Defend Truth


India: The ongoing tyranny of the caste system


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and former chair of Gain, a global foundation fighting malnutrition in the world.

While South Africa is still clinging to the remains of its image as the poster child for peaceful transition, injustices parallel to those of Apartheid continue unchecked in India. Hunger and desperation fester, while the legacy of the caste system remains as powerful as ever.

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