virtually non-existent. The submissive and subservient behaviour of a wife guarantees the honour of the man. Dalit women, it is said, are  oppressed three times over: they are poor, they are women, and they are Dalits. Most Dalit women work in the field as wage workers, just like men. Especially men from higher castes see a working Dalit woman as open game. In some areas this is brought so far that if a Dalit man returns home and sees a strange pair of sandals at the doorstep, he knows immediately what is going on and waits outside until the visitor has left.

The system of temple prostitution is the most  extreme form of exploitation of Dalit women. The prostitutes, joginis or devadasis, are initiated by an older prostitute when they are young. Each village has one prostitute who takes care of the initiation; she bears the name of the goddess Yellamma. It is believed that the prostitutes personify the goddess, who calls them to join her through prostitution. During certain festivals, the prostitutes perform a public function; the women and girls are expected to go into a trance at given moments. They find these ritual performances thoroughly unpleasant. They particularly dislike dancing near-naked in front of the entire village; rural Indians consider this sort of self-exposure as obscene. The religious context alters nothing to the experience of public humiliation.

Grace Nirmala, director of the NGO Jogini Vyavasta Vyathirekha Porata Sanghatana in Andhra Pradesh, estimates that temple prostitution has existed for more than two thousand years. Originally, Dalit girls were offered to a local god as gifts to ward off illness and other evils. Later the system developed into a powerful means of caste exploitation and control of Dalit women. The underlying idea is that Dalits do not have command of their own lives and bodies, rather must serve higher castes at all times and in all imaginable ways. The system is closely connected to the traditional Hindu values that have remained intact in rural areas. In cities, where commercial prostitution is widespread, only older joginis are found in the temples, but the traffic in young Dalit girls from rural areas to urban brothels is a booming business.2

Parents agree to the initiation mainly for economic reasons, although they would claim to have made the decision for the increase in status that is ascribed to the family of an initiated girl. What is more, she stays at home and takes care of her elderly parents: it is evident that a prostitute never marries. It is perhaps no accident that it is the youngest daughters and girls without any brothers who are most commonly initiated. A few joginis say that they were attracted by the many promises of the men, but the ornaments and other gifts are usually short- lived. Once a jogini gives birth to a so-called ‘fatherless’ baby, she is much less attractive. Children of a jogini share the plight of their mother; they are set apart and can only marry children of other joginis; moreover, many daughters end up as prostitutes as well.

Ashamma, 28, from the village of Palla near Narayanpet in Andhra Pradesh was initiated under pressure of the village leaders, who told her parents that nobody would marry her because she was a girl with a history. As a young girl she had had an affair with a  much older man, who left her as soon as she became pregnant. Ashamma is one of the few joginis who succeeded in escaping from prostitution, convinced by Grace Nirmala and her colleagues that a better alternative was possible. Ashamma had to overcome great fears, but finally she took the challenge, and now she runs a small shop that earns her just enough to make ends meet. But as an ex-prostitute with her own business she violates the narrow village moral. The men hanging around Ashamma’s shop seemingly  nonchalantly make no effort to conceal their disapproval, for Ashamma has done more than just step out of the prostitution: she has rejected a system in which the individual’s destiny is determined at birth.


Nearly thirty years ago in the early days of Dalit activism in the area, young Dalits in Bhal, Gujarat, had a serious conflict with the more conservative village elders about their right to protest against the exploitation of women. For the first time ever, three youngsters took up the issue against a son of a landowner who had violated a Dalit woman. The boys were proud of their action, but the village elders were less pleased and lost no time in offering their apologies to the landowner for the thoughtlessness of the younger generation. After a wave of threats, the incident ended up in the suicide of a Dalit youth, who feared some form of collective revenge from the landowners. Dalit activist Martin Macwan was working in Bhal at the time and followed the course of events from close by; the uncompromising submission of Dalits in the rural area was new for the urban activist. Although he had been engaged in the struggle for Dalit rights as a student, there was a real turning point in his life in 1986 when four Dalit activists were shot dead for demanding their rights. ‘For the first time I realised what caste meant,’ Martin says in the recently built training centre of Navsarjan Trust, the organisation that he founded in 1988. ‘I understood what it really means to question the caste hierarchy. I understood also that this was no incident between two individuals or groups. It is a system. You ask for minimum wage – and the  response is violence. You are elected to the city council

– and the response is violence. You demand your rights to land – and the response is violence. This is a history of violence. Why? Because others think that they will lose their privileges if Dalits can lead a life worthy of a human being…’

