Casteism in India dates back to thousands of years. Even after numerous movements and laws to put a stop to it, it still exists in our society. As India fights to curb increasing numbers of COVID-19 infections, a virus of fear is sweeping the land and the most vulnerable communities (Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis) are bearing the brunt of it. The virus is frightening and it is pushing people’s prejudices and ignorance to the forefront leading to scapegoating of marginalised populations.
Is Social Distancing Becoming An Excuse For Practicing Untouchability?
Every 15 minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit, 6 Dalit women are raped every day and 56,000 children living in slums die due to malnutrition every year in India. One would think that in a crisis like this, such discrimination and related atrocities would be put on hold and people would be more concerned about protecting themselves from the virus. Unfortunately, equal amounts of heed is given to another virus that has existed in our society for centuries now – casteism.
The norm of ‘social distancing’ has been twisted by certain sections of our society. Upper caste people seem to believe that they have been saving themselves from deadly viruses for centuries now by maintaining a distance from Dalits. A narrative, that the world is now following—something devised by Hindus thousands of years ago, doing rounds on social media. Social distancing is a hygienic practice of keeping safe physical distance to avoid transmission of communicable diseases. Untouchability, on the other hand, is a practice of ostracising a minority group and denying them social equality. Touch of ‘untouchables’ is considered to be ‘polluting’ or ‘unclean’ by savarnas. Ironically, it was the rich upper castes who were affected by the virus in our country first.
Upper caste COVID-19 patients from Uttar Pradesh and Nainital refused to eat the food in isolation centres because it was prepared by a Dalit cook. Such incidences of refusal to eat food have been reported in several other states. M. Sudhakar who returned to his village from Chennai due to lockdown was killed by his father-in-law when he tried to meet his wife of six months who belonged to an upper caste. Last year, Dr. Payal Tadvi died by suicide as she was harassed and tortured in her medical institution on the basis of her caste.
Do Dalit Lives Not Matter?
Dalits are murdered, beaten and shunned, but the stories aren’t covered by mainstream media. Minimal reportage leads to privileged and ignorant people into believing that casteism doesn’t exist in India anymore. We need to say their names and know their stories.
On May 27, 2020, a 32-year-old, highly educated social activist of Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, Arvind Bansod died under suspicious circumstances. He was a social worker, MPSC aspirant and breadwinner for his family. His family and colleagues do not believe that he would have tried to end his life. The police administration tried to suppress the case and registered the death as suicide without proper investigation. In a statement, Prakash Ambedkar (National President of Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi) said, “Political pressure is being used to save the accuse Mithilesh Umarkar, a NCP office-bearer from the murder case, and case is registered as suicide case instead of murder case under political pressure”.
Privileged in India often ignore such atrocities. #JusticeForArvindBansod can’t be found in social media trends. Turning a blind eye does not solve anything for anyone. On June 6, 2020 a 17-year-old Dalit boy named Vikas Kumar Jatav was shot dead by four upper caste men for visiting a temple in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh. This incident did not make it to the mainstream media houses until people on social media expressed outrage.
Why is justice not asked for the people discriminated and murdered in their own homeland? Do their lives not matter?
Poverty And Vulnerability to the Virus
The political and economic standing of Dalits has made them more vulnerable to the plight of the virus. Majority of the lower caste people live in rural areas away from essential goods shops, quality healthcare, internet connectivity and other services. A village in Andhra Pradesh did not have access to milk for a long time because of restrictions on movement. In Kerala, a 14 year old daughter of a daily wage worker died by suicide as she was unable to access online classes. These stories are evidences of government’s failure to provide for the Dalit community.
A prominent feature of the Hindu caste system is allocation of occupations on the basis of caste. Dalits were given low paying and menial jobs—rag picking, scavenging, etc. The abolition of caste system in 1950 could not take away this occupation-based discrimination. Even today, more than 90% of the employees in the sanitation and cleaning sector are Dalits. Since these essential services are not put on hold amidst the lockdown, a large number of Dalits are exposed to the virus. They are the ones who have to go out every day and perform their jobs. Sanitation workers have to deal with solid waste with bare hands and are not even given access to hand sanitisers and PPE kits.
The condition of sanitation workers in the hospitals is worse. The hospitals and the government concentrate their resources more on doctors rather than fourth class employees. It was announced that all healthcare and sanitation workers will be provided with an insurance cover of Rs. 50 lakhs however, 22% of the Dalit sanitation workers, manual scavengers and waste pickers do not have the 12-digit ID number that is required to avail this cover.
The poverty rate in India is 21.9% which is grossly understated. Among the lower castes, 81% of the STs, 66% of the SCs and 58% of the OBCs live under the poverty line. On the other hand, poverty level among the rest of the population is 33%. This shows that a large section of the Dalit population lives in poverty, making most of them more vulnerable to the disease.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was correct when he said, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, caste before striking”. What he forgot to mention was the aftermath – how that the virus does not discriminate but our society definitely does. Vaccines for coronavirus will come out sooner or later and this pandemic will end. What will remain is the fact that certain sections of the society will always have to suffer more than others in difficult times because they were born in a family that has been discriminated and downtrodden for the last two thousand years and even after the abolition of such systems, the family could not come out of the vicious cycle that it was stuck in.
Featured Image Source: Asia News