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by Christopher Mudiappahpillai

Recently featured on CBC Radio’s Ideas. I think it speaks for itself.

Their name evokes images of the wretched of the earth. The Untouchables are the lowest of the low on India’s caste ladder. Still facing violence and discrimination, they are demanding a share of political and economic power. Richard Phinney travels to the villages and hi-tech cities of modern India to explore what it means to be an Untouchable today.

Untouchability is a fact of life for 160 million people living in India.

They are born into a caste system that brands them as unclean. They are known as Dalits, and face discrimination in every aspect of their lives.

In the cities, caste affects your chance of getting a job or finding a place to live. Dalits are expected to use separate water taps, temples and graveyards. At school, Dalit pupils may be told to arrive early to clean the classroom for other students. And to sit at the back of the class during lessons.

According to government statistics, caste prejudice is responsible for at least 25,000 crimes against Dalits each year. Every two hours, a Dalit woman is raped. Dalits are beaten, murdered and their homes are burned.

Dalits are also the street sweepers, the toilet cleaners, the butchers and the leather workers.

Across India, the job of more than one million Dalits is to remove human filth by hand. These workers earn about 70 dollars a month. In the cities, they clean the sewers. In rural areas they clean village toilets, which often have no water to flush away the excrement.

The bulk of India’s 160 million Dalits are landless labourers, working other people’s land in return for a share of the harvest. Even though their work isn’t considered impure, they can’t escape the label of impurity.

Even the lay-out of villages reflects the caste hierarchy. Dalit hamlets are often separated from the rest of the village, and are on lower land so that their runoff doesn’t contaminate upper-caste households.At one time, in some places, Untouchables were forbidden to even cast a shadow on Brahmins. Dalits were forced to wear bells to herald their arrival, and to hang buckets around their necks so their spit would not touch the ground.

Such extreme forms of Untouchability no longer exist. But upper-caste Hindus continue to own the land on which Dalits must work to survive. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are more than 40 million bonded labourers in India. Most are Dalits. They spend their lives working to repay debt, with interest calculated by the landlord. Human Rights Watch calls it a form of slavery. The landlords also control the local police and judges. If anything goes wrong, Dalits can be helpless.

A great Indian statesman, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a contemporary of Gandhi, did fight to abolish the caste system.

He is the undisputed hero of the Dalits, and by far the best-educated Dalit of his time. Studying on scholarship, by 1914 he had earned a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University in New York, a second degree from the London School of Economics and had been called to the British Bar. This at a time when few Dalits could read or write.

When he returned to India, Ambedkar was shocked to realize he was still treated as an Untouchable. He dedicated the rest of his life to the emancipation of the Dalits.

Amdbedkar wrote dozens of influential books on economics, politics and religion, and was the principle drafter of the Indian constitution.

The new Indian constitution guaranteed that a percentage of public funds be set aside to educate Dalits. It was the beginning of a vast program of affirmative action that remains at the centre of public life in India today.

In the last year of his life, Ambedkar made one final grand gesture for his people. He converted to Buddhism, a religion without a caste system. Five hundred thousand Dalits followed his example, on the same day.

Ambedkar’s funeral in Bombay, in 1956, was attended by more than a million people.

Richard Phinney, excerpts from the program.

Follow this link to hear an excerpt from the program.