It's Time for India's 'Untouchables' to Live Free

Dr. Joseph D'Souza is president of the Dalit Freedom Network and of the All India Christian Council.
Dr. Joseph D'Souza is president of the Dalit Freedom Network and of the All India Christian Council.

While the United States remains consumed by political problems, and Europe by security issues, a once-in-a-millennium movement is taking place in my country, India.

This movement could trigger the single, greatest advance of civil rights in a thousand generations, yet the world is barely noticing.

India's "untouchables" — or Dalits — are revolting against the centuries-old discrimination of the caste system. They are storming the streets by the tens of thousands, burning busses, blocking highways, and even holding "beef festivals" as a sign of protest.

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India shakes as she ever has before. And it all began in Gujarat, the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi.

In early July, seven Dalit teenagers were rounded up by a group of so-called "cow vigilantes" on the allegation that the Dalits had killed and skinned a cow. The caste system, which discriminates against Dalits, consigns them by birth to dispose of the bodies of dead animals. Dalits, therefore, skin already dead cows in order to sell their leather to tanneries and then dispose of their carcasses. Consequently, radicals punish them — often violently — for doing so. It's a vicious cycle.

The radicals seized four of the young Dalits, stripped them naked, and shackled them to a car. They beat them with metal rods in full public view, as policemen stood by silently. A video of the incident was uploaded to the internet. In it the attackers take turns whipping the helpless teenagers, who are seen begging them to stop.

That video initiated a revolt that was further ignited when the authorities failed to punish the culprits.

Dalits then began dumping dead cows in town centers, challenging the authorities to skin and dispose of the bodies themselves. The Indian state of Gujarat ended up littered with the carcasses of dead cows since upper caste Indians will not engage in the "dehumanizing" task of disposing of dead cows.

Not at least since Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's time — during the country's fight for independence — have we felt these agitations in our ancient culture. India has never seen such public outrage by Dalits.

For thousands of years, the "untouchables" of India have been abused, disenfranchised, raped, murdered, and harassed. They have been treated as below animals and have been ostracized to suffer in the shadows. Their plight has been the worst in the world, and the world has largely ignored it.

And though India's constitution bans the practice of untouchability, Dalits are still subject to inhumane violence and treatment on a daily basis.

In July we learned of a young Dalit woman who was gang-raped twice by the same men — once in 2013 and once last month. The attackers, three of whom were never arrested and two who were released on bail, stalked the woman from one town to another to intimidate her against seeking charges. When it was clear she was not stepping back, the men gang-raped her again.

Every day Dalits are victims of senseless violence.

Recently, a Dalit mother and father were hacked to death over a 15 rupee debt — that is 22 cents of a dollar. Now their three young Dalit children are left as perhaps the most vulnerable orphans on earth.

Dalits are assigned their place in society by birth, so there's no way out for them. Their dehumanization will not stop until the caste system is abolished by law. This is the unfinished work of the author of India's constitution — a Dalit himself — the late Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Perhaps only the Indian equivalent of Abraham Lincoln can end the caste system?

Will Prime Minister Modi — who is not embarrassed by his own low-caste roots — end the caste system and bring about the greatest human rights reform in Indian, perhaps even human, history? Until then, over 250 million men, women, and children in South Asia will suffer violence and discrimination every day.

The Dalit protests aren't novel developments in this narrative; they are the rushing sound of hundreds-of-millions of voices finally making a break in the dam.

It's time we join our voices with theirs.

Dr. Joseph D'souza is president of the Dalit Freedom Network and of the All India Christian Council, and a member of the Not Today Coalition.

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