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Eradicating Untouchability in India

Tamil Nadu is one of my favorite states in India.  I lived in the state for over 18 years and have traveled extensively in the state.  But it is also a state of contradictions and missed opportunities.  Unlike many other states in India Tamil Nadu has had a strong industrial base from the very beginning.

Tamil Nadu also had political parties that were very focused on improving the conditions of the poor.  This started with parties like the South Indian Welfare Association in 1916 to the Justice Party of Periyar to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which was started in 1956.  DMK is currently the party in power.  Among the South Indian states Tamil Nadu has also been one of the most influential in terms of the national government (the current Home Minister of India is from Tamil Nadu).

Unfortunately all this focus on the poor and their standard of living and the power has yielded very little substantively.  This is also very alarming considering that Tamil Nadu is also a leader when it comes to “reservation policies” in India and very few college seats or government jobs are up for open competition.

Compare Tamil Nadu to its neighbor Kerala and you will see the differences.  Caste and untouchability are less of an issue, the poor are generally much better off and people generally live longer, have better healthcare and higher literacy rates.  So what went wrong?

In a statement in Coimbatore the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) N. Varadarajan said that “untouchability continued in the State, though the Government acted against specific instances that were pointed out”.  He was attending a ceremony to mark the demolition of a wall that prevented the “untouchables” direct access to the Thanthai Periyar Nagar where they live.

For those who do not know Coimbatore is not a small Indian town in the middle of nowhere.  Coimbatore and the surrounding areas including Tirupur and Erode make up one of the major industrial bases in India.  It is also one of the most important textiles cities in the world.  So how did this wall exist is a city like this for over twenty years?

One key reason is political apathy.  Coimbatore is a strong hold of the Communist Parties.  As the CPI (M) secretary mentioned action will be taken if the people point it out.  This is passive management and is not proactive enough.  During the ceremony the secretary also said “we will carry out a strong campaign throughout the State against untouchability. The cause of the Dalits is not isolated from that of the workers”.  Is this what we need, another campaign?

Campaigns, demolition of walls and empty speeches will not eradicate a problem of this magnitude.  For answers we have study how other nations have successfully resolved such issues.  The American Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties is a great case study.  Blacks in America were very much in a similar situation as the Dalits of India.  They lived in segregated societies and were prohibited from mixing with the rest of the population except in rare circumstances.

The support of the majority is clearly needed to eradicate untouchability (it was true in the case of America where over a period of time the majority of the people and the judicial system came to the realization that segregation and discrimination cannot go hand in hand in a liberal democracy.  So many individuals and leaders starting mostly with the Democratic Party began supporting Martin Luther King and his movement).

When it comes to the issue of discrimination, majority of people in India are still sitting on the fence.  We are willing to look away if discriminatory tactics are used by parties that we support like the Shiv Sena or VHP or by our favorite cricket team or league like the IPL.

We are also fine with discrimination if it is in tune with our ideology (calling prominent Indians “Pakistani sympathizers” just because they have a different point of view).  We are also fine if these discriminatory polices benefit our community (religion, caste or gender based reservation).  The step one in the healing process is to make up our mind on what we want to do?  Should we keep making exceptions and excuses or stand against discrimination or discriminatory policies under all circumstances?  The untouchables are waiting for your answer.

We have to also enact tough laws and make sure that these laws are implemented.  This is very difficult for the government of India to do.  The government of India historically has enacted laws that are based on an individual’s caste, religion and gender.  So it is difficult for the government to turn around and then enact laws that prohibit such discrimination and then enforce it.  The government like its people is conflicted on where they stand on discrimination.  The American government and its judicial system have had a fairly consistent policy on this critical issue for the past thirty years.  This has had a positive impact on their society.

We should also sadly admit that irrespective of what we or the government does there are going to be individuals who are not going to change their views on untouchability (it is a fact that there are racist people in America).  We hope that over a period of time these individuals change their opinions.  But the government can do something to influence their opinions.

I spent about 23 years in the Indian educational system.  To me for the most part it was about remembering theories and formulas and then being able to repeat them during final exams (which I did with flying colors!!).  The history and civic classes were disasters (in civics there was so much focus on the theory and not the actual implementation).  Except in rare cases most schools in India do not teach other historical events that did not involve India (Indian school system for the most part do not teach about slavery, American civil rights movement or the French Revolution to name a few).

In a diverse country like India education should play an important role.  We should be able to teach our kids that we humans have a lot more in common than our differences would indicate (human evolution is rarely taught in Indian schools but most Indian schools teach religion).  Maybe over a long period of time a better educational system will give birth to a more tolerant and equally importantly a more knowledgeable Indian community.

Related posts:

  1. Tamil is Part of Indian Heritage
  2. Eradicating Corruption in India: Sonia Gandhi’s Ill-Advised 4 Step Process
  3. Tamils in India Should Stop Batting For Sri Lankan Tamils
  4. New Brahmins of Tamil Nadu
  5. Multiculturalism: Germany Should Learn From India

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Category: Culture & Religion

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