Untouchables in the World of It

By Omvedt, Gail | Contemporary Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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Untouchables in the World of It


Omvedt, Gail, Contemporary Review


'IN Pune they just assume that anyone working in computers is a Brahmin', says a young man from a small town near our home in Western India. He, like many Dalits (ex-Untouchables), is trying to break into the new world of Information Technology, but fears to reveal his origins to his colleagues. With caste attitudes continuing to shape marriages, life chances and career opportunities, the fear is understandable.

Though the current government in India is projecting a feel-good factor about India--its catchy phrase is 'India shining'--there are significant social groups for whom a good deal of rot lies under the shine. Since caste still operates as a defining condition in establishing marriages, social relations, and access to employment, millions of ex-Untouchables and other former low castes remain behind in education, employment and access to wealth.

Although Untouchability and casteism is banned in India there is wide practice of discrimination, and statistics show there is a broad correlation between a person's economic situation and position within the caste hierarchy. The government may boast of economic progress and grand new development schemes such as a 'golden quadrilateral' of highways joining major cities or plans to interlink major rivers, but it has failed to address issues such as education, caste and gender discrimination and the rural-urban gap. The result is continued upper-caste dominance in the professions, in business, culture and the world of Information Technology.

Dalits are fighting back. In the villages, increasing efforts to claim simple human rights--to walk on the same roads and drink from the same tea-cups that upper caste Hindus use--have often led to violent rioting. Efforts of young people to break away from caste-defined marriage relations have resulted in brutal murders. Dalits have formed political parties, fighting elections with notable success in some cases but also coming up against refusals to allow them to vote. They have fought for land, tried small income-generating projects, joined--and where possible set up--their own NGOs. And finally, the new, small and still insecure Dalit middle class that the system of 'reservation'--or positive discrimination--in education and public sector employment has helped to foster, is attempting to move beyond its limitations. Now, in the new era of a dynamic but privatised economy, most Dalits are clear that their future lies beyond the public sector.

Three-and-a-half years ago, Dalits converged in massive numbers at Durban in South Africa to argue before the United Nations' World Conference Against Racism that caste was, indeed, a form of race-related and birth-linked discrimination. The Indian government succeeded at the time in preventing any official recognition of this, but publicity was gained and alliances were made. Several months later, in January 2002, a large conference of Dalit intellectuals was held in Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. It represented the first governmental response to the new demands being made by Dalits.

One of the major movers of the conference was a young journalist named Chandrabhan Prasad, the only regular Dalit columnist in an English daily paper. Prasad had forecast the themes of the conference with a hard-hitting series of articles contrasting the successes achieved by affirmative action in the United States with the failures in India. He compared the percentage of African-Americans at Harvard with the miserable number of Dalits in Delhi University (less than 2 per cent of the faculty); and contrasted steps consciously taken by the US Editors Guild with the failure to even admit the problem in India. Finally, Prasad pointed out that while the US's leading private sector IT firm, Microsoft, had recognised the need for affirmative action and was taking steps to increase minority recruitment, engaging with the community, beginning training programmes, this was something still undreamed of in corporate India.

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