Broken People, Broken Promises

Dalits face a new threat from India's Hindu nationalists.

By Jehangir Pocha

In These Times, January 3, 2003 original

Audiences in Bombay’s 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, India’s 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 group—two Indian governments have been led by Dalit parties—discrimination 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.

  • India’s 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 Dalit activist.
  • 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 pail—an inauspicious act. The attack occurred just days before President Clinton’s 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 India’s Hindu nationalists—a 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 government’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Sangh Parivar wants to unite all India’s 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 BJP’s 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 BJP’s campaign for law based on Hindutva, an orthodox set of Hindu principles, India’s 250 million Dalits have found greater common cause with India’s 120 million Muslims and other minorities. Their alliance, thus far, has limited the BJP’s ability to further the Hindu nationalist agenda.


Click here to read about the U.S. connection.

The Sangh Parivar’s 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 Parivar’s conversion programs reveals a different agenda. In recent years, it has begun to establish a network of religious schools and development centers across India’s 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 Gujarat—riots 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 People’s 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. “It’s like Christian missionaries seeing new converts as somewhat unworthy of worshipping Christ and teaching them to worship Peter instead. It’s not conversion, it’s 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 Parivar’s 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 India’s constitution.

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 India’s non-Muslim and non-Christian minorities—Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists—to 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 U.S. Connection
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 Americans.

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 contributed.

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 the city.

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 up.

“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.” –J.P.

The situation reveals the complex tessellation of caste and religion that is driving India’s increasingly ethnic politics. “The BJP’s main aim today is to try and gloss over historical differences within Hinduism and mold Hindus into a single vote bloc it can control,” Desai says. “But the Sangh Parivar’s vision is not of a faith where all are equal. It is of a faith where all others agree to abide by the orthodox rules of a select few. ... It is Brahminism revisited.”

Jehangir Pocha, a native of Bombay, is an international journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

India's Caste Politics

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 by caste.

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.