Kumar Swamy speaks confidently to a large crowd of wealthy Canadians. Wearing a sharp white dress shirt and sport coat, he fits right in with these business owners, professionals and teachers. He could easily be part of their circles. But he’s telling a story of a different life, as a boy from a Dalit background.
“My parents used to tell that we are Dalits, we are untouchables, we are dirty human beings. And my mum used to tell that we are subhumans. You can imagine how I would have felt, my childhood, being told by my own mother than we are inferior, lesser than animals, subhuman, not a real human being.” One day playing cricket, India’s sport of choice, he accidentally bumped into a Brahmin boy. “He became very upset and angry and he yelled at me saying, ‘You dirty Dalit dog!’ I became very upset and hurt that he used this word ‘dog’. I had a cricket bat in my hand … I took it and I gave him a whack” The Brahmin villagers rushed over and condemned this young Dalit boy for an unpardonable crime. They told his family to vacate the village within 24 hours. “My parents were shocked, they were in tears, upset. And I was angry. But we had to do what we were told.” And so they moved, lives uprooted from a playground skirmish.
Getting to India was nothing out of the ordinary. Travel was as simple as getting on the skytrain, with a few logistical differences such as security checks, assigned seating, and pounds of excessive luggage. Some 26 hours, four movies, three naps, and one day later I arrived in Delhi with a team of six others, plus George Barathan who was acting as a guide for the rest of us. He worried when we wandered, scolded us gently to “hurry up quickly” and tried to explain the many incomprehensible things we would encounter.
Moses Parmar welcomed us into a plain office, tidy but with a fine layer of Indian dirt that stubbornly settles on every surface. He began to tell us about the activities his office manages when an Indian woman quietly but forcefully interrupted our meeting with trays of sweet, hot tea. Hot tea on a hot day perplexed us, sweating as we were in 38°C heat and layers of appropriately modest clothing. Each of us had taken care to pack the least offensive clothing we could find; most things long and baggy got the green light. I felt ridiculous in my awkward combination of winter-weather, oversized salwar kameez (donated by well meaning Indo-Canadians), bright running shoes, and the scarf that would not stay on. But better to invoke laughter than offense, I told myself.
Parmar is the North India Director for Operation Mobilisation, a large humanitarian organization dedicated to the Dalits of India. Ask him about his job and he’ll seriously describe his lifelong mission to free Dalit slaves. “Slaves?” we questioned. The word was too poignant for us, conjuring images of barbaric injustice against the innocent and impunity for the guilty. We wondered whether it was hyperbole, hoped it was hyperbole. But before long, we realized the term was accurate. India’s Dalits fit squarely into the UN’s definition of modern slavery:
“The word “slavery” today covers a variety of human rights violations. In addition to traditional slavery and the slave trade, these abuses include the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, the exploitation of child labour, the sexual mutilation of female children, the use of children in armed conflicts, debt bondage, the traffic in persons and in the sale of human organs, the exploitation of prostitution, and certain practices under apartheid and colonial régimes. Slavery-like practices may be clandestine. This makes it difficult to have a clear picture of the scale of contemporary slavery, let alone to uncover, punish or eliminate it. The problem is compounded by the fact that the victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups. Fear and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out.”
Dalits have the lowest place in Indian society. They are outside of the caste system, considered less valuable than animals, subhuman. They are expected to do jobs that are too disgraceful for caste Indians to do. Manual scavenging (a polite term for cleaning up shit with bare hands), sorting garbage for sellable scraps, and manually clearing blocked sewer pipes. They have no tools or protective clothing except what they make themselves. Any payment received is a pittance for the toll the labour takes. Such is their penance for sins of a past life.
“They are to suffer now in this life. They are to endure poverty, suffer the wrath of god, and serve the upper castes all their life. They are to allow this process of life to happen,” George explains. “Where is the self-worth in this? Where is the dignity?”
It’s a complicated, long-term mission that takes years of work before any results are realized.