Over the course of the years Martin and his collegues have realised that it is not enough to question the behaviour of others. The change must start with the Dalits themselves. ‘In Navsarjan we have two non- negotiable principles. The first one is the principle of equality. Discrimination is widespread among the Dalit community. There will always be a group or a sub-group that can be seen as lower and be deliberately exploited. Within the organisation we all are equals. Another critical issue is the exploitation of women. Men who, as Dalits, know perfectly well what it means to be discriminated against, treat their womenfolk as inferiors. It is of elementary importance to understand that the powerlessness that many of us experience on a daily basis, originates in the conflicts in ourselves.’ In  Martin’s view, the variety of ideas on the liberation of Dalits is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. He says that it does not matter so much whether one organisation chooses to put more emphasis on economic factors and another on culture. As long as the discussion continues and people are stimulated to think for themselves and take action, the Dalits and their movement will have a future.

On the wall behind Martin’s desk hangs a photo of Ambedkar, no doubt the most influental Dalit activist from the era before independence. ‘Gandhiji, I have no homeland,’ Ambedkar is said to have answered to Gandhi, who praised him for his patriotism. ‘How can I belong to a country where we are treated worse than dogs and cats?’ continued Ambedkar to Gandhi, who was taken by surprise, because he had thought that the elegant advocate was a Brahmin.3  ‘Babasaheb’ Ambedkar was Minister of Justice for a short time in the first government of Nehru. He maintained an uncompromising position against Gandhi, whose welfare politics he found patronizing. Dalits had to be able to organise themselves; they were not an oppressed people, who needed to be helped by others, but strong people with their own talents. According to Ambedkar, Hinduism was the greatest obstacle to the liberation of Dalits. His resistance to the caste system led him to convert to Buddhism at the end of his life. Even today, thousands of Dalits follow his example every year.

Ambedkar had many followers even in his own time. Chandubhai Maheriya, officer in the Ministry of Education of Gujarat, grew up in the working-class area of Rajpur Hirpur in Ahmedabad. He was the youngest son of a cotton factory worker, who was strongly influenced by the ideas of Ambedkar. His family was poor, but the father wanted his children to study, which was not easy in the densely populated area where there was animosity between the various Dalit groups. Chandubhai tells:

‘Originally, we were rohits, leather workers, but the house we lived in was dominated by vankars, weavers, who considered themselves higher and better. They pestered us until we had to leave. We moved to another block where there were no toilet facilities, so that we had to keep going back to the old house. The vankars made us pay for using the toilet, two rupees a month. It was illegal of course. At school most teachers were vankars; they struck me the hardest and most often – just  because they knew that I was a rohit. The only support I received was from teachers who were not Dalits. I was good at school, but I wore torn clothes. A lady teacher gave me a new pair of trousers and a shirt. When I got back home, my elder brothers snatched them away from me, because, well, I was the youngest and the weakest and I would die soon anyway… That was also their attitude towards food. I have survived thanks to the leftovers from my father’s lunchbox. As soon as I saw him coming out of the factory, I would run to him. He had always saved something for me and I ate it up on the way, before my brothers could get a hold of it. – You’d be surprised to know how many children have survived in this way.’

Rajpur Hirpur is one of the many over-populated working-class areas in Ahmedabad that are nowadays rife with unemployment and disillusion. After the closing of nearly one hundred cotton mills in the 80s and 90s, the workers, who are mainly Dalits and Muslims, eke out a living by doing odd jobs. Whole families collect plastic bottles, or they prepare printing leftovers for recycling: badly paid piecework with a high risk. Someone sells  tea and sweets from a wooden cart at a street corner. Behind the next corner yawn the ruins of Sarangpur Cotton Mill No. 2. The mill was closed in 1996 as one of the last, and destroyed shortly thereafter. Since then,  the inhabitants are trying to take over the area, for the living situation in Rajpur Hirpur is all but explosive; the population has grown rapidly from 15,000 to 60,000.

‘Of course Dalits were discriminated against,’ says former labour union leader Bhudarbhai. ‘Most Dalits used to be weavers, but in the mills they were allowed only to spin, because the idea that the spit of a Dalit might get into the fabric was inconceivable to higher castes, and weavers customarily repair broken thread with spit. Later on, in some mills where Dalits were allowed to weave, the bosses arrived at a pragmatic solution: they sprinkled water on the fabric to undo the pollution.’ Dalits and Muslims were also forced to eat their lunch separately, because they were ‘meat eaters’. ‘In reality, higher castes also eat meat, but in public they always pretend that they don’t. The taboo dies hard,’ says Bhudarbhai. In spite of the discrimination, working in the mills had also its advantages. The mill workers were well organised. The labour unions that were set up in Gandhi’s time took care of the basic social rights of the workers. In the contemporary factories, the labour unions are only tokens. The workers have hardly any chance of negotiation; a Dalit who is employed has to  be content with a daily wage of fifty rupees, less than the official minimum wage.

