Being untouchable no longer

Increasingly powerful voices in India are calling for a true end to discrimination based on caste.

When President Obama visits India next month, it is quite certain that he will pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, perceived around the world as one of history's most celebrated symbols of liberation, and a source of inspiration for the US president himself.

But there are calls within India for Obama to look further than Gandhi in paying homage to Indian heroes. For India's community of 167 million Dalits, once known as "untouchables", the true icon is Dr B R Ambedkar. Himself an untouchable, Dr Ambedkar gained doctorates from Columbia University, where President Obama, too, was educated, and at the London School of Economics, before becoming the architect of independent India's new constitution.

Relatively little-known internationally, Ambedkar has accrued almost divine status as a focal point for Dalit aspirations. Within India, Ambedkar appears everywhere. His statues easily outnumber those of Gandhi. Deep in communities of Dalits, you will hear the greeting, "Jai Bhim", meaning "hail Bhimrao [Ambedkar]". You will see his portrait in any self-assertive Dalit's home, and his name is spoken with pride. When, in 2006, the nation marked the 50th anniversary of his death, over 800,000 Dalits crowded to pay him their respects in Mumbai.

Dalits stress that, unlike the Mahatma, Ambedkar challenged the very existence of the caste system as the basis for discrimination against Dalits. It is because of Ambedkar, they say, that Dalits play any role in India's political and administrative structures – albeit a limited part. That is why anti-caste activists are urging Obama to pay homage to Ambedkar as a true giant of the cause of liberation from oppression.

These calls are just one sign of the increasingly powerful vocalisation of Dalit aspirations for recognition of their cause, and for social, economic and cultural equality. Dalit hopes for liberation from caste oppression – and it is important to add that Dalits suffer discrimination in every religious community – are resonating increasingly loudly around the world. The issue has gained profile at the United Nations, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination having charged the Indian government to bring about clear improvements in a number of areas. NGOs continue to press companies investing in India to tailor their corporate social responsibility policies to address the specific challenges of caste discrimination.

Two campaigners against caste discrimination, S Anand and Meena Kandasamy, visited London last week to highlight the cause by speaking at events around a photography exhibition, "Being Untouchable".

The exhibition, by Marcus Perkins for CSW, offered a sympathetic series of portraits of the many different faces of untouchability in modern India, in a powerful reminder of the plight of the tens of millions of victims among the Dalits: the woman who cleans excrement from a dry latrine because it is her caste job; the young girl pushed into burning ashes because she walked on a path reserved for "high" castes who may never get justice; the destitute who may always be excluded from education and opportunities. Theirs are the stories that truly need to be heard amid the cacophony of coverage of India's economic boom.

Reading from her deeply moving 2006 poetry collection at the launch last week, Meena Kandasamy offered a poignant reminder of the depth of Dalit aspirations for drastic change:

We will rebuild worlds from shattered glass and
remnants of holocausts.
[. . .] It will begin the way thunder rises in our throats and we
will brandish our slogans with a stormy stress and
succeed to chronicle to convey the last stories
of our lost and scattered lives.

David Griffiths is south Asia team leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

David Griffiths is an Advocacy Officer for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) - a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom in over 25 countries around the world
Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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