Where other religions are concerned, Hinduism deserves its reputation for broad-mindedness. Unlike Christianity, Islam or Judaism, it has no claim to be the truest religion. It accepts unequivocally that other religious traditions are every bit as valid as its own. Yet at the heart of Hindu tolerance, there is a paradox whose human consequences are nearly the cruellest ever known. Over many centuries, and to a very large extent even today, birth in certain Hindu castes has meant that a fifth of all Hindus are subjected by Hindu society to social stigmatisation, ostracism and servitude.
This book sets out in appalling detail what this social order, sanctioned historically by Hindu orthodoxy, often means in the lives of the communities once called "untouchables" and today known as Dalits, numbering about three times the population of Britain. In many places in India, Dalits are forced to use specially designated wells in order to avoid "polluting" Hindus belonging to the "clean" castes; forced to use separate crockery in public eating places; when at school, made to sit at the back of the class; and not allowed into Hindu temples. Such forms of discrimination are, of course, illegal, but the state machine, dominated by higher-caste Hindus, often fails to enforce the law. Dalit castes are still largely confined to the most shunned and least rewarded kinds of work: disposal of waste and agricultural labour. Their housing, especially in rural areas, is the worst and segregated.
Yet none of this is the worst of what happens to "untouchables". Upper-caste rape and killing of them is age old, but in recent decades, as Dalits increasingly cease to behave in the abased ways tradition demands, this violence seems to be growing in scale. What the book does very well is to describe the kinds of atrocities that are committed against Dalits. It then shows how the legal system shields the perpetrators. Most Dalit victims of such abuses, the book notes, are landless labourers. In the large state of Bihar, it has been attempts by Dalits to challenge their serf-like status that has led to large-scale massacres by landlord gangs, and some similar retaliations by armed Dalits.
Why is there such a shocking failure of the legal system to protect Dalits in a supposedly law-governed democratic state? The book ascribes it first of all to the upper-caste character of the police force. The police tend not to register Dalit complaints, or fail to investigate them; the victims are often too economically vulnerable, terrorised and ignorant to file charges. There is national legislation to punish atrocities against Dalits, but local power structures make a mockery of it. The book sums up the Dalit predicament: "Land is the prime asset in the rural areas that determines an individual's standard of living and social status. Lack of access to land makes Dalits economically vulnerable; their dependency is exploited by upper and middle-caste landlords and allows many abuses to go unpunished."
The book presses for measures to be taken to combat this Hindu version of apartheid. It strongly urges the training of the police force and Dalit representation in the strengthening of human-rights monitoring agencies, training of Dalit social activists and the making it safe for them to investigate crimes. There should also be steps to end illiteracy nationwide and pressure from India's trading partners to make the New Delhi government act.
In fairness, it should be noted that, since independence, much has been done by the Indian state and volunteer organisations to improve the lot of Dalits. Discrimination against them is outlawed, and a proportion of places in higher education and government employment is reserved for them. In some areas, they have become politically powerful. Some Dalit castes have competed successfully in economic spheres, and it is not rare to meet "untouchables" more prosperous than many higher-caste Hindus. But generally, the state's benevolent interventions have helped largely the already prosperous and educated Dalits.
What most needs explanation is why Dalits have not been able to use their vast numbers to force India's perpetually vote-hungry politicians to address their interests. Why have Indian Muslims, a great many fewer than the Dalits, been incomparably more effective politically? It is striking how real or alleged violations of the religious rights not only of Hindus, but of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs become instantly notorious throughout India and even abroad, and unceasing pressure is exerted in parliament and by the media to force the Indian government to rectify the situation, while atrocities far larger in scale and brutality against Dalits typically evoke a few days of general indignation and then fade from the news.
The Dalits' position at the bottom of the economic heap is not the whole explanation. They have as yet no India-wide consciousness of being a single community, as the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians have had for centuries. Dalit communities are identified largely by what they are not: Hindus of the "clean" castes. They have not articulated a Hinduism of their own that has any national breadth. Conversion to Christianity or Islam simply alienates them even further from the higher-caste majority, and is in any case not likely on a mass scale. Stronger caste consciousness also has a tendency to separate Dalit communities from each other. The large political parties dominated by upper-caste Hindus have little difficulty in winning over particular Dalit groups with their promises and dividing the Dalit vote.
Education offers the best hope: it is a fact that despite horrendous oppression of Dalits in south India - this book has numerous examples of it - the region is on the whole more enlightened than the north, due to a much higher literacy rate. But this is a tragedy without easy answers, and Hindus should be reminded of it in no uncertain manner every time they are heard rhapsodising on Hindu tolerance.
Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs specialising in Asia.
Broken People: Caste Violence against India's 'Untouchables'
Author - Smita Narula
ISBN - 1 56432 228 9
Publisher - Human Rights Watch
Price - £12.95
Pages - 291