Here are three cases of atrocities (the term used for hate crimes against untouchables) recently reported in the Indian press.
On May 21 in a village called Thinniam in the state of Tamil Nadu a housing dispute between a caste-Hindu man and two untouchables ended with the untouchables being forced to eat human excrement. On September 7 another untouchable in an unrelated land dispute was forced by six caste Hindus to drink urine. (Outlook magazine, November 6, 2002)
The third atrocity took place in Duleena, Jhajjar district in the north Indian state of Haryana. On October 15 a mob returning from celebrations for the Hindu festival of Dussera lynched five untouchables for skinning a dead cow. They were murdered in a police station in the presence of three subdivisional magistrates, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, and about 60 to 70 police (Report of the Left Parties Delegation to Duleena, Jhajjar District Haryana, October 18, 2002). This lynching was part of the cow protection campaign taken up by the ruling BJP and lumpen Hindu-fascist gangs like Bhajaranga Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which is mainly directed against Muslims.
As heinous as these incidents are, they are not typical. More typical atrocities involve burning down hundreds of huts in untouchable colonies and massacring the people who live there, often scores of them at a time. Two such incidents occured in Andhra Pradesh, where I was born, in 1985 and 1991. In 1985 nine untouchables were murdered in Karamchedu when an untouchable woman objected to the caste Hindus using the untouchable drinking pond for washing their buffalos. In 1991 15 untouchables were killed in Chundur after an untouchable man put his feet up in a movie theater.
Between 1995 and 1997, 300 untouchables were killed in the state of Bihar alone and in three large massacres over the following two years more than 100 more were killed. Between 1994 and 1996, 98,349 cases of atrocities were registered with the police nationwide (Broken People, Human Rights Watch, 1999).
India is a caste-ridden society and untouchables are at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They are forced to live in impoverished, segregated colonies on the outskirts of towns and villages and to take up the most menial or degrading jobs, such as those dealing with dead animals and human feces. (The Jhajjar untouchables who were lynched for skinning a dead cow were actually performing the occupation forced upon them by caste law.) Until the 1920s untouchables did not even have their own segregated water sources. They had no free access to any water at all. They had to beg the caste Hindus to pour water for them. As a result of struggles led by missionary-educated Christian untouchable teachers they now have separate water sources in most villages--they have taken a step up to Jim Crow. Even this pathetically limited demand provoked bloody opposition from the caste Hindus. In the villages you can still see old Christian teachers with their hands chopped off.
Over 14% of India's population--160 million people--are considered untouchable. 520 million more belong to oppressed backward castes with traditional occupations like weaving, washing, pottery, and cutting hair, and over 60 million are members of scheduled tribes. Upper-caste Hindus make up only 15% of the population.
After decades of covertly casteist and communalist Congress rule, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now makes Hindu chauvinism based on the caste system its open political program. And this encourages attacks on untouchables as well as on Muslims and other minorities. The rise of the BJP and Hindu fascism began in 1992 with the demolition of the Babri Mosque and the massacre of over 2000 Muslims in its wake.
The so-called communists in India today argue that raising the caste question blurs the primacy of class. Class is primary, but the working class has to take up the cause of all oppressed people--in India, untouchables and backward castes, tribals, Muslims, Sikhs, national minorities, and women.
Since the 1970s the increasing proletarianization of the rural labor force due to advances in agriculture has resulted in a new wave of consciousness among untouchables. But this militancy is being taken advantage of by petty-bourgeois activists who have organized all-untouchable political parties with bourgeois programs. They also tried to divert consciousness by asking the UN race conference in Durban last year to include the caste question in their final document. At the insistence of the BJP government, the conference refused to add any reference to caste or discrimination by occupation.
Even if caste had been included in this document it would not have done the untouchable masses any good. Only a socialist revolution can wipe out this 2000-year-old system of oppression. Untouchable and backward-caste workers will play a vital role in this struggle.
(November 18, 2002)