in Bombays derelict Art-Deco cinema halls often
hoot and whistle when their hero vanquishes a villain.
Made to formula, Bollywood movies often end with the hero
punching up a local thakkur, an upper-caste landlord,
for the many injustices he perpetrated against the peasants
during the preceding three hours. When the battered villain
finally begs for mercy between sobs of guilt and remorse,
the hero usually shows his softer side and reprimands
the landlord. At this point, a police officer magically
appears to handcuff the chastised villain and thank the
hero for fighting the good fight: Now the law will
give him his punishment, the officer says, as the
curtain comes down to cheers.
But Bollywood is a fantasy.
In a 2,000-year-old hangover from one
bad idea, Indias 250 million untouchables,
who call themselves Dalits, and tribal people still
endure crushing oppression and political manipulation
from upper castes. The category of untouchables
was officially abolished in India more than half a century
ago, but despite affirmative action that has led to
considerable gains for the grouptwo Indian governments
have been led by Dalit partiesdiscrimination and
persecution of Dalits are still rife. Human rights groups
estimate that hundreds of thousands of caste-based crimes
occur in India each year. Very few of these are reported.
Only a handful are ever prosecuted.
Click here to read
about India's caste politics.
Caste conflict does not produce many
soundbites or banner headlines. The stories of these
silent sieges are buried in local newspapers and dusty
police logs in remote Indian villages. They are about
the grim, persistent denial of basic human rights to
about 250 million people, and the regular but unspectacular
injustices perpetrated against them by oppressors who
consider them the lowest human life form. The dehumanizing
nature of these crimes reveals more about the problem
than sheer numbers.
- Indias National Human Rights
Commission reports that, in some areas, Dalits are
still forced to live in segregated colonies and work
in inhuman conditions. They are denied the use
of the same wells and the same temples as caste Hindus,
and are even forbidden to drink from the same cups
in tea stalls, says Dr. K. Jamnadas, a leading
- In the aftermath of a 2001 earthquake
in Gujarat, relief agencies were forced to mark their
supplies of blood with the caste of the person it
came from, or else people would not use them.
- That same year in Agra, home of the
Taj Mahal, a low-caste woman named Sukhviri Devi was
stripped naked and beaten to death by two upper-caste
men. Her sin was to cross their path while carrying
an empty pailan inauspicious act. The attack
occurred just days before President Clintons
visit to the city.
- In Bareilly, in the northern state
of Uttar Pradesh, a local official, Shabbir Ahmad,
beat to death a low-caste teen-ager in 2000 for plucking
flowers from his garden.
- Last year in Lucknow, also in Uttar
Pradesh, in a grotesquely medieval version of a classic
romantic tragedy, a lower-caste girl and upper-caste
boy were publicly lynched by their families, who were
incensed at the impure relationship. Hundreds
watched and applauded.
Even as many Dalits and tribals struggle
for access to the full legal rights granted to them
in 1950, they face a new and insidious threat from Indias
Hindu nationalistsa threat that could subvert
their fledgling political movement, unleash new waves
of violence, and trap them once again onto the lowest
rungs of the social hierarchy.
On October 15, as people all over India
celebrated the Hindu festival of dusherra, five Dalits
were arrested by local police in the Jhajjar district
of the state of Haryana. Their alleged crime: killing
and skinning a cow in public. (Cow slaughter, in deference
to Hindu sensibilities, is banned in most of India.)
When news of the arrests spread, a mob broke into the
police station and lynched the five men in the presence
of more than 50 policemen, city magistrates and government
officials. Later, police admitted that there was no
evidence against the men.
Ethnic tensions had been high in Jhajjar
since 33 Dalit families converted to Islam sometime
in August. Historically, many Dalits have converted
to Buddhism, Christianity or Islam to escape the badge
of dishonor orthodox Hinduism placed on them.
Local NGOs and political parties charged that the attack
had been politically motivated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
and Bajrang Dal, two Hindu fundamentalist organizations.
