India: The ongoing tyranny of the caste system
- Jay Naidoo
- 10 Dec 2012 03:02 (South Africa)
I sit in a huge rambling hall in Delhi with thousands of activists from Dalit villages across India. There is tangible excitement amid the festival of colour as chattering delegates clutch their badges and conference folders. Many, barely literate, are in clothes that are threadbare but obviously their best, wearing chappals (rubber slippers). It has taken a year to prepare for this conference. But they are like those Cosatu delegates at the founding congress in 1985 in Durban; proud to be here representing their communities.
Their leader, Ashok Kumar Bharti, rallies the gathering, thundering about the continued exclusion and marginalisation of the Dalits: “Ours is the struggle for social inclusion and the recognition of our human dignity. We will not allow our people to be trampled on by a tyranny of the upper castes. We will speak for ourselves.”
I agree with him. I think back to our own struggle against racial exclusion and find the parallels even today. The scheduled tribes and scheduled castes in India number over 300 million and constitute a quarter of the population, and yet they remain entrapped to menial labour through an insidious system, the social and religious roots of which date back centuries.
I think to the world we know today and believe that social exclusion is the dominant challenge we face. Billions live in poverty on less than US$2 per day. Increasing inequality has raised the ugly head of a new Apartheid that divides an every small minority of global economic and political elites who dominate the world economy from the vast majority of humanity.
The global crises of food, financial and climate change combined with the continuing fiscal austerity hit the poor and the working people ever harder. Unemployment, especially amongst youth, is becoming a permanent feature of the global economic fabric. Our governments are disconnected from the hardships of unemployment and poverty and increasingly hostage to predatory elites.
At independence (1947), the Indian Constitution made a provision for reservation of 22% in all governmental positions and educational institutes for Dalits and scheduled tribes. The challenge, similar to black economic empowerment in SA, is that only a small elite has benefited, and mainly because of its political connections.
Ashok’s commitment to taking the benefits of democracy down to the grass roots reminds me of Steve Biko. He is a fearless, charismatic and militant campaigner advocating a philosophy of 'Dalit Consciousness' advanced by Dr Ambedekar, the architect of India's constitution and himself a Dalit. It reminds me of hearing Biko's fiery speech I experienced as a teenager. "You have nothing to lose but your chains. Stop being bystanders in a game you should be playing. It is, after all, better to die fighting for justice and human dignity than to live a life of oppression and die a slave."
I recognise the tension and the complexity of building a movement here. It reminds of the birth of the modern trade union movement. These village representatives are like the hardened hostel dwellers who formed the backbone of Cosatu in the eighties. There is raw passion and energy in the air. All discussions are in vernacular. And the hardship of daily life is etched in the faces of many who have travelled outside their village for the first time.
Memories roll back decades. I drift in and out of those heady days of our robust discussions of yesteryear. We disagreed, argued and made many mistakes. But the principle of “servant leadership” prevailed: “I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” Our vision of activism driven by the interests of the poorest seems to have withered inside of our country and indeed in the world.
Here I see it incubating again.
I watch the youth that are present and see their eyes light up with enthusiasm when I describe the life of my great grandmother, who came from a poverty-stricken village they know so well, to me being a Minister under the famed Mandela. “Only we, ourselves, stand in the path of us achieving our dreams. We have learnt that we should never hand over our power to leaders. We have learnt that in my country (SA), even having the world’s best Constitution, with regular elections and all the best policies does not guarantee the better life our people have a right to. Real democracy only comes when we stop being subjects and become active citizens. It comes when we stop being afraid of our leaders and they fear us, the citizens, and understand that we pay them to serve our interests.”
The applause shows that they identify strongly with this political narrative. Only painstaking organising of communities and building a confident local leadership, equipped with the tools of negotiations and coalition building, can ensure that our schools are places of learning, that the clinics don’t run out of medicines and that local government is held accountable.
As I travelled to villages with Ashok Bharti Kumar, I saw the visible signs of desperate wasting and I asked a naïve question. "Who are the Dalits in this village?"
