An untouchable, or Dalit, woman in Azamgarh District in Uttar Pradesh, India. The country has 200 million Dalits
, many of whom remain uneducated and poor. More Photos >
AZAMGARH DISTRICT, India
— When Chandra Bhan Prasad
visits his ancestral village in these feudal badlands of northern India, he dispenses the following advice to his fellow untouchables: Get rid of your cattle, because the care of animals demands children’s labor.
Invest in your children’s education instead of in jewelry or land. Cities are good for Dalit outcastes like us, and so is India’s new capitalism.
Brian Sokol/Rapport, for The New York Times
Chandra Bhan Prasad in front of a flooded field in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India. More Photos »
Mr. Prasad was born into the Pasi community, once considered untouchable on the ancient Hindu caste order. Today, a chain-smoking, irrepressible didact, he is the rare outcaste columnist in the English language press and a professional provocateur. His latest crusade is to argue that India’s economic liberalization is about to do the unthinkable: destroy the caste system. The last 17 years of new capitalism have already allowed his people, or Dalits, as they call themselves, to “escape hunger and humiliation,” he says, if not residual prejudice.
At a time of tremendous upheaval in India, Mr. Prasad is a lightning rod for one of the country’s most wrenching debates: Has India’s embrace of economic reforms really uplifted those who were consigned for centuries to the bottom of the social ladder? Mr. Prasad, who guesses himself to be in his late 40s because his birthday was never recorded, is an anomaly, often the lone Dalit in Delhi gatherings of high-born intelligentsia.
He has the zeal of an ideological convert: he used to be a Maoist revolutionary who, by his own admission, dressed badly, carried a pistol and recruited his people to kill their upper-caste landlords. He claims to have failed in that mission.
Mr. Prasad is a contrarian. He calls government welfare programs patronizing. He dismisses the countryside as a cesspool. Affirmative action is fine, in his view, but only to advance a small slice into the middle class, who can then act as role models. He calls English “the Dalit goddess,” able to liberate Dalits.
Along with India’s economic policies, once grounded in socialist ideals, Mr. Prasad has moved to the right. He is openly and mischievously contemptuous of leftists. “They have a hatred for those who are happy,” he said.
There are about 200 million Dalits, or members of the Scheduled Castes, as they are known officially, in India. They remain socially scorned in city and country, and they are over-represented among India’s uneducated, malnourished and poor.
The debate over caste in the New India is more than academic. India’s leaders are under growing pressure to alleviate poverty and inequality. Now, all kinds of groups are clamoring for what Dalits have had for 50 years — quotas in university seats, government jobs and elected office — making caste one of the country’s most divisive political issues. Moreover, there are growing demands for caste quotas in the private sector.
Mr. Prasad’s latest mission is sure to stir the debate. He is conducting a qualitative survey of nearly 20,000 households here in northern state of Uttar Pradesh to measure how everyday life has changed for Dalits since economic liberalization began in 1991. The preliminary findings, though far from generalizable, reveal subtle shifts.
The survey, financed by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania
, finds that Dalits are far less likely to be engaged in their traditional caste occupations — for instance, the skinning of animals, considered ritually unclean — than they used to be and more likely to enjoy social perks once denied them. In rural Azamgarh District
, for instance, nearly all Dalit households said their bridegrooms now rode in cars to their weddings, compared with 27 percent in 1990. In the past, Dalits would not have been allowed to ride even horses to meet their brides; that was considered an upper-caste privilege.
Mr. Prasad credits the changes to a booming economy. “It has pulled them out of the acute poverty they were in and the day-to-day humiliation of working for a landlord,” he said.
To prove his point, Mr. Prasad recently brought journalists here to his home district. In one village, Gaddopur, his theory was borne out in the tale of a gaunt, reticent man named Mahesh Kumar, who went to work in a factory 300 miles away so his family would no longer have to live as serfs, tending the animals of the upper caste.
Brian Sokol/Rapport, for The New York Times
Dalit women planted rice in a field flooded by monsoon
. More Photos >
The New York Times
In Azamgarh District, Dalits are gaining some privileges. More Photos >
When he was a child, Dalits like him had to address their upper-caste landlords as “babu-saab,” close to “master.” Now it is acceptable to call them “uncle” or “brother,” just as people would members of their own castes.
Today, Mr. Kumar, 61 and uneducated, owns an airless one-room factory on the outskirts of Delhi, with a basic gas-fired machine to press bolts of fabric for garment manufacturers.
