Taking on caste-based discrimination

By Maurice Malanes
17 Apr 2009

Caste-based discrimination in India may be 3,500 years old, but something new is unfolding. An emerging liberation movement has consciously chosen not to focus on Dalits' victimhood, but on the latent strength of the Dalit people, drawn from their own history and culture. It also has am important theological dimension.

By switching the emphasis from victimhood to inner strength, the Dalit Panchayat Movement in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, may very well be contributing to changing the course of India's history as well as that of its neighbours.

There is no doubt, says Dalit activist, educator and author Dr Jyothi Raj, that Dalit people have been victims of history as well as historical victims. "But they have reached many heights beyond victimhood," she says. "Insisting on victimhood in order to gain the sympathy of non-Dalit supporters has the potential of further piercing through the psyche of the Dalit people."

Among churches in India, there is also an emerging Dalit theology, rooted in the understanding that God is struggling alongside the Dalits for their liberation.

In order to emphasize the inner strength of Dalits and further engage the church in this effort, a Global Ecumenical Conference on Justice for Dalits was held in Bangkok, Thailand, in late March.

Organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) together with the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and hosted by the Christian Conference of Asia, the conference gathered 95 leaders and representatives of churches and organizations worldwide.

The aim of the conference was to stimulate solidarity and support within the global ecumenical family for the 260 million people affected by caste-based discrimination worldwide.

Of those, an estimated 200 million live in India, where they have been treated as "untouchable" due to Brahmanic ritual traditions that considered them "polluted" or "polluting". Today, these people call themselves Dalit ("oppressed", "crushed").

Raj, who is the director of the Rural Education for Development Society (REDS), a non-governmental organization, spoke at the conference about the Dalit Panchayat Movement.

According to Raj, the approach that first focuses on people's victimhood and later tries to overcome it, does not work. "Dealing with an oppressed psyche, this can reinforce an inferiority complex," she says.

Instead, the Dalit Panchayat Movement "concentrates all its energy on the tremendous potentials that lay hidden within the Dalit community and were never allowed to come up," says Raj.

At first, the strength of the Dalit community poses a challenge to the oppressive caste society. "It is a challenging point in as much as the caste society is engaged in the denial of rights of the Dalit people," explains Raj. "It becomes a meeting point later on, when negotiations take place after the assertion of Dalit strength."

Raj cites the traditional practice of letting Dalits carry and bury the dead animals of upper caste people. Dalits empowered by movement are now able to say to upper caste people: "We have nothing to do with your dead animal. If it is not possible for you to carry and bury your dead animal, it is not possible for us either."

In another example, Dalits have learned to negotiate a good bargain. Traditionally obliged to dig graves, assertive and empowered Dalits now say: "We cannot come and dig your grave unless you pay us 2,000 rupees; otherwise we won't dig your grave."

Through such assertion and negotiation from a position of strength, says Raj, Dalits are nowadays challenging the deeply entrenched practice of non-paid and forced labour imposed on them for more than 3,000 years.

The path of self-affirmation, as Raj describes it, entails the recovery of the history and culture of the Dalit community which has been blotted out by official Indian history.

Raj takes pride in the fact that such a recovery began with the publication, in 2003, of Dalitology, a book initiated by her and her organization.

Based on the assertion of Dalit culture as articulated in Dalitology, the Dalit Panchayat Movement was started in Kartanaka's Tumkur district. Panchayat literally means assembly (yat) of five (panch). These village councils of elders constitute a basic unit of governance in some regions of India.

Dalit panchayats are made up of ten leaders, including elders, young people and women. Out of the ten, five must be women. Over 1,000 Dalit panchayats exist in as many villages of the Tumkur district, reports Raj. Some 550 more are being started in another dozen of Karnataka's districts.

"We are optimistic that through the movement we can capture more seats in parliament," says Raj. The movement is also lobbying the government to give each Dalit family five acres (two hectares) of land to be registered in the name of Dalit women. "We all belong to this land, but 90 percent of us Dalits don't have land," says Raj.

Now taught in some seminaries in India, Dalit theology is "part of an emerging initiative to help the Dalits reclaim their lost dignity and rights," says Bishop Dr Isaac Mar Philoxenos of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar in India.

Dalit theology in a way complements the Dalit Panchayat Movement. "Dalit theology seeks to help the Dalit people express their own experiences through their own symbols and language so they can eventually regain their lost self-esteem and pride as a people," says the bishop, who helped draft the Bangkok Declaration and Call during the global ecumenical conference.

Dalit panchayats have so far evolved forms of worship and festivals based on the recovery of their history and culture and have established the first ever Dalit ashram in India – the Booshakthi Kendra, where Dalits converge to learn about Dalit spirituality, politics and philosophy.

Empowered by this movement, Dalits are learning to live their lives disregarding and defeating the norms and traditions prescribed by the caste society.

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(c) Maurice Malanes is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. Currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI), he also writes for the Manila-based Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Bangkok-based Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN).

Keywords: caste system | dalits
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