Ruth Manorama

BANGALORE, India (WOMENSENEWS)–When social worker Bhanwari Devi, member of a low, potter’s caste, prevented a child marriage in the rural western state of Rajasthan in 1992, she was gang-raped in retaliation by five upper-caste men. They were acquitted after a three-year trial. The judge ruled that they could not have possibly raped a lower-caste woman like Devi, who was working for a state women’s development project.

The reality: Prosecutions of upper-caste men for rape or abuse of low-caste women in India are rare, but such violence is not. India, a nation of more than 1 billion, has about 240 million Dalits, and 48 percent, or more than 66 million, of them are women, according to the 1991 census.

Nine years, a film about her life and one human rights award later, Bhanwari Devi has yet to receive justice. She is one of many Dalit–low caste–women in India who were brutalized for daring to act or speak out against higher caste men.

From Aug. 31 to Sept. 7, India’s low-caste women and men will be demonstrating at the U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, demanding that caste discrimination be considered–and condemned–on a par with racism. It’s not on the agenda, but discussions may take place.

“This is the first time that Dalit groups have thought of drawing international attention to their situation,” said Ruth Manorama, national co-convenor of the Campaign for Dalit Human Rights and leader of the National Federation of Dalit Women. “We hope this attention will shame the Indian government into addressing the problems faced by Dalit women.”

Dalit, the preferred term, refers to India’s lowest castes; untouchability–the nonstatus of those outside the caste system–has been officially outlawed, although discrimination persists.

Advocates Say Discrimination Based on Caste and on Race Is Identical

Manorama, a resident of the southern high-tech city of Bangalore, says the victims of caste-based discrimination and racism experience similar, often devastating discrimination.

“The abuse, violence and humiliation are the same in both cases,” she said in an interview. “Theoretically, it can be argued that caste is not race, but the fact remains that discrimination both in nature and scope, whether based on race or caste, is just the same,” said Manorama, a 20-year veteran of work with the urban poor.

“Dalit women are the downtrodden among the downtrodden, because they are thrice alienated on the basis of class, caste and gender,” Manorama said.

The Indian government objected to raising the issue of caste at the U.N. conference, calling it an internal problem and saying that introducing the issue of caste, primarily an Indian issue, would dilute consideration of the international problem of racism. India’s Constitution protects the rights of Dalits, although discrimination persists.

India has introduced a massive affirmative-action program, known as the reservations system, which sets aside government jobs and seats in state educational institutions for those known as “scheduled castes and tribes,” a reference to tribal peoples who also suffer discrimination. These set-asides create tension among castes, not unlike the resistance in the United States to affirmative action.

The caste system, joked about in some urban centers, is still a part of everyday life in many regions of predominantly Hindu India. It is a societal hierarchy based on occupation, establishing and defining one’s position and possibilities in life. While there are about roughly 3,000 castes and subcastes, based on ancestral occupation, the major divisions are Brahmins or priests, Kshatriyas or warriors, Vaishayas or traders and merchants and Shudras or manual laborers and scavengers.

The preferred term for the lowest caste people is Dalit, a word that means “broken” in many Indian languages. Mohandas K. Gandhi, in an effort to remove the stigma, referred to untouchables as the children of god.

Murdered, Low-Caste ‘Bandit Queen’ Championed Rights of Dalit Women

Despite laws on the books to protect their rights, many Dalits, especially in rural areas, suffer extraordinary indignities. Although manual scavenging has been made illegal, many are engaged in manual collection and disposal of human excreta of the higher castes in rural areas and the cleaning of drains in cities.

Although caste is not on the official U.N. conference agenda, the murder last month of Dalit Phoolan Devi, internationally known as India’s Bandit Queen, will be remembered because she championed the rights of low-caste women. A lawmaker, cinema and cult figure, Phoolan Devi drew on her own experience in northern Bihar state where she suffered numerous rapes and indignities.

She went on to become a bandit’s lover, took over his gang after his murder, arranged the murder of her rapists, went to prison, emerged and became a lawmaker. She agitated for the rights of low-caste women laborers and agricultural workers, including their rights to own land.

In addition to taking political action, Dalit women are fighting back and forming self-defense groups to protect themselves against landlords, thugs and police who are commonly known to attack, rape and even murder them.

According to an Amnesty International report this year, rural Dalit women suffer alarming violence. They are vulnerable to rape by landlords, police and men of upper castes. Only about 5 percent of these cases ever go to court because the police are often in league with the accused perpetrators of violence, Amnesty said. Men suffer as well, but women suffer disproportionately because of widespread prejudice against women, especially in rural areas.

Barred From Upper-Caste Wells, Dalits Face Rape, Beatings for Drawing Water

Dalits’ access to water, sanitation and education is also severely restricted. Attempts to use the same sources of water as upper castes are often met with swift retaliation in the form of rape or beatings, the Amnesty report said.

However, Dalit women who are educated and who live in cities fare far better than their sisters in the countryside.

Manorama has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Madras in southern India and has been a leading activist in the Dalit women’s cause. She also heads Women’s Voice, an organization working for the rights of poor women in the unorganized labor sector in urban areas in Bangalore.

“After having worked in the field for so many years, I realized that the women’s movement in India needs to address the caste issue,” she said. “We cannot fight social evils like dowry, gender violence and prostitution unless we start with the caste hierarchy that reinforces the gender hierarchy,” she said. Dowries are gifts to the bridegroom’s family from the bride’s family.

In 1987 Manorama helped organize the first national meeting of Dalit women in Bangalore; that gave rise in 1995 to the National Federation of Dalit Women that will be protesting in Durban at the anti-racism conference.

Caste Oppression More Insidious, Difficult to Eradicate Than Apartheid

Despite government disapproval, India’s former ambassador to South Africa, L.C. Jain, supports the Dalit movement’s decision to take its grievances to Durban. Caste discrimination is more insidious than racial apartheid, he argues.

“When India can parade its poverty and illiteracy in front of the World Bank, why hold back on caste? I hope the Dalits don’t stop at Durban,” he told a Dalit demonstration here last month.

“They should take their issue everywhere the Indian government goes, whether it be to Tokyo or Davos (Switzerland, site of international meetings),” Jain said. “The government lectures us on globalization, technological revolution and global competition. Then our society, too, should be internationally competitive.”

Jain says the caste system is worse than apartheid because South African society could rally against racial discrimination. But caste is a socially endorsed system of hierarchy that is far more vicious and ensures that a section of society will always be subjugated and humiliated, he said.

“The issue at hand,” Jain said, “is to do away with the tyranny of caste.”

Shefali Srinivas is a free-lance journalist based in Bangalore, India. She was previously the international editor of the Online Journalism Review, published from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.