India’s languishing countryside: A village in a million (The Economist)
“The 10,000-odd villagers—who make Shahabpur a medium-sized settlement in crowded north India—are arranged largely on the basis of caste. They live in caste-based ghettos; rarely socialise across caste lines, and never inter-marry. And the village dalits, as the former untouchables are now called, are often abused.
“The chamars, the biggest of Shahabpur’s half-dozen dalit caste-groups get the worst of it. They are, not coincidentally, the village’s poorest people. And several villagers—including from Shahabpur’s small Muslim community, well-informed observers of Hindu wiles—say they are routinely bullied and beaten. The worst dalit-bashers are said to be the patels, Shahabpur’s biggest community, which is about 3,000-strong. They are typical bullies: of a low-caste peasant order, the patels are just a rung or two higher up the caste ladder, which makes them jealous guardians of their perceived superiority.
“There is an exception to the caste divide in Shahabpur, which many Muslim and Hindu men enjoy. For a few rupees or handfuls of rice, they are said to demand and get sex with dalit women, typically just after sundown, when the villagers troop out to the fields to ablute. At an informal gathering of Muslim men outside the house of Anwar Ali—an upstanding clerk, who also housed your correspondent—it was estimated that perhaps 40% of the village’s non-dalit men upheld this ancient tradition. According to Sarju, until Sushila lost her youthful good looks, he suffered near-nightly terrors from drunken patel youths, who came clamouring for her outside his hut.
“This practice recalls a famous condemnation of village India by one of the country’s founding fathers, B.R. Ambedkar. The architect of the country’s 1949 constitution and a dalit, Ambedkar asked: ‘What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’ (Mohandas Gandhi, by contrast, considered the villages to be India’s ideal social units.)”