Caste is the most significant marker of an individual’s standing in Indian society. One’s caste is derived from a classification system called varna, which is based on a Hindu creation myth in which different sections of the population are deemed, at birth, to have come from various levels of the Creator God Brahma’s body. The top three castes, known as the Brahminical or twice- born castes, make up just 18 percent of India’s population, yet they hold almost all positions of power in the governmental, judicial, private, educational, and nonprofit sectors. Below them are the Sudra—the manual workers and artisans—and finally the “untouchables,” whose place in the hierarchy is a consequence of their exclusion from the varna system. The untouchables are also known as Dalits, meaning “broken” or “oppressed.” Since 1950, India has maintained a list, or schedule, of Scheduled Tribes alongside a list of Scheduled Castes, each denoting groups that are considered marginalized and vulnerable. Taken together, they comprise about 305 million, or around 25 percent, of the population.
While the Indian government outlawed untouchability in 1950, in many parts of the country traditional religious and social norms continue to be followed. Within the caste system, Dalits are mandated to provide essential though ritually unclean services, including sanitation work. There are also hundreds, if not thousands, of sub-castes based on geography, language, and occupation. Doms, for example, are the Dalit sub-caste tasked with assisting in funerary rites. They are forced to live near graveyards and are treated with extreme contempt.
Caste discrimination is an enormous problem in India: According to a report by the National Human Rights Commission, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. Every day, on average, three Dalit women are raped, two are murdered, and two Dalit houses are set on fire. Throughout India, 37 percent of Dalits live below the poverty line and 54 percent are undernourished. In Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a number of young Dalit men were recently attacked simply for sporting mustaches, which are perceived as an aggressive sign of masculinity. As a result, it is common for Dalits to convert to Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism simply to avoid caste discrimination.
Sumeet Samos comes from the Dom community. I first heard of Sumeet through a colleague, and we met a few months later in Delhi when he attended an event I was participating in. Sumeet is a student activist at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where he has protested his university’s efforts to limit the number of spots afforded to students from marginalized backgrounds. In this, he is part of a larger anti-caste movement, which has, in the past 10 years or so, seen students at universities across India attempt to push back against institutionalized discrimination. Here, he speaks to World Policy Journal about the challenges of being Dalit and the ways in which student organizers are facilitating change.
– Cynthia Stephen
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I come from Tentulipadar, a village in the Koraput district in southern Odisha in eastern India. My father was a primary school teacher and my mother worked as a midwife and traditional healer in the surrounding villages. We lived in a segregated part of Tentulipadar that was reserved for the Dom caste, which is considered one of the lowest in Indian society. Doms have historically worked in enforced caste occupations such as scavenging, grave digging, and cremating the dead.
The village had about 200 families, including about 50 Doms and 120 Adivasis (the collective term for Indigenous people). The rest were higher-caste Sundis and Kammas, who owned land. Mine was the only Christian family in Tentulipadar, so even the other Doms did not interact with us very much, as they wanted to be accepted by higher-caste Hindus.
I have fond memories of life in the village. I remember watching plays based on Hindu mythology, playing marbles, spending hours in the river, and gathering tamarind. Yet I was also never allowed to forget that I was inferior because I was Dalit. I was denied access to water at hand pumps, and I wasn’t allowed to enter upper-castes homes.
At school, all the students were Dalits and Adivasis, but the teachers were Sundis and Kammas, and they treated us quite badly. They used to abuse us in Oriya (a language spoken primarily in eastern India by the upper castes and used in all government schools in Odisha), which we did not speak. We spoke the Dom dialect, which is very different from standardized Oriya. The teachers would make us work in their homes—gardening, washing clothes, and cleaning. In third grade, I won a government scholarship by doing well on a competitive exam, but my teachers tried to demoralize me by refusing to acknowledge my achievement. When I was 10, my father enrolled me in a church-run boarding school about 75 miles from our village.
There are no laws to prevent Dalits from going to school, but the financial inequalities generated by the caste system mean that many children can’t afford to go at all or have to drop out in order to work. For those in rural southern Odisha who do stay in school, there is a shortage of teachers, inadequate educational infrastructure, and little information about higher education opportunities.
At boarding school, I was one of only three Dalit students among hundreds of boys. At night, my peers would tie my hands to a ceiling fan and cover my face with oil. Since I could not speak Oriya I couldn’t explain to the teachers what was happening. The language barrier also made it very difficult for me to keep up with my studies. When the teacher said, “Open your book to page so and so …” it would take two or three minutes for me to understand what she was saying. In the first year I scored 69 out of a total of 900 marks across all my classes. I wept and told my father I couldn’t continue, but one of the nuns encouraged me and told him not to take me out of school. She spent the two-month summer holiday helping me catch up.
The worst moment was when my mother came to visit and was turned away from the school because of her caste. This was when I started to connect my experience to those of the bonded laborers and scavengers who lived in my village.
There is a memory from my childhood that has stuck with me. Growing up, the cremation ground was very close to our segregated basti (settlement, or slum), and I was a frequent witness to funeral marches and the preparation of funeral pyres. It was there I learned that when a dead body is set on fire, it doesn’t immediately start burning. The fire takes time to gradually spread throughout the body.
Eventually, the muscles of the corpse will contract and cause the person to sit up as if they were alive. When this happens, funeral assistants will strike down the body with thick wooden bats. Why am I telling this story? Because the upper castes have historically attempted to crush, exclude, and erase those below them, just as the assistants beat down the corpses. To give one example from my current life, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I am now a student, there have been ongoing protests against the university’s discriminatory treatment of Dalits. Rather than listen, the university, which is run by members of the upper castes, responded by imposing heavy fines and suspending Dalit students for questioning the system. Whenever potentially transformative discourses rise up, the upper castes do what they can to strike them down.
