In South Asia, social exclusion has restricted many generations of people to pre-defined, low or ‘polluting’ professions, denying them even their basic rights.
The practice of deliberately keeping certain ethnic and religious minorities at the bottom rung of society is commonplace in developing countries. But the first world too is ensnared in this subtle but pernicious practice of discrimination. In the United States, for instance, many African Americans continued to face social and economic repression until recently.
In Europe, the Roma and other semi-nomadic groups that pre-date modern nation states, find themselves distrusted and socially excluded. In modern Japan and in South Korea, the descendants of certain families who historically held ‘unclean’ occupations remain a stigmatized group.
In the South Asian countries, on similar lines, the system of castes has enslaved many generations of people to pre-defined, low or ‘polluting’ professions, denying them even their most basic rights; one of the most fundamental of them being the right to live with dignity.
India has practiced a system of castes or ‘varna’ since centuries with four main varnas being Brahmins or priests, the Vaishyas or rulers, Kashatriyas or tradesmen and craftsmen and Shudras or those who serve as servants of the above classes. Then there are the Dalits. These people are not a part of these four varnas and are thus literally outcasts. Dalit is a term which has become synonymous with oppression. More than 90% of them are associated with professions so low that they are deemed as ‘untouchables.’
Untouchability, in modern understanding, has become more of a social phenomenon than a physical one. Although modern constitutions and legal codes of today are said to outlaw the more violent forms of social exclusion, a random sampling of headlines in mainstream Indian newspapers tell the Dalit story; “Dalit boy beaten to death for plucking flowers”, “Dalit tortured by cops for three days”, “Dalit ‘witch’ paraded naked in Bihar”, “Dalit killed in lock-up at Kurnool”, “7 Dalits burnt alive in caste clash”, “5 Dalits lynched in Haryana”, “Dalit woman gangraped, paraded naked”, “Police egged on mob to lynch Dalits.”
These Dalits are forced to work as manual scavengers and cleaners, with the government often complicit in the status quo of their community.
A study undertaken in urban India by Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell in 2007 called ‘ The Legacy of Social Exclusion’ sheds light on the rampant bias in the job market as well. The research found that most employers preferred hiring a high caste Hindu rather than a Dalit for vacancies when both candidates had the same qualifications.
This is despite the fact that the Indian constitution banned the caste system in 1950; but the country still has many ardent followers.
In order to gain religious emancipation and social acceptance, many Dalits converted to Christianity at the beginning of the 19th century. Most, however, could not get an education or change their social standing. Like the Dalits of India, Christians in Pakistan are “on the frontline of the persecution and violence against minority communities” according to a recent report by the Jinnah Institute.
Due to marginalization and a lack of opportunities, Christians in Pakistan, concentrated in Sindh and Punjab, are associated with menial professions as street cleaners or sweepers. In fact, more than 90% of all street cleaners in Pakistan are Christians who make a mere 2.4% of the total population of the country.
Islam as a religion is not based on castes but due to the long history of intermingling of Muslims and Hindus in the sub-continent, the Brahmin idea of untouchability has permeated among Muslims of the sub-continent as well.
‘Untouchables’ have been enslaved for long in South Asia.