The attack brought into sharp relief
the escalating tensions between Dalits and the Sangh
Parivar, the Hindu nationalist movement that encompasses
the governments ruling Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP). The Sangh Parivar wants to unite all Indias
ethnic groups against Muslims and Christians. In what
has been described as a war for souls, the
Sangh Parivar has launched an aggressive campaign to
convince Dalits and tribals to surrender their traditional
identities and follow mainstream Hinduism.
The BJPs artful manipulation of
Hindu-Muslim divisions brought it to power in 1998 as
the head of a coalition government, but it has never
won an absolute parliamentary majority. Suspicious of
the BJPs campaign for law based on Hindutva, an
orthodox set of Hindu principles, Indias 250 million
Dalits have found greater common cause with Indias
120 million Muslims and other minorities. Their alliance,
thus far, has limited the BJPs ability to further
the Hindu nationalist agenda.
Click here to read
about the U.S. connection.
The Sangh Parivars efforts to
convert untouchables and tribals is a cynical attempt
to fracture their sense of solidarity with Muslims.
The party wants to direct the combined force of
this massive vote bank against Muslims and Christians,
whom it despises, and transform secular India into a
Hindu state ruled by Hindutva, says Radhika Desai,
a professor at the University of Victoria in Canada,
who works with tribal communities in Gujarat.
The Sangh Parivar claims that their
efforts to absorb these people back into
Hinduism is an attempt to ameliorate the caste differences
that have separated Dalits and tribals from mainstream
society in the first place. But a closer look at the
Sangh Parivars conversion programs reveals a different
agenda. In recent years, it has begun to establish a
network of religious schools and development centers
across Indias remote and tribal areas.
Funded extensively by the Indian expatriate
community in the United States, these schools are the
Trojan horse of the Hindu right. Luring credulous and
desperately poor Dalit and tribal youth with promises
of education and social uplift, the Sangh Parivar preaches
a radical version of Hindu supremacy that gains strength
at the expense of Indian Muslims and other minorities.
Desai and others charge that the Sangh
Parivar, leveraging the devotional fervor of these unsophisticated
new converts, is using the former untouchables
as shock troops in their violent anti-Muslim pogroms.
Evidence of this emerged after the March
2002 riots in Gujaratriots that were widely believed
to have been orchestrated by the Sangh Parivar. The
riots, which were retribution for an earlier attack
by Muslims on a train carrying Hindu fundamentalists,
left 2,000 dead and 100,000 homeless. Witnesses and
investigators said the local BJP government and Sangh
Parivar groups systematically trucked intoxicated mobs
into Muslim areas, directing them via computerized lists
to destroy Muslim property. Within hours, a state renowned
for its ancient citadels and verdant hamlets lay blood-drenched,
scorched and pillaged.
According to the Peoples Union
for Civil Liberties, areas where large numbers of youth
are enrolled in tribal development centers experienced
some of the worst violence against Muslims. As smoke
still billowed from burning cities and scorched fields,
K.K. Shastri, chairman of a Sangh Parivar group in Gujarat,
publicly praised rioters from an area where his group
runs a tribal development center: They have done
an amazing job.
The irony of it all, says
Deepika Chadha, an activist in Gujarat, is that
the most backward community, the tribals, were being
manipulated into battering the next most backward, the
Muslims, at the behest of the most privileged.
Despite promises to the contrary, critics
say, the converts from the Sangh Parivar religious schools
are not treated as equals in their new faith. In an
ingenious move designed to retain the basic principles
of caste superiority, Dalit and tribal converts are
assigned to worship only the minor gods of Hinduism,
like Hanuman, the warrior monkey-king who served Ram,
but not major gods like Ram himself. Making tribals
and Dalits worship a minor god who was a disciple of
their own god is not a way of giving them a place, but
a way of showing them their place, Desai says.
Its like Christian missionaries seeing new
converts as somewhat unworthy of worshipping Christ
and teaching them to worship Peter instead. Its
not conversion, its subversion.
