MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Education alone will not lift millions of lower-caste Indians out of poverty and oppression as long as land in the country is in the hands of a powerful few, according to a Dalit writer whose memoir chronicles her family’s struggles against caste.
India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old biases persist, and lower-caste Dalits - once called “untouchables” - are among the most marginalised communities in the country.
The biases persist even when a person is educated, and even in India’s elite educational institutions, said Sujatha Gidla, whose parents were college professors and who herself studied at one of the country’s best known engineering colleges.
“The untouchability problem is really a problem of land ownership,” said Gidla, 53, speaking by phone from New York, where she lives.
“As long as land is in the hands of a few, there will be a caste system ... (and) Dalits will continue to be untouchable,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than half India’s lower-caste population is landless.
Landless Dalits are at the bottom of the age-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to discrimination and attacks by upper-caste Hindus, including recent ones by hardline “gau rakshak” vigilantes who have lynched them on suspicion of eating beef or transporting cows, which they regard as sacred.
Dalits were once barred from public places including temples and water taps frequented by higher-caste Hindus, and restricted to jobs considered dirty or dangerous such as manual scavenging and the disposal of animal carcasses.
Gidla’s book “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” chronicles the lives of her family - including an uncle who went from being a student who wrote poetry to founding a guerrilla movement, as well as her mother’s struggles with caste and sexism.
Gidla grew up Christian in southern India, where many Dalits converted to Christianity as a way out of the caste system and to access educational opportunities otherwise denied to them.
“But even those who study don’t have the same opportunities as their high-caste counterparts,” said Gidla, who moved to the United States when she was 26 years old.
“Things have not changed since my time,” she said, pointing to the suicide last year of a Dalit student at the same south Indian university where, 30 years ago, Gidla failed the admission interview despite scoring high in the examination.
Gidla’s realisation of the inherent violence of the caste system came on July 17, 1985 when six Dalit men were killed and three young women raped by high-caste Hindus in Andhra Pradesh in a case that shook the country for its brutality.
The current spate of lynchings across the country is a reflection that not much has changed, she said; it is also a result of Dalits demanding their rights.
“When Dalits stayed in their place, they weren’t subject to so much violence,” said Gidla, who works for the New York subway and wrote the book on her commute and breaks.
“The mob violence against them now is linked to their own political awakening and assertion.”
Last month, India elected its second Dalit president in 70 years, who spoke of growing up in a mud hut in a small village.
Dalit leaders have also been demanding an end to “dirty” jobs and land for landless labourers.
But ownership of land brings its own problems.
“As long as Dalits are just workers, there is no violence; when they become owners, there is violence,” Gidla said.