Of Hinduism and activism, hatred and hope. Cobblers, cleaners and night soil sweepers meet Jesus, Gandhi and the flush.
Today we drove two hours north-west of Bangalore to the rural town of Tumkur (past the National Silkworm Seed Association, Central Silk Technological Research Institute and silk testing lab) to visit the Rural Education for Development Society. REDS was founded by Raj and Jothi, a warm and articulate couple who are dalits. The word “dalit” comes from the Indian Marathi language, meaning to crack, split, oppress, be scattered or trodden down. It denotes the approximately 20% of India’s population who were previously called untouchables or outcastes.
The novel Untouchable (1935) by Mulk Raj Anand relates a day in the life of a young untouchable man named Bakha. He lives with his family in a small one-room shack in a separate suburb, downwind and downstream of the main town and separated by a road, to avoid polluting upper castes. Raj told us this is still typical in many villages. Untouchables like Bakha may not use the common well, so they depend upon the sporadic mercy of higher castes to draw water for them. Outcastes may not wear upper garments, and Bakha’s schoolteachers fear touching him or his books and paper. He gets on better with the British troops who have less caste prejudice.
On this day his father is sick so Bakha must sweep the village streets. He forgets to call out and warn others of his approach, lest his presence or shadow pollutes them, and he brushes against a passer-by. The businessman is irate: he’ll have to return home and wash, missing his appointment. An angry crowd surrounds Bakha, abusing him until he slips away in shame. Later on, he peeks inside the temple where he sweeps the courtyard. Priest and worshippers are alike incensed: the whole complex will need ceremonial purification. Yet the same priest molests Bakha’s sister – dalit women have no defence. Bakha is actually lucky. In some places, untouchables who dared to hear or speak the holy language of Sanskrit had molten lead poured into their ears or mouth.
The novel depicts three possible solutions to untouchability. Bakha meets a Salvation Army officer and is touched to hear that Jesus accepts everyone irrespective of caste, but he is bewildered by the Salvationist’s incomprehensible hymns and his less welcoming wife. Then Mahatma Gandhi (who in real life read and approved of Anand’s novel before publication) comes to town. Like the outcast tax collector Zacchaeus of the gospel, Bakha climbs a tree to see Gandhi over the crowds, whom he must not touch. Gandhi castigates caste as a Satanic blemish on Hinduism, and says that Brahmins help sweep the toilet in his ashram. Bakha is inspired, until he hears a worldly liberal pontificating that Gandhi’s idealism is ridiculously outdated. The true saviour is technology: the flush toilet will abolish the need for untouchable latrine cleaners.
Today the Indian state reserves a high percentage of places in schools and government jobs for “scheduled castes”, but this often helps only the upper “creamy layer” of dalits, said Raj. Untouchability was constitutionally abolished in 1950, but it frequently continues in practice, especially in rural areas. In Rohinton Mistry’s historical novel A Fine Balance (1995), an untouchable tanner in the 1960s bravely trains his sons as tailors. Upper castes resent this disruption of the time-honoured order. When one son insists on casting his democratic vote, the family are burned alive and the police refuse to register any case.
Raj was born to illiterate parents in the “unseeable” subcaste and nicknamed “excrement” at school, sometimes even by teachers. His dad converted to Christianity and he got a job in a leprosy hospital, where the missionaries helped him study. Raj now reads authors from Indian philosopher Radhakrishnan to post-modern French thinker Foucault, but says he learned more from his own people than from university.
He told us a story from the ancient Rig Veda scripture. It tells of the cosmic man whose body was split to form the four castes with their respective roles and stations in life:
Head – Brahmin – learning – priests
Shoulders – Kshatriya – fighting – warriors and leaders
Waist – Vaishya – producing – shopkeepers and merchants
Feet – Sudra – serving – farmers and artisans
“Out-castes” don’t even appear in this classification – untouchably excluded from the system. One of the saddest things I learned in India was that untouchables are divided themselves. There is an ascending hierarchy of acceptability from animal skinning to tanning to making shoe soles to crafting shoe uppers, as the degree of defiling animal contact decreases. Mistry’s family of tanners despises removers of “night soil” or toilet waste, and bans them from entering their house. Untouchables themselves reinforce the system you’d think they would abhor – echoes of Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell…”
Raj and Jothi are seeking to unite dalits to fight for their rights against the “racism of caste”. A poster on their wall proclaims, “Dalit rights are human rights: let us cast out caste”. Dalits relate deeply to the land but lack Western-style ownership, so they are now 90% landless. Furthermore, village councils are dominated by upper castes, to whom, in the past, dalits provided “unclean” services – like cleaning, grave digging or funeral preparation – for no charge. REDS has formed new dalit councils to resolve their own conflicts and represent dalit concerns. They recently required payment for the customary free services. At first they met hostility and even death threats, but are now more tolerated and even respected by politicians.
