In the shadow of India's economic miracle lies a people often deemed untouchable, largely impoverished, and seemingly invisible. Bubbling beneath the shimmering image of a new India is a cauldron of inequality, caste-based subordination, and religious tension that could boil over into even greater civil strife and violence. At the center of these forces lies the Dalit struggle. While Dalit rights are often denied and hopes are crushed, growing political, economic, and spiritual empowerment is fueling a movement for liberation. The emancipation of the Dalits could serve as the key to securing India's nonsectarian, democratic future. However, this future collides with the ancient system of castes, which still confers profound benefits or burdens upon Indians simply because of their birth names.
For more than 3,000 years, the caste system has divided Indian society into four distinct classes, or varnas. Outside this system are the Dalits, who according to caste are not considered part of human society and are therefore less than fully human. While untouchability was outlawed in the 1950 Constitution and atrocities against Dalits are prohibited through the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, a lack of political will and widespread corruption at all levels makes the law all but obsolete. Untouchability remains particularly acute in the rural areas of India, where 70 percent of the population still resides. While a great deal has changed in the sprawling and more tolerant cities, in rural areas people's entire lives are circumscribed by a caste identity that suffocates their dignity and segregates their lives.
The Dalit population approximates that of the entire United States. Imagine the U.S. population living in a perpetual state of discrimination and marginalization. This should strike a familiar chord with our own recent history with Jim Crow segregation. According to Joseph D'souza, president of the Dalit Freedom Network and All India Christian Council, the government has outlawed the symptoms of untouchability but ignores the actual disease of caste that still relegates nearly 250 million people to an apartheid-like existence. Comparing the Dalit struggle to a system of apartheid may seem like hyperbole. However, the entrenched system of caste systematically subordinates a large segment of Indian society.
The name "Dalit" means "broken" or "ground down." Approximately 25 percent of India's vast population is Dalit. To this day, people from higher castes refuse to marry Dalits; they are relegated to occupations that are considered degrading; most caste Hindus will not eat or drink with Dalits; and the majority of bonded laborers and sexual slaves in India are Dalit. Caste is part of a Hindu belief that people inherit their stations in life based on the sins and good deeds of past lives. Despite signs of economic mobility, Dalits are often the victims of dehumanizing acts of violence and humiliation designed to keep them in their place. As I learned more about the mounting crisis of AIDS in India, it is the Dalits who are most prone to be living with HIV and most likely to die a painful death from the disease.
I first heard about the Dalit struggle at the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Discrimination in 2001. A large contingent of Dalit activists were present in full force. Their message was that the entrenched caste system in Southeast Asia was equivalent to racism and that their voices could no longer be silenced. Unfortunately, their voices were drowned by so many other oppressed voices vying for global attention, and by the controversy around the pulling out of the U.S. delegation.
It took another six years for the Dalit struggle to capture my conscience. In a presentation about the modern-day system of slavery, Gary Haugen, director of the International Justice Mission, based in Washington, D.C., described India as the worst abuser of human trafficking in the world. During a series of meetings over the past year, Rev. Sam Paul, national secretary of public affairs for the All India Christian Council, and Dr. Joseph D'souza have brought the Dalit struggle even closer to home, asking Sojourners to become engaged in the international Dalit freedom movement.
A year later I find myself in the crucible of the Dalit struggle, spending a week with the Dalit Freedom Network and the All India Christian Council, visiting one of the provinces in India that is hardest hit by Christian persecution and Dalit oppression. In many parts of India, the Dalit struggle intersects directly with the issue of religious freedom, as nearly 70 percent of Christians in India are Dalit. While Christians constitute a small minority in India, 2 to 3 percent of the population still translates into roughly 30 million people. Many Dalits and tribal caste people converted to Christianity in order to escape religiously sanctioned inferiority within Hinduism, drawn to a new identity and equality in Christ. However, many in India cling to the notion that India is a Hindu nation and that to be Indian is to be Hindu. Dalit Christians are thus twice-oppressed, once as the outcasts, and then again as members of an often-despised faith. This series will explore the Dalit struggle based on my experiences over the past week through what has felt like a baptism by fire. I hope and pray that you will join me in learning more about this modern system of apartheid.
Adam Taylor is the senior political director for Sojourners. To learn more, read Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables." Feb. 2007