Although working families like Chandubhai Maheriya’s had to struggle to make ends meet, they were aware of the importance of education for their children. Education was also encouraged by labour unions; workers wanted to see their children have a better future. Dalits from the present adult generation share memories of working during the day and studying at night. Baskaran, a Dalit activist from Madurai  recounts: ‘Our house had no electricity and I studied outside by the street light. As of my early school days, I had no more than four or five hours sleep a night.’ Baskaran grew up in a sharply segregated cotton mill workers’ neighbourhood. Even today, the Mill Colony has a ‘Dalit Lane’, a street where mainly Dalits live. The tiny, dark houses are still inhabited by whole families. ‘We  four brothers slept outside, our sisters slept in the room.’ The level of education of the younger generations has dropped dramatically. Many parents find it unnecessary to let their children study only to face unemployment later. In Rajpur Hirpur there are young people with an MA in English literature who repair old turpentine containers. Salary: one rupee for each container.

Chennai, India 2004. Photo: Paul van der Stap

It is morning in Karumbale, a decent living area in Madurai. Pandiamma and Kurgesan are on their way to work; they live in the village of Chakkimangalam not far from Madurai. All 2000 inhabitants are arunthatiyars, manual scavengers and garbage pickers, and they all travel to the city every day to work. Pandiamma cleans a public toilet and the area around it which is used for the same purpose twice a day. Kurgesan collects garbage from private houses. From his daily wages of ninety rupees, he pays five to the supervisor, a fat man who criss-crosses the area on his large motor bike. Kurgesan’s father was a manual scavenger, his eldest son is a manual scavenger, and he himself has been working as a manual scavenger for some thirty years. He is the secretary of the arunthatiyar society, which functions as an underground labour union.

‘We get nothing from the boss, no gloves, no shoes. The work is bad for your health; we often have skin infections and have to breathe poisonous gasses when we clean the sewers at night. As Dalits we have no alternative. Other groups like thevars and Muslims may also start low, but after a couple of months they already have climbed to rickshaw or lorry driver. They have cash, you see. The bribes can amount to tens of thousands of rupees; we don’t have money like that.’

The Dalits never see more than the toilet and the back door of the houses of higher castes. All physical contact between the inhabitants and the scavengers is barred. If the garbage bags are not on the doorstep in the morning, Kurgesan has to shout as long and as hard as is necessary until the inhabitants send someone to bring the bags outside. In areas where Dalits live, the segregation is often extreme. In Baskaran’s Mill Colony some of the tenants built a second floor onto their tiny houses, but recently even that possibility of  improvement has been forbidden. Neighbours from the higher castes living in the nearby new flats passed a regulation forbidding all construction in Mill Colony. Now the flat tenants are planning to have a wall built so that they will not have to look at the Mill Colony houses. The wall is planned straight across the front side of the gardens of Baskaran’s family and their next-door neighbours, cutting off their access to the main road. Spokesperson for the colony and a lawyer, Baskaran is firm in his protest, but the higher castes have the advantage of money and the right kind of contacts.

In the slum of Melavasal thousands of families, for a good part Dalits, are threatened with forced  resettlement. Originally, Melavasal was a camp of tents and makeshift huts of immigrants from rural areas. In the 70s flats were built for government employees, among whom are many arunthatiyars and other Dalits. Then, the slum stood in the outskirts of Madurai, but in the last decades the city has grown far outside its former boundaries, and an extensive hut colony has risen around the flats. Now the flats have been declared ‘untenable’ and ‘dangerous’. Actually, they must make place for office buildings, as there is lack of space in the city centre and real estate developers are always on the alert for new plots of land. There will be no protest from the tenants because the different groups are not on speaking terms.

In the labour market the private sector effectuates  the same kind of harsh restructuring. The official quotas for government jobs are worth less and less in the  rapidly privatising and globalising Indian economy. The private sector is ruled by the principle of the highest bribe; nobody is obliged to employ Dalits or other discriminated groups. Twenty year-old Subramanian from Melavasal has fought hard to distance himself from manual scavenging, the ‘traditional’ job of his sub-caste. He now works as a bellboy in one of the better three-star hotels in Madurai. The contract would be a stroke of luck for anybody without a high school diploma; for an arunthatiyar it is extraordinary. Subramanian does not earn more than a manual scavenger, but he has been able to choose his job – and that is what counts. It does not even bother him that his fellow workers, non-Dalits that is, are much better paid than he. In contact with the other employees he does not face direct discrimination, but a certain distance exists.