Mahatma Gandhi is widely venerated as the “father of the nation” and was esteemed by many British (although Churchill dismissed him as a “half naked fakir”). So I was surprised to learn that dalits like Raj often view Gandhi as another upper-caste oppressor, even a “Brahmin agent”. Trying to elevate their status, Gandhi called untouchables “Harijans” or children of God. Many dalits view this as an insult, as the term referred to the offspring of temple prostitutes. On 29 October, the daily Times of India newspaper poll asked “Did Gandhi divide India on caste lines?” 49% of respondents said yes, 46% said no, 5% were unsure, and there were heated comments on both sides. It seems Gandhi’s influence was more complex than I’d realised.
The real hero of India for dalits is Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. He studied law in New York, clashed with Gandhi over dalit electorates, and helped frame the Indian Constitution, which Raj believes is just, if only it were implemented without corruption. I saw statues of Dr Ambedkar as we drove through rural towns, and his picture hanging in the booths of cobblers. While Gandhi is mostly drawn as a skinny, bare-chested man with a white dhoti wrapped around his waist, Ambedkar is heavily built, with black hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, mostly shown wearing a light blue western suit jacket and (often red) tie. Journalist Edward Luce sees Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru as the three most important figures of 20th-century India, whose influence exceeds “all of India’s gods, software executives and nuclear scientists combined.”
Dr Ambedkar described caste as “an ascending scale of hatred and a descending scale of contempt”. A crucial question is whether Hinduism can exist without it. The 19th-century Hindu reform movements saw caste as a surface accretion, to be rejected or less cruelly interpreted. I’ve heard Hare Krishnas claim the original concept simply reflected different human temperaments. Those of a studious nature, they explained, are naturally Brahmins, those gifted in leading are Kshatriyas, those preferring commerce are Vaishyas, while artisans are naturally Sudras.
It’s an appealing take, but for many Indians it wouldn’t wash. Unlike Western class, caste divisions go far deeper as they are based on the law of karma. It is logically both pointless and impossible to help those who suffer. Outcastes are simply reaping what past lives have sown, as inexorably as Newtonian physics dictates that every act brings an equal and opposite reaction. Many believe that there is no Hinduism without the caste system, and in the end, Dr Ambedkar agreed. In 1956 he publicly led 500,000 dalits in converting to Buddhism, which he chose as a home-grown Indian religion that rejects caste.
Other dalits have converted to Christianity or Islam. I heard one estimate that 70 to 80% of India’s Christians are descended from dalit or tribal backgrounds, and 90% of India’s Muslims. Neither faith attains its egalitarian ideals. Moslems stand shoulder to shoulder in the mosque and pilgrims to Mecca all wear plain white garb to show their equality before God, but many Muslim communities are also divided by caste.
St Paul wrote “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and Christ was despised for socialising with the unclean outcasts of the day. And yet, in most Christian denominations the leadership is overwhelmingly upper caste. As a friend said, we are supposedly all one in Christ, but some here are one plus and others one minus. Some churches even have different communion cups, sitting areas and burial sites for dalits, and high caste purity rules prevent women entering church during menstruation or 40 days after giving birth.
There are some stories of hope. I visited a Christian couple who were excited because their Hindu neighbour, an upper-caste priest’s widow who’d never touched or eaten with them, had recently hugged their daughter when she visited the old lady in hospital. Another Indian friend told me their pastor often exhorts them to eat with their servants. But they couldn’t – the psychological barrier was just too great. To make things worse, dalits who convert to Christianity lose access to state aid, reserved education and jobs because they are no longer officially “scheduled castes” of the Hindu system, and they are often resented by co-dalits as “Rice Christians”.
Anand’s novel almost seems prophetic. While the historical Jesus may appeal, Christians today have failed to follow his example. Raj quoted Desmond Tutu (a personal friend): “When the white man first came here, he had the Bible and we had the land”, but after centuries of colonial rule, “we had the Bible and he had the land”. Gandhi is rejected by many dalits, and revered more in theory than practice by most others. Technological progress and western urbanisation may do the most to free dalits – American IT companies and global industries are money-driven meritocracies, indifferent to birth.