But I’ll step back for a moment. For a long time I found high school isolating and frustrating. Then, gradually, things started to change. I had always wanted to learn English, so I saved money and bought English books from the market. I memorized vocabulary, verbs, tenses, and sentences, and I read as much as possible. I started to feel as if I knew things that others, especially upper-caste students, did not. Learning English gave me confidence, and I gathered the courage to participate in district-level quiz, debate, and dance competitions, where I won a number of prizes. Finally, I scored the second-highest marks in my school on a state-level exam. That was a turning point in my life and for my community in Tentulipadar, because no Dom had ever done so well before.
After graduating high school, I successfully cracked the JNU entrance exam. In universities and professional schools, where Dalits and Adivasis are only now being admitted, the faculty is overwhelmingly upper caste, and positions reserved for Dalits and Adivasis are rarely, if ever, filled. Discrimination is common. University officials often speak disparagingly to lower-caste students, and scholarships are frequently delayed or denied. Cafeteria seating is unofficially segregated, and food traditionally consumed by Dalits, such as beef or pork, is never on the menu. In recent years, two Indian states have even criminalized eating beef, which is a cheap staple food of Dalits and Adivasis. Students who have attempted to protest this discrimination have seen their academic careers annihilated, and there have been many well-publicized suicides by lower-caste students who have been alienated by the university.
At JNU, I enrolled in a five-year bachelor and master’s course in Latin American literature. I initially chose to study Spanish because I found it easy to learn, but in Latin American poetry I discovered accounts of anguish, suffering, and pain relevant to my own experiences. The poem “El Sistema” by Eduardo Galeano is especially close to my heart. In it, Galeano looks at how politicians, police, and voters can drift away from the role each is supposed to play in society, and the chaos this brings about. It was one of the first poems I came across that resonated with how I felt about India.
I first got involved in student activism in 2012, but I became more engaged four years later after learning about the anti-caste Bahujan discourse. “Bahujan” means “the majority,” and is a term that was coined over three decades ago by Manyawar Kanshiram, a politician and community mobilizer who wanted to unite India’s oppressed majority and use political power as a tool for social transformation. The aim of the Bahujan movement is to facilitate oppressed communities’ participation in governance and policymaking, and to help these groups gain footing across different sociocultural institutions. To do this, the movement seeks to get Bahujan students access to education, to enact strict laws against caste-based discrimination and violence, to abolish degrading caste-based occupations, and to distribute property to landless Dalit laborers. The political party associated with the Bahujan movement—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—has come to power four times in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest Indian state, thanks to the support of the Chamars, a large and relatively well-organized Dalit sub-caste. The BSP has little political traction in other states, but there are pockets of sympathizers across the country.
I joined the university’s Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA), an organization for students in the Bahujan community. The group—like other university associations that represent marginalized students—isn’t affiliated with any political party; it’s part of a larger anti-caste movement that is appearing in different forms across Indian universities. While these organizations are independent of each other, they share a common anti-caste ideology and are composed of marginalized students. Traditionally, student groups in Indian universities have been controlled by student unions affiliated with major political parties. The goal of BAPSA, which includes Dalits, Adivasis, and members of oppressed minorities, is to provide a means of representation outside of upper-caste student unions. As a member of BAPSA, I have coordinated protests, arranged talks on caste patriarchy, written articles on the group’s behalf, designed posters and banners for events, and organized photo exhibitions on Dalit and Adivasi communities. Once, while protesting the disappearance of a Muslim student who went missing from the JNU campus a year earlier, I found myself in the middle of a police raid. The student’s mother, who was protesting with us, was forcibly dragged into a police car and taken to a nearby station. I was punched in the chest. That was the first time I had been severely attacked while engaging in activism.
Last spring, JNU’s university council passed regulations that violated affirmative action policies for minority students. They cut a massive number of seats that had been reserved for Bahujan students and changed the entrance criteria for graduate programs, making it harder for marginalized applicants to be admitted. In response, BAPSA blocked the administration building for 20 days, and mobilized talks, protests, and open discussions about the measure. During this period some activists faced police actions and inquiries from university administrators. I was among them. After five years of getting good grades and completing all my required courses, the university is now refusing to release my degree because I participated in the protests. Many students are in the same situation.
On a national level, the most important thing the Bahujan movement can do is organize, and the biggest challenge in this regard is bringing together various Dalit movements. There are regional, student, religious, and gender-based movements across the country, and as well as ones focused on culture, language, and sub-caste. All these groups have to become equal partners in the larger movement, though at the same time, the challenges and needs of specific Dalit communities shouldn’t be sidelined.
There has been progress in various spheres—laws have been enacted to abolish caste-based occupations, prevent upper-caste atrocities against Dalits, and initiate land redistribution—but much more remains to be done. The way forward is to build cultural and educational institutions that will enable the Dalit to stop the cycle of dependence we are currently trapped within. Once we do this, students will no longer depend on the system or be shaped by regressive upper-caste institutions. To sustain the movement we will need our own media, our own discourse, and our own institutions, which should speak to and reflect our lives and needs.
Cynthia Stephen is a Bangalore-based independent journalist and social policy researcher and analyst, with a strong focus on social inequality and exclusion, especially issues of women, marginalized sections, and children. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Photo courtesy of गंगा सहाय मीणा]