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Caste Off

by Sami Siva, Adam Matthews

June 3, 2012

When Sathya walked out of Saravana Polythreads in 2009, she was aided by an Arunthathiyar NGO called READ (Rights, Education and Development Centre. Sathya later got a job at READ, where she met Veran, the man who is now her husband. Last summer, she left READ and had a baby girl.

Sathya is one of the luckier people in JJ Nagar. According to READ, there are still 146 people cleaning human excrement by hand. The stigma of this archaic practice extends to their children, who are often tasked with cleaning toilets at school, perpetuating the cycle.

In recent years, there has been a lot of progress for Dalits. There are now Dalit tycoons, chief ministers, and prominent academics. In states like Uttar Pradesh, Dalits and other marginalized groups like Muslims (many of whom are Dalits who converted from Hinduism) wield tremendous electoral power. Milind Kamble, a Dalit who runs a construction company in Maharashtra, has taken advantage of set-asides for Dalits to score lucrative infrastructure contracts. He also chairs the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose motto is
“be job givers, instead of job seekers.”

Still, India is a long way from fulfilling the promises of equal protection under law enshrined in its constitution, which was written by B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit with degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. “In India there are two constitutions: the Indian Constitution, written by Ambedkar, and there is the unwritten constitution, the Hindu religion, their constitution,” says R. Karuppusamy, a 39-year-old Arunthathiyar man with a master’s degree in sociology who founded READ and has dedicated his life to empowering his community.

Every Sunday, Indian newspapers feature ads placed by parents looking to arrange their daughters’ marriages that explicitly state which caste they are willing to accept. The darker side of this obsession is the more than 5,000 honor killings every year, generally perpetrated by family members who are angry that a daughter has brought shame to a family by marrying a lower-caste man.

Having an honest conversation about caste is difficult when the system pervades all strata of Indian life. The discourse is further stifled by language. The language of government and the elite media is English, which most Indians can neither read nor speak.

Karuppusamy still sees only token gains in Indian society. He cites the lack of Dalit leadership in the leading Indian National Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “Even the Communist party, the politburo, this buro, that buro. Where are the Dalit in that thing? We are 25 percent in India. They are using [us as] only a vote bank.”

Educating girls like Sathya and Sivagami, who are often the first in their families to attend school, is fraught with challenges. “Government schools don’t have a friendly approach,” Karuppusamy says. School is an uncomfortable topic for Sivagami. When asked about her decision to drop out at age 12, she demurs and giggles uncomfortably.

“I had troubles in school,” she says. “Even though I tried, I didn’t get it.”

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Sivagami finally got a new job. She is living at her parents’ home and working at a T-shirt factory in Tirupur, a little less than an hour’s drive away. “The bus comes every day to her village,” Karuppusamy reports. “She is happy. She is living.” She is, however, still looking for a husband.

Karuppusamy has also made some progress in his effort to end exploitation of Dalits in local clothing factories. He recently convened a meeting of NGOs, clothing factories, the companies they supply, and former sumangali workers. All sides agreed to work to end the sumangali scheme. They also pledged to stop employing girls less than 18 years old.

For Sivagami, this is good news. She doesn’t want other girls to suffer. “I think I was too young to work,” she says.

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