Despite the country’s surging economy and growing clout at the global geopolitical high table, swathes of India continue to endorse the deeply-entrenched caste system.
This sad reality was highlighted yet again recently in a report by Lucknow University’s department of education. According to the report, 40 percent of the schools across sample districts in Uttar Pradesh — India’s most populous state, with 199 million people — teachers and students refuse to partake of government-sponsored free midday meals because they are cooked by dalits (once known as untouchables).
The report adds that upper primary school children take less midday meals than those in the lower grades because the ‘upper primary children…are more aware of the caste system and do not like to take midday meal prepared by SC (scheduled caste) cooks.’
This is all the more ironic considering dalits have revolutionized life in Uttar Pradesh. Many of the state’s top politicians and administrators are dalits, and the state is helmed by the feisty Mayawati, who despite her sometimes arbitrary and vengeful way of governing, has still ushered in meaningful economic change. (Uttar Pradesh is the second largest state economy in India, and contributed 8.34 percent to India’s GDP in the 2010 financial year).
Unfortunately, while the caste system has been officially abolished under the Indian Constitution, there’s still blatant discrimination and prejudice against the Dalits. They are frequently refused entry to temples, schools, eateries and barred from participating in community gatherings. They are sometimes still even ostracized to the point that they are made to live on the outskirts of villages.
The word ‘dalit’ is derived from the Sanskrit word for ‘ground,’ ‘suppressed,’ ‘crushed,’ or ‘broken to pieces.’ In ancient times, dalits were synonymous with lowly occupations such as butchering, making footwear or cleaning toilets and sewers. Engaging in these activities was considered ‘polluting’ to the individual.
Post-independence, the Indian government has done much to try to improve their lot by providing them opportunities for education, health and employment. Clearly, though, there’s still an uphill battle changing people’s mindsets.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.