Caste about for a more equitable life

Untouchable Citizens

November 18, 2005

This book is about the Indian castes known as Dalits. Though supposed to belong to Hinduism, that religion in its unreformed state ostracised them cruelly from the main body of its following, deeming them "untouchable". They traditionally performed ritually "impure" functions such as leatherwork and removing corpses and sewage. They were forced to live in the worst parts of Indian villages and towns and were denied access to common resources such as wells, shops, schools and Hindu temples. Any attempts to violate such restrictions were punished by the higher castes with ruthless economic boycotts or even violent death.

Since independence, the Indian Government has outlawed these vicious practices and has done much to uplift the Dalits through positive discrimination in employment and education. However, in much of India, in particular the rural areas, many traditional structures of enforced abasement remain. A Dalit can easily be killed for showing insufficient "respect" for higher castes, for example, by wearing shoes in the wrong part of the village. There are many educated and prosperous Dalits, but most remain illiterate and at the bottom of society.

Hugo Gorringe's book examines Dalits' social and political situation in the state of Tamil Nadu. The author meets Dalit political leaders and analyses their (usually highly autocratic) style of work. He interviews many ordinary Dalit men and women, and describes vividly the appalling conditions they often endure. To get work, a loan, a place at college, or even electricity, Dalits must often depend on the favour of the socially dominant higher caste in their area. Interestingly, the castes most often playing this oppressive role are usually not the Brahmins at the top of the Hindu caste hierarchy, but those just one notch above the Dalits, such as the Thevars and Vanniyars of Tamil Nadu, which are deemed "backward castes"

in the official classification. Their hostility to Dalits seems to have increased in recent years out of fear of the latter becoming their social equals through education and economic development.

Why have India's 170 million Dalits not been more effective in using the democratic system to free themselves? It becomes clear that the greatest difficulty is their own division into many endogamous castes. In Tamil Nadu alone, there are more than 70 Dalit organisations claiming to champion Dalit rights. The Dalit vote is split among a number of rival non-Dalit parties, whose promises to Dalits turn out to be fraudulent. When in opposition these parties denounce atrocities against Dalits; when in power they either ignore such atrocities or even instigate them.

Gorringe relates how Tamil Nadu's political culture has one particularly cruel irony for the Dalits. For many decades, the state has been dominated by political movements claiming to assert supposedly indigenous Dravidian rights, against the traditional domination of the supposedly non-indigenous or Aryan Brahmins. According to them, caste is an Aryan perversion that egalitarian Dravidians would wipe out once in power, but they have been in power in Tamil Nadu for decades and have proved ruthlessly oppressive towards Dalits. Given this extraordinary political cynicism, it is no wonder that many Dalit radicals have eschewed electoral politics as a corrupting process and have preferred to try to raise Dalit political consciousness outside the electoral system.

This book has one serious drawback: large parts of it are devoted to stating unoriginal thoughts in academic jargon. The height of gobbledegook is reached when Gorringe approvingly quotes another writer who says: "In so far as neighbourhoods are imagined, produced and maintained against some sort of ground (social, material, environmental), they also require and produce contexts, against which their own intelligibility takes shape."

Golly! Yet when the author describes and analyses in intelligible language the incredible penury and savage social exclusion that is the lot of most Dalits, he is well worth reading.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

Untouchable Citizens: Dalit Movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu

Author - Hugo Gorringe
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 397
Price - £39.99
ISBN - 0 7619 3323 9

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