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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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.