With money earned there, he and his sons have built a proper brick and cement house in their village.
Similar tales are echoed in many other villages across India. But here is the problem with Mr. Prasad’s survey. Even if it chronicles progress, the survey cannot tie it to any one cause, least of all economic changes. In fact, other empirical studies in this budding area of inquiry show that in parts of India where economic liberalization has had the greatest impact, neither rural poverty nor the plight of Dalits has consistently improved.
Abhijit Banerjee, an economist at M.I.T.
who studies poverty in India
, says that the reform years coincide with the rise of Dalit politicians, and that both factors may have contributed to a rise in confidence among Dalits.
Moreover, Old India’s caste prohibitions have made sure that some can prosper more easily than others. India’s new knowledge-based economy rewards the well-educated and highly skilled, and education for centuries was the preserve of the upper castes.
Today, discrimination continues, with some studies suggesting that those with familiar lower-caste names fare worse in job interviews, even with similar qualifications. The Indian elite, whether corporate heads, filmmakers, even journalists, is still dominated by the upper castes.
From across India still come reports of brutality against untouchables trying to transcend their destiny.
It is a measure of the hardships of rural India that so many Dalits in recent years are migrating to cities for back-breaking, often unregulated jobs, and that those who remain in their villages consider sharecropping a step up from day labor.
On a journey across these villages with Mr. Prasad, it is difficult to square the utter destitution of his people with Dalit empowerment. In one village, the government health center has collapsed into a pile of bricks. Few homes have toilets. Children run barefoot. In Gaddopur, the Dalit neighborhood still sits on the edge of the village — so as not to pollute the others, the thinking goes — and in the monsoon, when the fields are flooded, the only way to reach the Dalits’ homes is to tramp ankle deep in mud. The land that leads to the Dalit enclave is owned by intermediate castes, and they have not allowed for it to be used to build a proper brick lane.
Indu Jaiswal, 21, intends to be the first Dalit woman of Gaddopur to get a salaried job. She has persuaded her family to let her defer her marriage by a few years, an audacious demand here, so she could finish college and get a stable government job. “With education comes change,” Ms. Jaiswal said. “You learn how to talk. You learn how to work. And you get more respect.”
Without education, the migrants from Gaddopur also know, they can go only so far in the big cities that Mr. Prasad so ardently praises. Their fabric-pressing factories in and around Delhi have been losing business lately, as the big textile factories acquire computerized machines far more efficient than their own crude contraptions. One man with knowledge of computers can do the work of 10 of their men, they say. Neither Mr. Kumar, nor the two sons who work with him, can afford to buy these new machines. Even if they could, they know nothing about computers.
The village Dalits do not challenge Mr. Prasad with such contradictions as he travels among them preaching the virtues of economic liberalization. He is a big man, a success story that makes them proud.
Among the broad generalizations he favors, he says that Dalits aspire to marry upper-caste Brahmins to step up the ladder. He married a woman from his own caste, who, he proudly points out, is light-skinned. Across the caste ladder, fair complexion is still preferred over dark.
“Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years,” he predicted. “It will not end caste.”
As for affirmative action and quotas, I do not see where those would help the majority of the Dalits. A few maybe, but large numbers of them, no. Affirmative action in place to remedy racism is fine, but, most Dalits, like most Black Americans, will in the end have to make it on their own. As for quotas, which the Dalits have had for over 50 years in university seats, government jobs, and elected office—these can afford some elevation for them, but, that goes mainly for government entities. How will they fare with the private sector concerning quotas?
As for the light-skin/dark-skin issue, especially where Mr. Prasad “proudly points out” in reference to his light-skinned wife, there is still a long road to travel where light vs. dark is concerned among the dark people of India, a hold over from the days of colonialism.
I do agree with him on education. Though the caste system has been a system in place for generations, education will open many doors for the Dalits, especially for their children.
Educating their children will give the Dalits a leg up in improving their present status. Yes, it will take a while to raise themselves to a better station in life, since their children will need elementary/secondary education, as well as college/university-type education.
The more the children learn that will help them to take care of themselves, the more they will be able to help and care for their parents.
Cattle may be taken from the family by drought, floods, or disease, jewelry may be lost or stolen—but, an education is something that will last a lifetime.
Education is a precious gem, and once obtained, no one can take it from you.