While aggressively pursuing its own
conversion strategy, the Sangh Parivar and
its allies are sponsoring state-level legislation banning
religious conversion. Legal experts say that the legislation
is written in such a way that it uses the Sangh Parivars
definition of Hinduism to delegitimize Dalit conversions
to Islam or Christianity, while allowing Dalit conversion
to Hinduism. Recently the southern state of Tamil Nadu,
which is governed by a BJP ally, became the first state
to pass such a law. More states are poised to follow,
even though restrictions on conversion defy Indias
To curry support from the electorate,
the Sangh Parivar is packaging its call for a homogenous
Hindu identity around the age-old argument that divisions
within Hinduism weaken India. It claims that it is protecting
India and Hinduism, which it sees as synonymous, from
the foreign influences of Islamic Pakistan,
Communist China and the Christian West.
To further isolate Muslims and Christians,
the Sangh Parivar is also pressuring Indias non-Muslim
and non-Christian minoritiesSikhs, Jains and Buddhiststo
embrace the Hindutva platform. In a sweeping and novel
definition of Hinduism, the Sangh Parivar claims that
all people and faiths with roots in India
are Hindu. In this view, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism
are merely Hindu sub-sects.
The powerful Indian-American diaspora is helping
to shake the foundations of a democratic, secular
country, driving it toward Hindu chauvinism. The
Indian community in the United States has recently
become America’s wealthiest minority and has doubled
in size over the past decade to almost 2 million
people. It has also become an increasingly influential
player in India’s politics.
Many in the Indian diaspora, while
outwardly blending in with America’s cosmopolitan
identity, have more conservative views than Indians
living in India. Most of Indian-American society
is organized along lines of caste, race and religion.
With the financial and political support of these
conservatives, caste and ethnicity are emerging
as the primary forces shaping Indian politics.
A large and powerful section of
the community, which has a disproportionately
high percentage of upper castes, has become enthusiastic
bankrollers of the Sangh Parivar’s religious nationalism
and pro-business policies. “At least $6 million
has been officially raised in the United States
by Sangh Parivar groups fronting as charitable
organizations and sent to its tribal development
centers,” says Vijay Prashad, director of international
studies at Trinity College in Connecticut. “Money
is also raised informally through private dinners
and the like and sent illegally to the BJP.”
This process is illegal in the
United States, where there has been a post-9/11
crackdown on underground financial networks allegedly
connected to al-Qaeda, and in India, where there
is a ban on foreign funding of political parties.
However, it continues to operate virtually unchecked.
A recent report co-authored by
Prashad says that supporters of the Hindu right
in the United States have established several
U.S. “subsidiaries” of the Sangh Parivar. These
include such organizations as the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad of America, the India Development and
Relief Fund, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and the
Hindu Heritage Endowment.
Prashad’s report illustrates the
Sangh Parivar’s elaborate and complex system of
fundraising through charitable fronts. Often presenting
themselves as non-political organizations, Prashad
says, U.S.-based groups such as the Indian Development
and Relief Fund and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
of America, run programs with feel-good names
like “Support-A-Child” to raise money from unsuspecting
In the past, the Indian Development
and Relief Fund has held official fundraising
drives at companies such as Cisco, Sun and Oracle.
These companies even matched the funds their employees
The bulk of these funds are then
sent to organizations in India such as Sewa Bharti
and Keshava Seva Samithi, which operate schools
and centers to convert Dalits.
Both the U.S. organizations and
their Indian partners claim these schools are
meant to protect tribals, and they deny having
any link to the Sangh Parivar. But in Hyderabad,
for example, Keshava Seva Samithi shares its headquarters
with the leading Sangh Parivar organization in
Shyam Tiwari, the spokesman for
the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, which runs
the Support-A-Child Program, also denies that
his organization has a political agenda or connection
to the VHP in India—a leading Sangh Parivar organization.
“There is no connection to the VHP except in name,”
he says. “We are totally separate. They do not
tell us what to do, and we do not tell them.”
But Tiwari acknowledges that many
U.S.-based charitable organizations “may have
been started by ex-members of the Sangh Parivar
in their private capacity” and may have “informal
links with those parties in India.”