He laughed. I was puzzled. “Everyone here is a Dalit." In rural India, there is a geographic caste division that still lives on. The corrosive legacy of caste, like racism here in SA, can only be eradicated when we are organised.
India, a sub-continent, is a lumbering democracy, the world’s largest. It is a milieu of cross-cultural co-existence with 18 official languages and innumerable dialects and tribal languages across 600,000 villages. Its growth rate averaged 8% over the past decade, claiming global power status as an emerging economy of the future and that has seen poverty drop by 20%. But it still leaves close to 600 million people living in the harshness of deep poverty and inequality that undermines social cohesion and malnutrition has only dropped minimally.
A recent study by the Naandi Foundation, based in Hyderabad, identified a “malnutrition belt” across northern India and mainly affecting the Dalit communities, tribal populations and religious minorities. The study concluded that India is "doing worse than sub-Saharan Africa.” Nearly one in three malnourished children worldwide are found In India, whilst 42% of the nation's children under five years of age are underweight. A total of 58% of children under five surveyed in the worst districts were stunted and suffering irreversible mental and physical underdevelopment.
When the Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, launched the report, he described the continuing crisis of malnutrition in India as a “shameless act”.
Acknowledging such a fact, in my mind, is half the solution. Denialism, as we have seen in our South African experience, has a nasty way of killing hundreds of thousands unnecessarily as we saw in the HIV/AIDS debacle.
The World Bank estimates that micronutrient deficiencies cost India approximately US$ 2,5-Billion per annum. We know today that countries that do not tackle malnutrition when it is cost-efficient to do so, in the first 1,000 days of life – i.e. from pregnancy to 2 years – will see higher healthcare costs into the future.
The science now has proved a link between undernutrition in this “window of opportunity” and the increased risk of diabetes, bone diseases, hypertension, cardio-vascular illnesses and obesity later in life. And if the social and health costs are not important to policy makers, then the economic modelling now demonstrates that not tackling malnutrition could clip 3% of annual GDP rates.
And if there is any doubt about our covenant with our people, then let us turn to one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time. Mahatma Gandhi had this to say about the state of humanity: “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” As we stand at the edge of a precipice, his profound wisdom is more relevant today than any other time in human history.
Is it not time for us to take a stand to avert a disastrous future for our children? DM
- The cost of hatred: Tomorrow will be too late
- South Africa, say it loud and clear: NO to Xenophobia!
- The workers’ dream of unity, assassinated: A eulogy to Cosatu
- Apartheid 2.0: The Gospel according to the 1% super rich
- International development: Murder, one log frame at a time
- Blood, Power and Betrayal
- The night of the long knives
- The global food system is broken; here's how to fix it
- Africa's tomorrow depends on empowering its people today
- Ebola: Fear, Paralysis, Solidarity, Justice
- The UN General Assembly week, New York: A cacophony of noise and hope
- Hiking the roof of Africa; my journey to the depths of myself
- Visualising the end of inequality – a new path to negotiation
- After the platinum strike: We dare not fail now
- Letter to the next generation
- Formal vs. informal economy: Bridging the gap
- Connecting the dots: Building workers’ unity and workers’ power
- Democracy in distress: Are our elections bought and our votes sold?
- May Day 2014: Cosatu's tough choice of the politics of workers unity or politics of political parties
- COSATU: In the eye of the storm
- Twenty years of SA democracy: A new fight must begin
- Kibera: Hope and human dignity rising in the slums of Africa
- The rise and fall of Cosatu: From vanguard to sacrificial lamb
- A leader I would vote for: Botswana's former president Festus Mogae
- A leader I would vote for: President Pedro Pires of Cape Verde
- Op-Ed: A giant stumbling through the minefield of political division – my appeal to the Cosatu workers
- A leader I would vote for: Joaquim Alberto Chissano
- A leader I would vote for: President Mujica of Uruguay
- That Lula Moment: A question of leadership and integrity
- Following the money: Work with citizens to make our money work for all
- Checkmate: The rise of radicalism
- Lords of the Niger Delta: The Shell legacy of profit before people
- Protests, police and cowardice – our State of the Nation
- New stones for my Madiba rosary
- The final journey and the legacy that will always live in our hearts
- After the tears, the hard work of building the world that Mandela believed in
- Mandela's gone. But he will be with us, forever.