‘So they know that you’re an arunthatiyar?’

‘I have only told my manager. He would never talk.’ ‘Why the distance, then?’

‘They feel it.’


‘There are innumerable ways to perceive someone’s descent,’ says Sudhakar David, NCDHR associate in Hyderabad. ‘It is written in the way you look at others, in the gestures you make, in the language you speak, in your name… My wife and I went to see a house. We were driving the jeep of the organisation, so the house owner thought that we were quite something [grins]. When everything was almost settled, he suddenly saw that my wife didn’t have a tilak [a red dot that Hindu women wear on their forehead] and he became suspicious. Were we Hindus? he wanted to know. No, we said, Christians. That was sufficient information, because ninety percent of the Christians are Dalits. We could forget about the house.’ Finally, Sudhakar and his wife found a house in a nice area. ‘All our neighbours are Brahmins who look the other way when we come into view.’ As if to provide further confirmation to this story David points at a sign hanging on the front of a house. ‘To let for a vegetarian family,’ it says. ‘Vegetarian’ is a euphemism for Brahmin, just as ‘Christian’ is for Dalit.


Dalits and other poor people face an uncertain future. Today, about 80% of the Dalits still live in rural areas, but the pull of the cities is strong. Like other rapidly industrializing countries in Asia, the ratio of urban to rural population in India – now 30% to 70% – is likely to change radically in the next few years. The rural areas are confronted with drastic changes, too. In the globalising economy, every opportunity is explored to grab land and natural resources in areas that were formerly considered to be remote.

In 21 coastal villages in the Nagapattikam district in Tamil Nadu, the soil has been irrevocably polluted by commercial prawn farms. Prawns have become one of the major export products of the state during the last decades. Businessmen from Bangalore and Chennai, but also from as far away as Uttar Pradesh, are busy buying up uncultivated waste land, in exchange for  which they promise not only money but also employment. Kanagasabai, a Dalit and the village leader of Kattur, shakes his head in disbelief. ‘Actually, they never employed more than four or five people in all of Kattur.’ Slowly the companies have pushed further inland to fertile fields. The villagers, who are mostly illiterate, were not aware of the damaging side-effects of the industry; they were too slow to understand that the brackish water used to water the ponds would effect the soil. Suddenly, their irrigation canals were drained by the prawn farms. In the meantime, whole villages have become uninhabitable. Kanagasabai tells laconically of the attempt of one of the farms to incorporate the Dalit graveyard as well. ‘It would seem they are not satisfied with just breaking us up; they won’t even let our ancestors rest in peace.’

In Kattur, as in other coastal places, there have been protests. A desperate fishing community smashed dozens of prawn ponds in a single night, and elsewhere prawn farms have been sabotaged by chemicals which have been thrown into the ponds. The reaction of the farms adds one more chapter to the long list of house burning, torture and rape, eventually in cooperation with the police and hired private guards. The very fact that  the Dalits protest the loss of their livelihood and the destruction of their villages infuriates many landowners, government officers and politicians of the higher castes, as every form of Dalit protest is considered to be a potential danger to the continuance of the caste system. ‘That’s how it has to be,’ says a municipal officer in Vagoda in the district of Surendranagar in Gujarat, as explanation. ‘Castes are the basis of our society. If the caste system loosens up, the whole society will fall apart.’ Vagoda has three hundred families, out of which more than half are landowners. They depend on the labour of the landless Dalits, but they forbid them to enter the village temple. Why? ‘Because they are non- vegetarians. We, landowners and larger farm owners, are vegetarians. That’s the difference.’ The euphemistic appeal to ritual purity is a poor justification for the oppression of the Dalits.

‘Caste discrimination has been silently passed from generation to generation for three thousand years,’ says Martin Macwan. ‘That is not at all necessary. It does not require a PhD and a revolution to make an end to the prejudice. It is enough for parents to tell their children three times a day, like a dose of medicine, that they are not higher or lower than anybody else and that everyone is equal.’ One’s capacity to protest starts with the realisation that discrimination is a puff of hot air. It does not solve the real problems of poverty, unemployment and humiliation, but it gives the Dalits resistance.

The one who can resist, understands that it is not self- evident to bow one’s head when being addressed by a landowner. The language can serve as a means of empowerment, too. ‘We have given the term “Dalit” a new meaning: Dalit is not a caste, but a moral position of people who believe in equality. This position makes us progressive; backward are those who think that people are inequal. We have turned the positions around, you see.’


Leven als Dalit / Dalit Lives is available in the webshop of Slowdocs Publishers or through your regular bookshop.