During the first week of April, there was a news report about a man who was reportedly killed for allegedly marrying outside his caste. The incident was reported to have taken place in a village in Tiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu. This alleged honor killing was carried out when the state was amidst the nationwide lockdown. Another incident which took place in the same Tiruvannamalai district saw a cop assaulting and thrashing a Dalit youth in full public view. The cop went absconding soon after and there’s no update on it as of date.
Even during these times of lockdown, caste atrocities have refused to die down and we see reports of shaming and killing in the name of caste. Lockdown or no lockdown, when it comes to protecting the so-called honor of their caste, these people do not care about anything that comes in their way. Not when it comes to preserving their caste pride. This is about safeguarding the integrity and honor in the name of caste. Let us now look at how Dalits have suffered in the name of caste and discrimination during times of calamity.
India has close to 600,000 villages and it is a known fact that almost every village has a settlement or small pocket which is usually on the outskirts which is reserved for Dalits. Dalits have always been at the receiving end since they are considered the lowest social group in varna system by the upper castes who swear loyalty to this varnashrama. There have always been reports that people from the Dalits and Adivasi communities are the last to receive any aid in time of disasters or epidemics. The relief work in the villages usually starts with upper caste people and by the time they reach Dalit settlements, the aid allotted is over and the relief workers leave without giving them any assurances or hope. In fact there have also been incidents where people carrying out such relief measures hesitate to enter the settlements fearing wrath from the upper caste people. And in times like the present COVID-19 situation, one can only imagine if at all any testing or healthcare service benefits are reaching the Dalits. These are some of the instances which happen on a regular basis in the villages and in rural areas and sadly nothing concrete is done by the authorities to address such incidents.
But this does not end here. This caste virus is even present in urban cities and the discrimination is something similar. In the cities, Dalits are often forced to take up jobs such as manual scavenging, rag picking, sanitation workers etc. and these occupations are considered dishonorable for people from the so called upper castes. We know that the sanitation and the cleaning works are an integral part of the essential services during this period and also must continue during this time of lockdown. The sanitation workers who are often hired by private contractors often fail to provide them with necessary and essential protective equipments. Sanitation workers and manual scavengers clean and sanitize the hospitals and work in unsafe conditions like clearing the clogs in sewer manholes. But most of the time they are not given sufficient, if any, protective gear. Leave alone lockdown, even during the normal days they are not provided with proper kits or gloves and are often exposed to the harsh and unsanitary conditions. When demanded they are often ignored and reprimanded by harsh words such as “I cannot provide such things, continue working or I will cut a portion of your wages” claims a worker. Even during such tough times, it is deplorable that Dalits have continued to suffer such caste atrocities.
Spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev who is known for his absurd comments at times had appealed to people not to blame any religion for the spread of corona virus and said there should be no division in the name of caste and creed after the Tablighi Jamaat incident. “Virus knows no caste or religion” was his message. Yes, Mr. Jaggi, it is true that Virus does not see caste or religion but what about the people who believe in the caste virus and encourage it by spreading it further and do nothing to eradicate it. Coronavirus may leave soon, but when will the caste virus leave?
It is high time we as Indians and responsible citizens of this country confront such issues when they occur. We should pledge to take a stance to end such discrimination in the name of caste and report such incidents and bring attention to these issues. This can go a long way in addressing this menace of the caste system.
Keerthi Nathan is currently pursuing his Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He is an avid Tennis player and takes a keen interest in analysis of political events in the country.