Monday, April 10, 2006

Free the Dalits: The Here and Now

I'm at about the 2/3 mark in this series on the Dalits of India, so time for a checkpoint. So far, I've covered the following agenda points:

This brings us to today, both literally and figuratively. I think the documentation of caste-related abuse of Dalits is fairly consistent historically: the Dalits have been mistreated for ages, held down by a system that makes distinctions based on race and class, and that is abetted by prevelant Hindu teaching.

But as I've pointed out, in 1950, the Indian constitution was ratified, and that document outlaws discrimination. As Americans know from our post-slavery days, abolishing the remnants of oppression can take time, but isn't the situation in India much better now than 50-some years ago?

Yes. And no.

In some respects, treatment of the Dalits has improved over the past half-century. There has been a Dalit president for instance. And the literacy rate for Dalits is growing in absolute terms. The United Nations has noted, if not enthusiastically enjoined the conversation about, the Dalit plight at the 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Urban areas tend to show much less discrimination against Dalits than in times past, and the reservation system acts to guarantee Dalits some amount of representation in education and certain professions - akin to affirmative action here in America.

However, when you look beyond the surface, Dalits are still very much an oppressed people - especially in rural India, where the vast majority of Dalits live. Even some of the items to which I linked above, which point out advances for Dalits, highlight problems. While Dalit literacy is rising in real terms, the gap between Dalit literacy rates and the rates of non-Dalits is growing; that is, the upper castes' gains in literacy are much higher than those of the Dalits. The reservation system has opened some doors, but only applies to the public sector. (Interestingly, there are many Indians now arguing against the reservation system due to the inherent unfairness of judging people based on caste rather than on merit. Same argument conservatives here use against affirmative action.)

But it's not just literacy or economic opportunity. Stories like this are too easy to find,and these just from the past year or so:

In short, while some advances have been made towards equality for Dalits, much is yet to be done. Very much. And unfortunately, this isn't just an Indian problem, it's also a Christian church problem. A large number of Dalits have left Hinduism for Christianity. This is a good thing, but such conversions don't solve problems for all Dalits. Especially since the church isn't exactly running away from caste. This is a huge area of concern for me since, as the linked article says, Christianity is egalitarian. We shouldn't be engaged in divisive practices that discriminate.

But this same church is also a source of hope for the Dalits. To that I turn tomorrow.

God bless!

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