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)