Over the last years, India’s status as both a democracy and a global emerging power is at its peak. This picture changes dramatically when considering the lower strata of Indian society.
The Indian Constitution, intending at building a democratic society, guarantees to all citizens equality before the law (Article 14), and has issued anti-discriminatory measures. These measures include the enactment of the Untouchability Offence Act, 1955 (renamed as the Protection of Civil Rights Act [PCR] in 1976), and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities (POA) Act, 1989. Under the former, the practice of untouchability and discrimination in public places and services is treated as an offence.
Nevertheless, nearly after seventy years of Indian independence, caste and the ingrained caste hierarchy still remains at the core of Indian society. The lower castes, the Untouchables, now known as Dalits (a term that means “stepped on, broken, crushed”) have been ground down by those above them in the social hierarchy, which has frozen mobility within the social structure.
Ritual and social exclusion and discrimination are even more severe for Dalit women, who face extra-deprivation and segregation bound to gender asymmetry. Indeed, Dalit women have extremely low levels of literacy and education, thenceforth are mostly engaged in unskilled, low-paid, and sometimes damaging manual jobs. They are often victims of violence, sexual exploitation, and deleterious representations.
The Indian government has tried to inverse this social scaffold trough a policy of ‘positive discrimination’, in other words, through reservations in the public spheres to ensure proportional participation of the Dalits in public sector employment and to enable their entry into public educational institutions as well as various political democratic bodies. Concurrently, in the last decades, there was a remarkable upsurge in the assertion of Dalit identity. A resilient political movement has emerged among these marginalized groups throughout the country to aver their distinctiveness and self-respect and to challenge the cultural hegemony of the upper castes. To a large extent they have overcome to fill the cognitive blackout that they have historically been the object of and have claimed their legitimate share of representation of knowledge, asserting a consciousness that is not only cultural but also political.
However, although the Dalits make up about 16 per cent of the Indian population and number about 138 million, and despite the achievements that they have imprinted on the Indian political and cultural agenda, the majority of the Dalits dwell in villages were their identity is more visibly exposed and where preconceptions and prejudices die harder, therefore perpetuating the clash within and emphasizing the paradoxes of democracy.
ROSA PEREZ is an Anthropologist, a Professor at ISCTE and Visiting and Institute Chair Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar, India. She lives in Lisbon, Portugal.