– Vivian Chieh

Only after recently watching the film Water by Deepa Mehta [1] was I aware of India’s untouchables. It took me 19 years to get my first exposure to untouchables in India. 

From this experience, I assume that I am not the only one among the billions of people who just learned about the untouchables, or worse, who are still unaware of them. The film is an introspect into the lives of Indian widows in ashrams that reveals the misogyny and exclusion of their lives in society. The main character is an eight-year-old girl forced to face renunciation as a widow for the rest of her life. Widows are a part of India’s hierarchy but often characterized as unclean and polluting.[2] What surprised me is that the widows in the film have normalized their condition by acquiescing to their culture and enforcing it on themselves. From this movie, I asked myself: can we deny that the caste system does not exist? 

India’s caste system separates Hindus according to their work and birth. Four classes are created based on the principle of “varna”: the Brahmins (the priests), the Kshatriyas (the nobles), the Vaishyas (business owners), and the Shudras (labor workers).[3] However, this is not the end. There are also people categorized outside the system called the Dalits, or the untouchables. The untouchables are the people excluded from traditional Indian society and relegated to:

  1. Undesirable jobs such as Dalit women are in charge of cleaning cow dung
  2. Segregated from educational and religious institutions
  3. Punished for even approaching or letting their shadow fall on individuals from higher castes 

Essentially beginning as a labor division, the caste system began to manifest itself into Indian society. India is growing and changing fast, but this isn’t the case with traditional views that are still in place. Although discrimination based on caste was outlawed in 1955 to help integrate lower castes in modern society, caste discrimination and segregation persists. The goal was to make individuals caste-conscious and eventually embed it in systems and cultural models. [4]

One of the most vulnerable victims of the perpetuation of the caste system is the children. The caste system’s effect on Indian children is rarely a topic of emphasis. Extensive research and evidence state that it should become an attention topic, particularly for children and their education. Albeit Indian laws stating that schools need to include all children of castes, in reality, Dalit children sit at the back of the class and refrain from interacting with children from other castes. A UNICEF report states majority of the Dalit children are known to perform poorly in many areas of primary education. Illiteracy is still a concern in India and, drop-out rates are higher for Dalit children. Without being able to survive knowledge, there will be limited opportunities for these Dalit children. These children will then go through what is known as the inherited occupational role, faced with menial and hazardous work that is equivalent to that of ‘slaves.’ This results in child labor becoming common for disadvantaged Dalit children. Children part of the Dalit caste are also victims of structural inequality and are affected by poverty. There is insufficient access to benefits and development processes in their area, and this is often the case for Dalit individuals precluded from involving in decision-making and participation in public and civil life. Furthermore, Dalit individuals get restricted to certain areas and denied access to public spaces, which makes them marginalized and stunts their growth. 

Let’s look at some devastating statistics: 

  1. One-half of all poor children in India belong to the Dalit caste. 
  2. School attendance among the Dalit group has risen from 64% to 77%, but this number lags behind the 84% seen among children of other castes. 
  3. Financial insecurity is a threat to the growth of Dalit children. 
  4. Between 2005 to 2006, 18.2% of Dalit girls under the age of 15 have lost their virginity as they were married off illegally. 

We must acknowledge and recognize that the caste system persists in Indian society. We need to prevent becoming caste-conscious so that we can support the growth of several children. [5] [6] [7] [8]

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