A caste of 130 million gets ready to fight for equality

AS INDIA prepares for the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday this year with the launching of a thousand eulogies and the unveiling of statues in towns and villages everywhere, there is little evidence in this land of Gandhi's teachings.

His philosophy of non-violence is probably India's greatest gift to the 20th century, yet his teachings are not available in three of the 15 official languages: Sindhi, Punjabi and Kashmiri. Insurrection darkens Punjab and Kashmir states, and one would imagine distributing Gandhi's books there might be more useful than sending armoured battalions.

But it is not only a case of benign neglect; after all, the sacrifices that Gandhi demanded sit uncomfortably with today's affluent Indian middle classes who watch MTV and drive Toyotas. It is more disturbing than all that. Some of Gandhi's thoughts - and his reputation - are being reviled by those Indians whom he fought so hard to defend: the sweepers, landless labourers, and scavengers of the Untouchable castes who comprise more than 16 per cent of India's 847 million population. Gandhi, who belonged to the priestly Brahmin caste, is branded a wily elitist, who sought to restore the Hindu social pyramid which was beginning to crumble under British colonial rule.

The Mahatma, or ''Great Teacher', has become a casualty in a Hindu caste war now sweeping across northern India. Villages have been burnt down, mobs have murdered children, and even esteemed Gandhiji, the guiding light of modern India, is under attack. As Gandhi's own grandson, Rajmohan, a former MP, explained: 'A rift is deepening between the castes and between Hindus and Muslims. This is accompanied by a rebellion against Gandhi - the symbol of our conscience.'

For more than 2,000 years, the Untouchables have swallowed the cruellest injustices from their high-caste oppressors. Even today, not far from Delhi, an Untouchable bridegroom was nearly lynched because he dared to ride a horse to his wedding party instead of going on foot. In many villages an Untouchable would be stoned to death for drinking water from a Brahmin's well.

Gandhi sought to break the taboo of Untouchability. He urged Brahmins to muck out their own toilets. And, to promote their equality, he called the lower castes Harijans - Children of God. Today, the lower castes insist on calling themselves Dalits - meaning the oppressed.

Hope in a higher rebirth no longer pacifies today's lower- caste Indians. They want equality. Currently, the president, prime minister, chief justice, commander of the armed forces, and 53 per cent of all government bureaucrats are Brahmins, even though Brahmins make up only 3 per cent of India's population. The lower- caste Indians are angered by the slow pace of social reforms since independence, and some writers say that India now stands on the brink of profound change. As one Dalit militant, Maiku Ram, declared recently: 'The Dalits can no longer tolerate the divine slavery which the Hindu caste system has imposed on them.'

The Untouchables' hero is Dr B R Ambedkar, a brilliant lower-caste Indian who drafted the Indian constitution. In the northern Indian city of Meerut last month, police tried to tear down a new statue, swathed in marigolds, of Dr Ambedkar. For once Dalits fought back, seized police rifles and clubbed policemen unconscious. Dr Ambedkar's statue remains.

Having secured a political foothold in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Dalits are asserting themselves in the streets. Since the lower- caste party, the Bahujan Samaj, became a coalition partner in the Uttar Pradesh government five months ago, there have been over 60 clashes and countless killings involving Untouchables. A militant group, known as the Dalit Sena or army, now has nearly 120,000 members. Hundreds of illegal gun factories have sprung up in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The Dalit leader is Kanshi Ram, a blunt and tireless politician in his mid-fifties. 'Today, we are not totally helpless. We can fight for our due,' he said. His opponents dismiss him as an opportunist who dreams only of becoming prime minister. But the gathering momentum of his campaign has rattled the main parties, especially the ruling Congress party.

The Congress government in Bombay recently re-named a university after Dr Ambedkar. Many Congress-controlled states are no longer so brazen about ignoring laws which allot a quota of government jobs to lower castes. And Bihar's chief minister, Laloo Prasad, recently had several Untouchables ordained as Hindu priests - a big step when most temples refuse entry to Untouchables.

Even the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, the staunchest defender of the caste hierarchy, realises it can no longer ignore the Untouchables. In a publicised stunt, the BJP insisted that several of its leaders share a breakfast with the Dom Rajah, the prince of the caste in Benares city which burns corpses. The Dom are the lowliest of Hinduism's thousands of sub-castes. The prospect was too much for several of the BJP Brahmins, who waved away the 'polluted' food.

Debate rages on over Gandhi's motives in the Indian leader pages. But the Dalit militants have mis-interpreted the old sage, according to Gandhi's grandson. 'It's true that early on, Gandhi defended the caste system. He knew that to attack it would divide Hindus at a time when unity was needed for independence. Later on, he wanted caste to be abolished.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada