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
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle