While travelling through India I came across a social class called “untouchables”. Being the lowest possible class of India’s society, considered outside of the traditional caste system, untouchables are facing widespread problems. Even though several measures have been taken by the government since the ’50s, members of this caste still face discrimination and segregation up until today.
I was 18 when I spent two months in India during a summer break. I was inexperienced with travelling and not at all aware at how this trip would be. It ended up being the craziest, loudest, most energy taking, saddest and yet most colourful, exciting and most wonderful trip I would ever experience. I travelled most of the distances by train in the third class. I have met several Indian people in Europe who asked me if I was completely out of my mind. Maybe I was, but I enjoyed living this eye-opening experience.
The trains were full of life, people were coming in and out, selling tea and food, shouting and sleeping. I experienced many things that would stick in my mind for many years. Sometimes poor-looking men would enter on their knees and clean the floors before asking for some money, thereby neither standing up nor looking up. Once another passenger looked at me, saw my confused and shocked face, giggled and said: “He is untouchable, he doesn’t have the right to stand up”.
“Untouchable” is a name for members of the lowest caste in India, called Dalit or nowadays “Scheduled caste”. The word “Dalit” stands for “suppressed, smashed, broken into pieces” in Sanskrit. 200 million Indian people are still considered to be members of this caste. 200 million people that do not have the rights to stand up on a train?
Of course, considering the current law in India every citizen has the right to stand up on a train. The reason for the man’s sentence is found in India’s history of the caste system. The Indian caste system is a way of stratifying a population according to their work and thereby social status. The system is believed to be more than 3000 years old and is justified by Hindu law as “the basis of order and regularity of society”. Untouchables were considered outside of the caste system ever since, made up of street sweepers, latrine cleaners and others executing jobs that are considered “unclean”.
Until the modern constitution of India became effective in 1950, Dalit caste members were subjected to severe discrimination. It was forbidden for them to enter temples, schools and they were often segregated outside of town borders. Their touch was considered polluting and higher caste members had to undergo rituals if they were touched by an untouchable and they would refuse to touch anything that had been touched by an untouchable. The constitution of India and the “prevention of atrocities” act that became effective in 1995 both theoretically protect untouchables from discrimination nowadays. Untouchables were also granted representation in the Indian parliament and in 1997 India elected its first Dalit president K.R. Narayanan.
Seeming to have advanced forward to a state where an untouchable could become president in 1997, how is it possible that a man who is cleaning the floors of a train is not allowed to stand up according to another passenger?
Members of the Dalit caste still face discrimination from members of higher castes and the police rarely intervenes because they are usually of higher castes. The case of president K.R Narayanan is a very rare one and still very few Dalits manage to break out of their role in Indian society.
Nevertheless, the Indian government and people still continue to fight untouchability. The name scheduled caste is now widely used, already moving a step away from the association that people have with “untouchable”. Furthermore, money is invested to integrate untouchables into society by building facilities and offering possibilities for education. There are also two commissions active in India solely to represent the law in the modern constitution of India and to support the closing of the gap between untouchables and Indian society.
To conclude, the men I saw on the train cleaning the floors could have simply stood up. The caste system that is still believed by many to bring order in society is bringing people to believe that they have different rights. Only in March 2018 a Dalit man was beaten to death for owning a horse, making it clear once more why untouchables widely stick to the rules that higher caste people set. It seems as though all measures and actions that are taken by the Indian government to protect every Indian citizen by law still do not change the mind-set of many. The people of India still have a long way to go to widely accept that untouchability is an adjective that should not be given to any human being and that people should be treated equally, regardless of the social class they were born into.
Anna K. Stelling-Germani