Two years ago, a young man went to a roadside restaurant in Gaibandha district of north Bangladesh and asked for a cup of tea. The owner refused to serve him. The reason was that the young man, Nirmal Chandra Das, was a Dalit. Das’ humiliation was doubled when he saw the pet monkey of the owner sipping tea from a cup.
In several villages of Tamil Nadu, Dalits are not allowed to have male dogs as pets. People from the upper castes fear that the “Dalit dogs” would mate with bitches owned by them and pollute the purity of their caste. There have been several cases in the rural areas of the state where the upper castes violently objected to the rearing of dogs by Dalits. What begins with the killing of the dogs often degenerates into untold atrocities on Dalits.
About a year ago, Bharo Bheel, a young poet, was found dead in Badin district of Sindh province in Pakistan. He was buried in a corner of a graveyard in the village. Three days later, an “upper-caste mob” dug up the grave and pulled out Bheel’s body. Like in the first two cases, the reason was that Bheel was a Dalit.
These are just three of the numerous instances of the present-day apartheid — the caste system in practice — that were shared by some “untouchable” citizens from various South Asian countries at a meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal. They had gathered for the “People’s SAARC” — an initiative of civil society movements from the region that was organised parallel to the official SAARC summit.
“Without ensuring basic human dignity and inclusion for the Dalits in South Asia, what is the meaning of conducting the SAARC summit?” asks Paul Divakar, chairman of the Asia Dalit Rights Forum. “How can you talk of peace and security without addressing the systemic and systematic exclusionary practices that exist across the region?”
Indeed, caste-based discrimination is not just an Indian or Hindu phenomenon. It is a common feature that punctuates — often violently — the social, economic and political life of people across South Asia. While Brahminical Hinduism, which holds sway over the beliefs of a large section of the population, especially in India and Nepal, provides a theological justification for the caste system, the practices associated with it are also seen in communities following other religions.
Interestingly, Islam has also developed its own systems of hierarchy in the South Asian countries. Dominant Islamic jurisprudence justifies superiority based on descent and lineage and its manifestation is visible in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese society in Sri Lanka has invented its own peculiar systems of discrimination that have striking similarities with the caste system.
There are more than 260 million Dalits in the world, who are distinguished by “low-status” occupations such as scavenging, segregated living spaces and severely restricted access to social, economic and political resources and opportunities. More than 80 percent of the Dalits live in South Asia. India leads the list with 201 million Dalits (16.6 percent of the population), followed by Bangladesh (5.5 million), Sri Lanka (5 million or 20-30 percent of the population), Nepal (3.6 million or 13.6 percent of the population) and Pakistan (2 million).
Human development indicators in the South Asian countries show that all the tall claims of development and growth initiated due to previous SAARC summits have a clear caste/ethnic dimension. “Credible academic studies have pointed out the correlation between caste-based discrimination and poverty in South Asia,” says Divakar. “Yet, the official SAARC is not ready to debate it and develop policy initiatives to tackle it. This is against the spirit of the UN Principles and Guidelines on the Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent.”
Dalits are the worst off in terms of deprivation indices such as landlessness, access to housing and medical facilities, malnutrition, underweight and stunting. Moreover, studies prove that they are disproportionately affected in disasters but systematically excluded from rehabilitation and relief packages. Caste identity worked against Dalits in accessing relief after the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, massive floods in Pakistan (2010), Kosi floods in Nepal (2008) and frequent floods in Bangladesh.
There are many similarities in caste discrimination and violence across the SAARC countries. Activists have documented numerous instances in various parts of India where the upper castes do not sell milk to Dalits. Apparently, they believe that if they do, it would affect the milk-producing capacity of their cattle. Non-Dalits are also advised not to buy milk from Dalit households. Such practices are also entrenched in Nepal, where the non-Dalits often invoke religious sanctions against the Dalits.
Many teashops and restaurants in all the South Asian countries display naked forms of discrimination. Many of them don’t allow Dalits inside or ask them to use separate glasses, plates and spoons. Often the Dalit customers are asked to clean the utensils they use. In other instances, Dalits have to squat while having tea.
Forced prostitution with ostensible religious sanction, referred to as the Devadasi system, is still prevalent in India and Nepal despite the laws prohibiting it. In 2012, according to data compiled by the National Commission of Women, there were 48,358 Devadasis in India, most of them in states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Independent agencies say that the actual figure is much higher. In Nepal, many Dalit women, especially those from the Badi caste, are forced into prostitution. The popular casinos and dancing bars in Kathmandu are said to have a disproportionate presence of Dalit women.
Dalit women in all SAARC countries are at the receiving end of the three-pronged violence of “caste, class and gender”, points out Asha Kotwal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Women Rights Forum. “The Dalit woman’s body is increasingly becoming a site where people settle scores and take revenge,” she says.
According to Sono Khangharani, a noted human rights activist from Karachi, “brutal sexual violence” in Indian states such as Haryana and Maharashtra has “striking parallels” with the violence against Dalit women unleashed by feudal forces in the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan.
The situation in Bangladesh is no different. “In several areas, the landed classes use rape as a weapon to displace Dalit families from their land. Fatwas are deployed to psychologically and physically target Dalit women among Muslims,” says Sunil Kumar Mridha, a Dalit leader from Dhaka. Even in post-civil war Sri Lanka, former women cadre of the ltte belonging to the Dalit castes are specifically targeted, point out activists.
The education system in South Asia is also affected by the dark reality of caste. “In schools across South Asia, Dalit students are asked to sit on the back benches,” claimed a member of a group of students who performed a street play at the People’s SAARC meet.
Social discrimination coupled with poverty leads to a high dropout rate among Dalit children. Many of the children who drop out of schools in rural areas migrate to cities and become part of the workforce in the informal sector, which is notorious for ruthless exploitation and discrimination.
Despite the efforts by civil society activists, the 18th SAARC summit chose to keep mum on the caste issue. A recent survey has shown that more than one-fourth of the citizens in India practice untouchability, but the country, which is one of the leading powers in SAARC, also opted for silence on the matter.
“A monkey could drink tea in a restaurant. Why can’t I?” asks Das. But will the SAARC leaders address his question? A robust response to the question would involve addressing and putting an end to the caste system itself. Mahatma Gandhi opposed untouchability but not the caste system that enables it. Many activists believe that the persistence of the system has made it necessary to go beyond the way Gandhi dealt with the issue.