Tiwari also denies that the Support-A-Child
program funds Sangh Parivar activities. “The Support-A-Child
program is run without bias of religion or anything
for the poor students,” he says. But he admits
that 75 percent of the funds from the Support-A-Child
program are sent to students enrolled in VHP-affiliated
schools in India.
The compelling evidence that these
U.S. groups are linked to ethnic violence in India
has led more than 250 South Asian academics to
start informing donors about where the money ends
“When giving funds to projects
with names like Support-A-Child,” Prashad says,
“people often have no idea that their money is
being used to convert tribal kids into Hindu fundamentalists.”
Ever since the law-giver Manu divided
ancient Indian society into a hierarchical system, every
aspect of a Hindu’s life—name, schooling, occupation,
housing, marriage, worship, rights—has been determined
Manu’s system segregated individuals
on the basis of “ritual purity.” Caste Hindus were considered
essential to the functioning of life and subdivided
into four principal categories, or varnas. Brahmins
(priests) and Kshatriyas (warriors) enjoyed an exalted
position in society and a monopoly on religious education
and political power. Vaishyas (traders and merchants)
were allowed some privileges and the chance to acquire
wealth and land. Shudhras (peasants and artisans) worked
to provide for the other castes.
Persons considered “too fallen” to merit
inclusion in any caste became the “untouchables.” Considered
“human pollution,” they were shunned by caste Hindus
and forced to live on the periphery of life as scavengers
and dung-gatherers. Along with India’s ancient tribal
people, who were seen as backward and subhuman, they
were reduced to living in appalling conditions with
no land or legal rights.
Since the caste system was abolished
in 1950, successive governments have instituted programs
to assist untouchables, who call themselves Dalits,
or “broken people.” These include a series of land reforms
and a system of “reservations”—affirmative-action programs
that give Dalits and tribals preferred access to government
jobs and education.
But such programs have been fiercely
resisted by members of upper castes, who are eager to
preserve their privileged lifestyle, and who are acutely
aware that Dalit and tribal emancipation would undermine
the entire caste-based feudal economy. Official figures
show that Brahmins, who make up just 5 percent of the
population, still hold 70 percent of senior government
jobs and 78 percent of all judicial positions.
The continued lack of educational opportunities
for India’s poorest people means the divide in literacy
rates between Dalits and the upper classes has barely
narrowed since the late ’60s. Most Dalits remain locked
in menial jobs. At golf clubs, five-star hotels, corporate
headquarters and government offices, the shabby, sad-eyed
toilet cleaners who creep apologetically from restroom
to restroom continue to be almost exclusively Dalit.
The failure of land reform programs
designed to uplift rural Dalits has been even more abject.
According to Human Rights Watch, upper-class landlords
have often murdered Dalits and tribals who sought to
assert their land rights, usually after gruesome torture
and humiliation intended to intimidate others. Dalits’
homes, shrines and political centers have been destroyed
for similar reasons.
Typical is the case of Samendra Sain,
who was tortured, humiliated and then shot dead in front
of his wife and fellow villagers by upper-caste landlords
in March 2000 after he refused to hand over land allotted
to him during a land reform program in the state of
Uttar Pradesh. Such gruesome incidents are so common
that even Dalit activists say that, after a point, it
seems meaningless to track them.
Such actions have ensured that most
Dalits remain landless. Compelled to work as serfs for
extremely low wages on land owned by upper-caste landlords,
they often fall into debt with local money-lenders,
who give them small sums at high interest rates. Once
locked into debt, Dalits are often forced to work for
years as illegally bonded labor or prostitutes (the
only time when “untouchables” suddenly become touchable).
Human Rights Watch estimates that there are more than
40 million forced laborers in India, most of whom are
Dalit, and 15 million of whom are children.
When a local NGO rescued five Dalit
laborers from a stone quarry near Bangalore last year,
they found the workers shackled in irons that had been
welded shut. Official apathy, and even hostility to
demands that the government crack down on the intricate
systems of serfdom, money-lending and forced labor that
have become ingrained within rural Indian society, means
few of these cases are ever prosecuted. –J.P.