“Mental slavery is worse than physical slavery,” Parmar says. “You can free someone physically and they can still be slaves.”
He’s referring to the generations old belief that untouchables are subhuman beings. Most Indians grow up believing the caste system is the natural way of being, designed by the Hindu gods. Dalit parents teach their children that they are subhuman. To free Dalits from slavery requires a paradigm shift of their self-identity.
“When they go to stores they receive a lesser quantity for the same money as an upper caste,” Barathan says, trying to help us understand the extent of untouchability—which is officially illegal in India since 1950, but is seldom enforced especially in villages. Dalits are denied entry into public parks, water wells, some restaurants, and are even made to use separate water fountains to prevent polluting the upper castes. Some villages even prevent Dalits from entering police stations.
Ramanjneyulu is a young father in an Indian slum. For work he collects garbage from upper caste houses to be sorted and sold, hopefully finding enough valuable garbage to survive. He believes the caste system is necessary for society.
“Everybody cannot be Lord Krishna. Maybe I have desire, but I cannot be the head. I am a Dalit so I have to do Dalit work,” he says. Some neighbours disagree.
“Education!” interrupts one man. “We are the same as them. They are educated and we are not. It is why they are on top.”
Ramanjneyulu shakes his head with that characteristic Indian bob of disagreement, compliance, greeting, and acknowledgement.
“Yes, we are equal,” the man insists. “The same red blood will flow. We are equal.”
The second man is on to something: education is a game changer. Uneducated and poor, Dalits are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Most Dalit children who attend government schools drop out because of painful discrimination from both teachers and classmates. They leave to become child labourers, poor and unskilled, with no hope and no dignity. In this situation, kidnapping is a very real risk. Desperate parents will sometimes unknowingly send their children away into slavery, duped by promises of a good job as a house servant for an upper caste family. The promised jobs don’t exist. Children are sold for beggary, the organ trade, sexual slavery, or child labour. An estimated one million children are missing in India today; sold, stolen, exploited.
“The caste system declares Dalit women to be intrinsically impure and ‘untouchable’, which sanctions social exclusion and exploitation.” This summary from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) illustrates the link between the caste theology and human rights abuses that make Dalits part of the modern slavery epidemic. The caste system teaches that Dalits deserve to be treated as subhuman. There is no thought of justice or human rights. Dalits do not have access to justice. Most police officers are upper caste, and sometimes refuse entry into the police station to Dalits. Complaints filed by Dalits are often neglected. What’s worse is that illiteracy, lack of dignity, and deep discrimination causes most Dalits not to bother going to police at all.
A movement among Dalits born from growing frustration at their low place in Hindu life culminated in November 2001. Hundreds of thousands of Dalits gathered in Delhi to demand change. Throngs of them “quit” Hinduism because of its systemic oppression. Their hope was to free their children from the cycle of injustice. They called out for help from various religious leaders in the country. Christian leaders from Operation Mobilisation responded and made a commitment to open 1,000 schools in India, dedicated to Dalit children.
Education is their primary focus; it is a preventative strategy to set Dalit kids on a different path before the cultural nuances of untouchability penetrate them for life. Good education gives Dalit children the chance to bypass “Dalit work”, instead pursuing careers in medicine, education, politics, law, justice, business and public service. In these schools, students learn that untouchability is illegal, that the Indian Constitution recognizes Dalits as fully human. Graduates, thus empowered, are unlikely to be exploited. Further, they become advocates for their families, often being the first person to complete an education. Students in OM schools have intervened to protect siblings from being sold, and parents from being extorted as bond slaves . This education is changing the Dalit community forever.
Years after his family was uprooted, Swamy decided to become a Christian, saying that he found acceptance and value being “made in the image of the Christian God”. He received an education and today works as the South India Director of Operation Mobilisation, Parmar’s southern counterpart, also dedicated to a very personal mission of freeing the Dalits through education.
