Book review : The other face of India

Kathmandu :

The concept of untouchability is rooted in economic and political inequality, and reproduced by the ideology of caste hierarchy,” states the book Untouchability in Rural India, a survey of 565 villages in 11 Indian states conducted by Action Aid India.

The survey was carried out in 2001-2002 in the selected villages across Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharastra, Orrissa, Andra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu by trained investigators.

The book peeps into the rural India, where untouchability is widely prevalent in various forms — 64 specific forms — according to the survey. The survey was conducted by dividing different forms and spheres of untouchability into three main categories: a) the secular public sphere, b) the religious-cultural and personal sphere and c) the economic sphere. Among the three spheres, according to the book, the practice of discrimination based more on interpersonal relationships, the religious-cultural and personal sphere, is widespread.

According to Harsh Mander, one of the compilers — Sukhadeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande, all respected social scientists — of the survey, “The first-ever study on untouchability in 11 Indian states demonstrates the deeply disturbing fact that untouchability is not only present all over rural India, but it has survived by adapting to new socio-economic realities and taking on new and insidious forms. Contrary to the impression among certain sections of Indian society that untouchability has passed into history following wide ranging socio-cultural changes that have marked modernisation, the study resoundingly confirms that untouchability continues to be an important component of the experience of being Dalit in contemporary India, especially the countryside.”

The book has a separate chapter dedicated to Dalit women. It details the double burden borne by Dalit women for whom gender and caste combine to create greater vulnerability to social exploitation. The elaborate data and the tables make the book more authentic.

The survey shows that Dalits have mobilised socially and politically, and have secured significant state support but are still vulnerable. One of the examples that the book presents is the case of K Rasu, a Dalit panchayat president of the Chottathatti village in Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga district. During the Independence Day celebrations in 2003, K Rasu was humiliated and attacked in public because he unfurled the national flag at the Panchayat’s office function. It proves that state support alone cannot help Dalits live a dignified life based on equality guaranteed by the Constitution.

Though Dalits underst-and their status at the bottom of social and economical hierarchy is because of dominance of upper caste, they can do little. Over the period we have witnessed their resistance to injustice in many forms, from passive resistance to militant retaliation, fueling the deep-rooted caste-hatred in the rural psyche further.

While urban India is going global, rural India, it seems, has been left far behind. The book hits at contemporary India where it hurts the most. It is definitely a book worth discussing.