In a major victory for Dalits—or so-called untouchables across the world—the European Parliament has acknowledged that caste-based discrimination is a global evil. The move follows a consistent campaign by the Dalit activists in the U.K. and elsewhere to get international recognition of this age-old crime against humanity.
Dalits, who have been repeatedly humiliated and abused in caste-ridden Indian society, continue to face oppression, even in the South Asian diaspora.
The caste system has prevailed in India for centuries and its roots can be traced to Hindu religion. There are four distinct caste groups: Brahmins (priests) on the top, followed by Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (agriculturists and artisans), and Shudras (those who do menial jobs).
Though the supporters of this inhuman system claim that it was the creation of the gods, it was clearly man-made and brought into practice by those who had the power and desire to bring the less privileged under subjugation. As a result, Dalits have been forced since time immemorial to indulge in menial and lowly jobs, such as manual scavenging and serving the rich as bonded labourers.
Since the European Parliament has admitted that this problem is not just confined to South Asia, Canada should also look into this question seriously. Dalits have a significant presence in certain areas of Canada and have their own Sikh temples, while many others follow Christianity and Buddhism.
There are numerous instances of caste-based discrimination against Dalits in the culturally diverse Greater Vancouver area. As a result some Dalit activists are contemplating pushing this issue through tthe Canadian parliament.
Legislative changes could provide protection for Dalits from hate crimes in the name of caste. However, the main challenge is likely to come from their own compatriots from the Indo Canadian community. No MPs who trace their roots back to India belong to the Dalit community. And most Indo Canadian elected representatives are from dominant caste groups.
In India, Dalits are often denied entry to the temples and other public places in accordance with an orthodox Hindu tradition that prohibits those on the lowest ladder of the caste system from mingling with those on the top. Recently, when Indians were celebrating the 66th Independence Day across the world, an 80-year-old Dalit was stoned to death by the so-called upper-caste goons in Bihar.
His fault was that he and others like him dared to hoist the national flag of their country, defying illegitimate dictates of the “upper caste” people asking them not to do so.
It was not the first time that the Dalits faced such brutality for defying the dictates of the privileged group who had imposed this system on “Untouchables” for their own convenience.
Even the elected members of the village councils from the Dalit community have faced such violence in the past for unfurling the national flag. All this goes on in a country known to be the world’s largest secular democracy, decades after it had gained freedom from the British occupation.
The political leadership of India has clearly failed to keep up its commitment for a true secular republic in spite of stringent laws against untouchability, which has its roots in the Hindu religion. If India is a secular state, then why does it lack a political will to eradicate this inhumane practice sanctioned by the oldest and the most dominant religious faith once and for all?
In the states governed by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, anti-conversion laws have been passed to prevent people from changing their religion. This has occurred without addressing the caste issue, which is the root cause behind religious conversions.
Often, people from the Dalit community are compelled to become Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, or Buddhists. These conversions are actually an act of resistance against this barbarity. It is a separate matter that their social conditions do not change with religious conversions either. The caste system continues to haunt Dalits in other faiths alike. For instance, Sikhism, which is a very modern and progressive religion of India, also faces this problem.
The birth of Sikhism in Punjab was of great significance. That’s because this religion vehemently defied the caste system by allowing Dalits to come into its fold without fear.
The holy scripture of the Sikhs include hymns by Dalit saints, and Sikh temples are open to all the caste groups. The 10th and the last master of the Sikh faith, Guru Gobind Singh, laid the foundation of the Khalsa Panth—the militant arm of the Sikh religion that took Dalits under its wings.
This force was created to challenge the might of Islamic imperialism by bringing the marginalized section of the society under its umbrella. Guru Gobind Singh understood the power of people’s unity. Bringing Dalits into the Khalsa Panth was a revolutionary act of its time, and quickly came under attack from the fundamentalist Hindu chieftains, who could not tolerate any amount of equality to the oppressed classes.
It is equally important to note that degeneration in adherence to the original Sikh religion resulted in similar caste divisions within the Sikh community. This degeneration started showing its signs when the British rulers annexed Punjab in 1849.
The pro-British Sikh clergy openly connived with foreign rulers and allowed casteism to be practised even in Sikh temples. It is for this reason that Dalit Sikhs started getting marginalized and were attracted to other progressive breakaway sects, such as Namdharis.
The caste-based oppression within the Sikh faith has created conditions in which we see mushrooming of many other breakaway sects, as well as segregation on the basis of caste within Sikh temples both in India and outside the country.