“Hence we want to declare war against caste system. Our desire and our prayer is that this heinous, barbaric, old system should be broken. There is hope for the Dalits of India. It’s possible to bring change in [this] generation. … We believe that education brings empowerment, and empowerment eventually emancipates the Dalits. Frees them. Liberates them,” Swamy says.
Thirteen years after the 2001 Dalit rally, OM has founded 107 schools all over India, called Good Shepherd Schools, with around 25,000 students. The difference between Good Shepherd schools and government schools is worth mentioning. Firstly, most government schools teach in the local dialect. Nice for cultural preservation, but useless for continuing education or career prospects outside of the village. English is the number one language for post-secondary education in India. There are unknowable numbers of dialects and distinct languages in India; English has become an equal language. Kids who do graduate from local government schools have limited opportunity. And then there is the quality of teaching. Stories of absentee teachers in government schools are rampant; students tell of walking 45 minutes to school to find out that the teacher did not bother coming that day. Thirdly is the inescapable caste discrimination. Dalits who go to government schools are segregated and punished by classmates and teachers. Most Dalits drop out of school because they are treated so badly. In contrast, Good Shepherd schools, which have a near 100% completion rate, teach in English, gradually increasing the percentage of all-English classes in upper grades as students become fluent. Teachers are selected for their belief in the transformative power of education. They are the front lines of this fundamental social change. And finally, Good Shepherd schools do not acknowledge caste. They teach students that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ (as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This is where foundational change really begins. When people believe they are equal, they act equal, and expect to be treated equally.
Dr. Joseph D’Souza, president of OM in India, estimates that 40% of their 25,000 students would have been trafficked by this time if they weren’t in school.
“Just like Slumdog Millionaire! One million, one million children are missing in India today. Stolen for beggary, organ trade, or sexual slavery.”
Despite the immense benefits, it can be a challenge to convince parents to send their children to school. Fathers like Ramanjneyulu feel their children are more useful scavenging with him in the garbage. He does not see value in educating his children, since the gods have destined that they be on the bottom. Why should a Dalit learn mathematics, science and writing if they will still end up picking garbage and cleaning latrines with their bare hands? This is the mental slavery Parmar refers to, the paradigm shift that is needed to transform India.
A Dalit background is not easily concealed. Surnames are an inescapable identifier of social standing, and the Hindu caste system permeates all levels of India’s modern culture, sometimes transcending even to Islam and Christianity, whose teachings are egalitarian. Dalit students who graduate from the Good Shepherd schools have a great opportunity, but will still face discrimination and oppression. The belief of caste hierarchy is so deeply embedded in Indian psyche, that change will not come quickly. But it is slowly happening, says Cristo Emmanuel, a young Christian pastor in southern India.
“If I did not have to check the box identifying my caste on government forms, I would not think of it. If they would remove those boxes, an entire generation would forget their caste.”
Months later, I scroll through photos and am mesmerized by portraits of Dalit children. We met them in slums, in schools, in remote villages. They are so pretty. It’s a superficial thing to say, but I’m captivated. In the portraits you can’t see their surroundings, you don’t know where they’re from, what their parents are like. You just see their faces, their charismatic expressions. Superficially I notice their cheekbones, bright almond shaped eyes, and straight white teeth. The west values physical beauty, we idolize it; India values birthright. Both values seem equally arbitrary and unfair. I can’t understand this alternate reality, living right along side my own.
Kumar Swamy finishes his speech with a heartbreaking yet hopeful story. Ronnie was a child beggar on the streets of India, forced to beg by her parents. Her hands have scars from a hot iron rod used to coerce her obedience. Swamy and his team managed to convince her parents to send her to school, giving up the meagre income she earned begging. That was six years ago; now Ronnie is 14 and set to graduate next year. “I asked Ronnie what does she want to be when she graduates? With a bright smile, ‘I want to be a doctor’, Ronnie says. One life at a time, Dalit children are being changed.”