- Bekkersdal: The turning point in SA municipal politics – time for a line in the ground
- Africa Rising? Whose Africa?
- The scramble for the Arctic and the dangers of Russia’s race for oil
- Africa's future is clear: Youth, Technology & Broadband
- Child mortality is our human rights failure of the 21st century
- Technology can wipe out the cancer of corruption
- My open letter to South Africa
- Amputating the soul of our children
- The vision of the Invisible Children
- A humble billionaire, asking tough questions
- Cry, the beloved country; cry, the beloved federation
- Humanity at a crossroads: Fighting for climate justice
- Wanted: Ancient wisdoms to heal our planet
- The taste of power: its sanctity and its perversion
- When the town I loved burned down, or, when Heaven was visited by Hell
- As our Constitution lives, so does Mandela
- Bangladesh: Losing some battles, but winning the war
- Rana Square – the Ground Zero of workers’ rights
- Small-scale farming: simple, successful, sustainable
- A global debate needs local voices
- When will Africa be led by the needs of its people?
- The faultlines in our society: Why are we so angry?
- Nigeria: Africa's best hopes and worst fears
- Our ancient African heritage holds the key to our future
- To build a better world for all, we need a new narrative, new energy, new commitment
- A culture of service and tolerance: Lessons from Chris Hani
- Open data platforms: a tool to revolutionise governance
- Aluta continua: Why the fight for quality healthcare can’t be over
- ‘I raped her because she belongs to me’
- Would Hani and Slovo today be accused of Neo-liberalism and Counter-revolution?
- An open letter to my fellow South Africans: I am ready. Are you?
- A trip to Limpopo: The Forgotten Land
- 'I have a right to a toilet - it's human dignity'
- Matric pass rate: On the road to Nobody
- The challenges of today are South Africa's opportunities of tomorrow
- India: The ongoing tyranny of the caste system
- To my generation: Listen. Listen very carefully.
- The Lula moment and this country of ours, South Africa
- African youth: Fulfilling the potential
- Africa’s 'leadership crisis' - we have more agency than we think
- Think climate change isn't your problem? It will be when you can't eat
- The wuthering heights of disenchantment
- An open letter to Cosatu
- Democracy for all: Marikana signals our second chance
- Can't you hear the thunder?
- A new age, a new role for foundations: redefine development
- Video series - great women of SA: Emma Mashinini (I)
- Mother love: Time to add decency and respect to women's hard-won rights
- GAINing ground: The beauty of one good idea
- Education: a morass of mediocrity
- Madiba week: The lessons his sacrifice taught us, part V
- Madiba week: The lessons his sacrifice taught us, part IV
- Madiba week: The lessons his sacrifice taught us, part III
- Madiba week: The lessons his sacrifice taught us, part II
- Celebrating Madiba week: The lessons his sacrifice taught us
- Mandela day: time for the next generation to take control
- The school of sexual predation
- Rio+20: We're not colonies anymore
- Prayers to the rain gods
- Our foreign policy gets more foreign as time goes by
- Not a moment to Spear: Why, in a time of crisis, that painting is irrelevant
- Ma Emma: The true spear of the nation
- Araku - the truth, the inspiration
- An infinite vision - The story of the Aravind eye hospital
- Get up, stand up South Africa!
- Our future lies in the mothers of nature
- There's a Light in the Get Kony Campaign
- Empowerment lies in women in Indian villages talking to those in African villages
- Dear President Zuma
- Adequate food is essential component of social justice
- Durban to Rio could be our Road to Damascus
- The Grinch who stole hope
- The Grinch who stole hope
- iMaverick, Monday 28 November
- Africa at the crossroads: Let's talk Brazil
- The secrecy bill: Welcome back, Magnus Malan & Adriaan Vlok
- The powder kegs of unmet expectations in our midst
- iMaverick, Wednesday 19 October
- Finding one's humanity where little else remains
- Food security: A matter of war and peace