Leadership in India has recently taken steps to empower the untouchables of India, yet there is still much to be done. Generations of Dalits have been victims of oppression due to outdated religious beliefs, and the caste system in India dictates the future employment opportunities of these individuals based on the social class they are born into. Recent outbreaks of violence against the oppressed show a clear contradiction between Hindus’ beliefs and actions. The ‘Stand Up India,’ initiative is a good starting point for Dalit equality, yet the greater Indian population is needed to change this ill-fated stigma.
The Government’s Plan to Empower Untouchables:
On the 5th of April, 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a stand for humanity by launching the ‘Stand-Up India,’ program in hopes of promoting entrepreneurship amongst the disadvantaged in his country. It was in August, 2015, that Modi unveiled his initial plan, ‘Start Up India, Stand Up India,’ which was created to help innovative and capable citizens, of all classes, finance and grow their start-up businesses with the help of the Indian government.
The ‘Start-Up India’ program, which Modi unveiled in January, is aimed at helping small businesses, incorporated within the past 5 years, as well as newly incorporated ventures. The plan allows eligible individuals and corporations, who want to participate in the program, to receive substantial governmental loans, exemption from capital and income taxes for 3 years, and an 80% rebate on their registration, amongst other benefits. The ‘Start-Up India’ initiative launched on April 1st.
News of greater importance, in the eyes of humanitarians, came only 4 days later. In New Delhi, on the 5th of April, Modi’s government approved the second element of the scheme, ‘Stand Up India,’ in hopes of empowering India’s disadvantaged through a like-minded entrepreneurial program.
The ‘Stand Up India’ plan is specifically aimed at helping India’s women, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes. The scheduled classes in India are comprised of the severely disadvantaged, commonly known as the untouchables or Dalits, and makeup 16% of India’s population. The scheduled tribes are comprised of severely disadvantaged indigenous groups and makeup 8% of the population.
Modi’s ‘Stand Up India,’ scheme is an initiative, unlike any the country, has seen. The social structure of India, which revolves around a caste system, historically has repressed over 25% of the population from opportunities for empowerment, wealth, and higher levels of life satisfaction. This, however, may be changing.
The Caste System of India:
The religious beliefs of the Hindu people largely contribute to the socio-political structure that is found in the country. Two primary beliefs, which are deeply rooted in the religion’s history, leave many individuals repressed and unable to improve their lives in any way. The idea that we all have a part to play in order to keep cosmic and social harmony, called Dharma, means that whichever Varna, or social class, an individual is born into will outline their future opportunities for work and economic prosperity.
It is believed that the caste which one is born into depends upon their Karma, or history of actions taken to keep this harmony, from previous lives. The situation one is born into is believed to be a direct reflection of how well one upheld their Dharma in previous lifetimes. Out of these Vedic-based beliefs arose 4 distinct Varnas and thousands of lesser-defined social groups called Jatis. Let’s briefly look at each of the 4 major caste groupings, before examining the de facto 5th caste, the Dalits or Untouchables.
- Brahmin: Individuals born into the highest class are tasked with priestly and religious duties. Occupations that are found within the Brahmins caste are that of priests, teachers, and more recently a number of untraditional white-collar jobs in the areas of politics, business, and agriculture.
- Kshatriya: The Kshatriya Varna is below the Brahmins and is comprised of individuals working in governmental and military occupations. Because the ultimate goals of Hindus are religiously based, the Kshatriya class is considered lower than the Brahmin class but may be looked upon more highly from a Western perspective because of the wealth, prosperity, and power they enjoy.
- Vaishya: Individuals born into the Vaishya caste are tasked with working in commoner industries such as agriculture and trading. Today, most Vaishyas will obtain advanced education and possess a desirable skill, trade, or profession. The Vaishyas, along with the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, make up the group of twice-born citizens and are bestowed the honor of studying the Hindu religion in-depth.
- Shudra: The 4th Varna in the Indian caste system is the Shudra class and is made up of hundreds of million of Indian citizens who are tasked with working in industries that serve the higher 3 Varnas. Individuals in the Shudra caste may own a shop or work as a farmhand in order to serve the more revered classes.
For the vast majority of individuals born into these 4 Varnas, a respectable life, with opportunities to improve their social and spiritual standing, is all but assured. Unfortunately, over 25% of the Indian population is born into the ‘5th caste’ and have become known as Dalits or the Untouchables of India.
Treatment of the Untouchables of India:
Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, one of the greatest Indian leaders to oppose the idea of untouchability, believed that being born as a Dalit was worse than slavery. The lowest Varna in the Indian caste system, if it can be called as such, is comprised of individuals known as the untouchables, who are tasked with the ‘unclean work,’ of the country.
Being born as an untouchable, for most, means that you will spend your adult life doing tasks of humiliation, without any opportunity to improve your employment opportunities. Many Dalits are given assignments that deal with blood, excrement, and other bodily defilements. Some of the common jobs of the untouchables are to cremate the dead, sweep the streets, clean latrines, and remove lifeless animals from busy roads.
The work that is handed, at birth, to the untouchable caste is clearly unjust, and when you couple this with the fact that they are often treated with discrimination, prejudice, and violence by the culturally ‘elite,’ it is clear to see why Mahatma Gandhi once said,
I would bend the knee before the poorest scavenger, the poorest untouchable in India for having participated in crushing him for centuries; I would even take the dust off his feet.”
The treatment of Dalits brings about major contradictions in the way Indian people think and behave. One must wonder how Hindus, which comprise roughly 80% of the Indian population, can hold the view that each of us is made from the same divine entity, yet treat our own brothers and sisters so poorly. The customary greeting in India, ‘Namaste,’ is based on the idea that, ‘The divine in me respects and honors the divine in you,’ yet from 2012-2014 violence against the untouchables rose 29% and in 2014 there were nearly 50,000 crimes registered against the Dalits.
Taking Steps Towards Justice:
On the 11th of May, 2016, one month after the Indian government approved the ‘Stand Up India’ scheme, another important action was taken by Modi and his leadership team. In celebration of Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world, Modi’s righthand man Amit Shah and other cabinet members bathed in the Shipra river with Dalit seekers in a show of equality for all. Unfortunately, many see this as nothing more than a politically motivated stunt.
While the leadership of India does need to continue to take steps that ensure the rights of Indian Dalits, who have seen their families suffer generation after generation, there is still much work to be done.
The ‘Stand Up India,’ initiative is a good place to start but to truly find justice for the untouchables of India, it will take the greater Hindu population to remove the titles of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, Shudra, and Dalit once and for all. Now must be the time that all Indians return to looking for the divine nature, the Atman, in all. Now must be the time that India, as a country, finds Dharma in what is much overdue: To lift the Dalits out of oppression.
We will continue to monitor the ongoing situations of the ‘Stand Up India’ initiative and violence against Dalits. If you would like regular information on this cultural stigma, you can visit The Times of India, The Indian Express, and The Hindu. If you are interested in making a difference in the lives of the untouchables of India, please visit The Dalit Freedom Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the Dalits find justice.