Gurpreet Singh: We are all untouchables
As social-justice activists gear up for the Community March Against Racism on March 23, 2013, I have launched a Facebook group "We Are All Untouchables!!!".
It's in solidarity with Dalits—the oppressed classes of India—who continue to be treated as "untouchables'' by the so-called upper-caste peoples in the world's largest secular democracy.
Despite all the progress and development in India, Dalits not only continue to face a social boycott but are also forced to indulge in manual scavenging for living. It is shocking that Dalits still face segregation in public places, especially in rural India, in accordance with the age-old caste structure that bars them from visiting temples or even taking food or water from community kitchens or public wells.
In many parts of India, Dalits are not served at barber shops or allowed to ride motorbikes or walk in shoes in the presence of the "upper-caste'' people.
In spite of a ban on untouchability and manual scavenging under Indian laws, these practices go on. This is due to a lack of political will.
Thousands of Dalits who are forced to indulge in manual scavenging are marching in India, seeking end to this inhuman trade. It's difficult for them to get out of it, due to a lack of work opportunities for those considered untouchables by potential employers, who might otherwise offer dignified jobs.
This all reflects very badly on a state that is supposed to be secular. It is pertinent to mention that this caste-based oppression is rooted in the Hindu religion. Yet it is accepted in a secular society. Even other modern religious groups have accepted it as a social reality.
The hypocrisy is also reflected by the fact that sexual violence against Dalit women by the rich and influential upper-caste men is very common.
In a nutshell, the attitude of treating Dalits as pests or as those born to serve those who consider themselves as culturally superior is at the root of this problem.
"We Are All Untouchables'' was formed with the consensus of Dalit activist friends on the 64th Republic Day of India. It was felt that the Indian establishment has been indifferent toward caste-based oppression, which is as brutal as racism. To break this silence, it is important for everyone to speak up against this injustice.
The members of the group have resolved to join the march and take placards and signs bearing slogan "We Are All Untouchables''. Whether you are Dalit or not does not matter. What matters here is that if you want to see an end to untouchability, show your solidarity and join this group.
Incidentally, this year's annual community march coincides with the anniversary of the hanging of three Indian revolutionaries: Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Rajguru. They were executed on March 23, 1931 for killing a British police officer in occupied India.
This year's march also coincides with the 25th death anniversary of Paash, a prominent progressive Punjabi poet who was gunned down by religious extremists in India in 1988.
Both Bhagat Singh and Paash opposed caste-based oppression in their own ways.
Bhagat Singh wrote a very powerful essay on the question of untouchability while continuing his struggle against Imperialism under the pen name Vidrohi (Rebel). He denounced casteism permitted by religious preachers.
Likewise, Paash condemned social inequality in his poems and by offering education to the "untouchable" students—defying the social code imposed by dominant society.
Showing up at the Community March Against Racism will be a fitting tribute to these revolutionaries.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.