'Untouchables' Demands A New Role In India


Indian society is still often ordered by the ancient Hindu caste system for millennia. What caste you're born into determines your profession, education and marriage partner. Now, there have been protests for decades, and they may now be increasing. NPR's Julie McCarthy has our report.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Vashram Sarvaiya curls up in his hospital bed in the Indian state of Gujarat.

VASHRAM SARVAIYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He describes how he and three other men were tethered to the back of a truck, stripped to the waist and beaten with rods publicly. The four men belonged to India's Dalit community, once called untouchables because they were consigned by the Hindu social hierarchy to the dirtiest occupations. The men were attacked doing a job no non-Dalit would do - disposing dead cows. The animal is sacred in India's dominant Hindu faith, and Sarvaiya insists they harmed no living cow.

SARVAIYA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We didn't kill the cow. We just removed the skin. It's our ancestral job," he says. A lion was found to have killed the cow, but vigilantes who proclaim to protect cows insisted the four men had slaughtered the animal and while beating them chanted - dig four graves.

Incidents like this are growing across India. A video of the attack shared on social media ignited a smoldering sense of injustice. Dalits are already denied access to temples, public wells, even barbershops. Heena Zen, a young educated Dalit, confirms the continuing practice outlawed 60 years ago of untouchability forbidding physical contact with other castes.

You said earlier that rural Gujarat is really difficult.

HEENA ZEN: (Through interpreter) In my village, when we go to buy milk, they won't even take the money from our hands. We have to put it down, and then they pick it up.

MCCARTHY: In the area near the assault, men who skin cows for a living are now on strike. And families across Gujarat are re-evaluating their centuries-old occupation daily. Dalip Chavda's family has skinned cows for generations. He's not repulsed by the grisly work of cleaning carcasses.

DILIP CHAVDA: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: He's indignant that men like him were beaten for doing their job and is inspired to find a different line of work. He and his cousin, 20-year-old Pragnesh, represent a restless new generation that bristles at being treated as outcasts.

PRAGNESH: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Pragnesh says, "we'll break this caste system where Dalits do all the dirty work." "Let the owners of these dead cows clean the carcasses themselves," he says. With traditional skinners refusing to work, the disposal of cows risks a sanitation crisis in some areas.


MCCARTHY: In the central Gujurati town of Limbdi, cow carcasses are now tossed untreated into open pits in the local garbage dump. Hasmukh Sheth is a trustee with a 150-year-old animal shelter where cows have piled up.

HASMUKH SHETH: (Foreign language spoken).

SHETH: "It's the first time the Dalits aren't disposing of our dead animals. The municipality has no experience," he says. Key sanitation jobs, like unclogging sewer drains and cleaning human excrement off the streets, also fall to Dalits. Dalit rights activist Jignesh Mevani argues that this occupational discrimination is holding India back.

JIGNESH MEVANI: So we want to become a leading economic power, but we want to continue with such obnoxious practices. Castes should be thrown into the dustbin of history. It is nothing but the existence of feudalism.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: A march across the state in support of the striking Dalits starts with a small crowd, crying - azadi, or freedom. They chant - freedom from castism, from social division, from untouchability. At 78, Dalit rally-goer Arjun Gohil has lived through India's entire independence history.

ARJUN GOHIL: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Gohil dances, exalting in a moment that he says is an awakening for a caste-free society. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Gujarat, India.

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