Caste in stone
Outside a village school classroom, a pile of blue rubber flip-flops lies in the dusty, concrete courtyard. In a corner, stacked on top of a clay water pot, are aluminium plates.
When the children spill out of the classroom in Jakhauli, in Haryana state just outside Delhi, for their lunch, rushing to the big vats of steaming rice and lentils, a dozen of them run to the corner to pick up the flip-flops and plates before joining the queue. These two innocuous objects are tantamount to a big black mark on the children's foreheads - branding them inferior.
'Because we are chamars [untouchables], we have to leave our shoes outside the classroom and eat our food on separate plates,' explained 10-year-old Vidya Devi as she sat in her home, little more than a cow shed, on the edge of the village.
Vidya and her sister, Lalita, eight, feel no dismay at being treated differently, because it has become routine. Their mother, Sangita, recalls that it was a high-caste parent who, on the first day of school, imperiously ordered that her daughters and other children of 'untouchables' - also known by the more polite term dalits - sit separately at lunchtime.
After more than 60 years of independence, the plight of India's 160 million dalits remains only marginally improved - and then only in some areas. A new study of 648 dalits in rural areas across India by the National Law School in Bangalore found some dilution of the centuries-old humiliations.
Over 590 said they were now invited for wedding feasts by high-caste families. They were pleased with this modicum of acceptance, but added that their food was prepared separately by a dalit cook, served outside the house on plates they took home, and could only be eaten once everyone else had finished. Another 'concession' was that in times of drought they were allowed to draw water from the village well. A majority said they were allowed to walk down the main street of the village.
However, the daily reality for dalits is a constant lashing at their self-respect and insults that must be constantly swallowed.
India may have prominent dalit politicians such as Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, who has given her community a sense of pride and the hope of better things to come, but in rural India change has been slow.
Sangita's brother-in-law, Vinod Ram, who supports her, hates the segregation that Vidya and Lalita suffer. 'I know that if I speak up against it, the Brahmins and Thakurs [high castes] here will humiliate me in front of my nieces. As a kid, I saw my uncle ridden like a donkey with a rope around his neck and paraded because he stood up to a Brahmin. I wouldn't be able to stand that.'
The vast majority of dalits in the survey still live, like Sangita's family, in a segregated area outside the village. They are prohibited from entering the temple or entering non-dalit homes except at harvest time, when their labour is needed, and they must draw water from a different well.
Even the cruellest manifestations of 'untouchability' continue in the countryside. A few years ago, a dalit woman in southern India who educated herself and moved to a town where she worked as a social worker, returned to her village to visit her parents. Her sari was almost ripped off, she was beaten and made to leave. Her crime? Entering the village wearing shoes, which the upper castes took as impertinence.
Such incidents are somewhat rarer now. The Bangalore survey found that 83 per cent of dalits can wear shoes in the presence of a high-caste person. Nevertheless, 9 per cent had to talk to them with folded hands and 21 per cent had to remain standing as a mark of respect.
A dalit maid, the survey found, who worked in a high-caste home, would not be given water if she was thirsty. If provided a meal as part of her payment, she must eat outside.
Even during a drought, when high-caste villagers allow dalits access to their well, dalits are made to stand some metres away while the water is poured to prevent them 'polluting' it.
The caste system remains untouched by the spread of liberal ideas or westernisation. Notions of inferiority and superiority are drummed into people at an early age. Millions of children are made to feel inferior every day when teachers force them to sit at the back of the class and even order them to sweep the classroom, as though it is their destiny to do whatever menial work may be at hand. In villages, traditional jobs such as basket weaving, raising pigs, cremating the dead and sweeping are still performed by dalits.
If teachers are bigoted, the parents of high-caste children are far worse. If a teacher attempts to break down these social walls, parents become nasty. In the village of Sikhandra, near Kanpur, the local school is embroiled in a controversy over the refusal of high-caste parents to allow a dalit cook to prepare lunch, which is provided free by the government. About 36 of the 62 students are staying away, to avoid eating food prepared by the dalit woman, appointed by the local authorities. 'We will never let our children eat food prepared by a chamar,' Ashok Tewari, father of one of the students, said. 'If we don't allow our children to play with them, do you think we will let them eat their food?'
Here and there, dalits have experienced some improvements. In Punjab, a prosperous state where dalits can easily find work as agricultural labourers, they suffer less overt discrimination.
But it is in politics that dalits have made the greatest headway. Since they constitute a large block of votes, parties eagerly give tickets to dalit candidates. Moreover, since 15 per cent of all seats in the national Parliament, state legislatures and municipal bodies are reserved for the low castes, there has been progress on the political front.
However, for ordinary dalits, the signs of progress are more modest. Until last year, Maddela Prasad had worked for 14 years as a scavenger, removing human excrement in Bihar, a job performed only by dalits. A voluntary group, Sulabh International, which campaigns against manual scavenging, helped Mr Prasad get a position as a warden at B.R.A. Bihar University.
'The best thing about my new job is that people are prepared to accept me socially,' said Mr Prasad. 'People now come to my home. It gives me a feeling of dignity.'