India is a country that's changing fast – yet it's still known for its rigid caste system. Members of India's lowest class were traditionally called "untouchables." They're now known as Dalits.
But despite the name change, and laws to protect them, Dalits say they still suffer widespread discrimination.
Now, a group of volunteers throughout India is gathering video evidence of that discrimination in an effort to end it.
The videos show a man who complains that a local barber refuses to cut his hair; a group of children who are forced to eat lunch separately from their classmates; women who walk for hours to fetch water because they are not allowed to use the public tap in the village
None of the footage on its own is particularly dramatic. But it documents a persistent form of social discrimination – untouchability.
Amit is a Dalit, who lives in the northern state of Haryana. He's one of 65 video volunteers currently documenting examples of untouchability for a campaign called Article 17. It's named after the constitutional provision that banned caste-based discrimination in 1950. But for Amit, and millions of other Dalits, very little has changed.
"This Dalit stamp is always with us," Amit said. "When we apply for jobs, or try to get into college we have to show which community we belong to. That's when the discrimination starts. Here in Haryana, Dalits are still being tied to trees and beaten by the upper-caste people. No one stands up for us."
Amit takes me to visit his friend, another Dalit named Vimal. Most Dalits never get out of poverty, so Vimal's house is not what I expect. It's new and spacious – testament to the fact that some Dalits have benefited from India's economic growth. But Vimal tells me right after his family arrived, a mob of upper-caste neighbors attacked the house. And as more Dalits moved in, upper-class neighbors moved out.
"They can't handle us having money or education," said Vimal.
India's caste system is deeply rooted in Hinduism. Across India, especially in rural areas, people are still born into their caste and occupations. Even if a Dalit scavenger could afford to open a grocery store — an upper-caste customer probably wouldn't touch the produce or even shop there. But untouchability is rarely covered in the media and gets little attention from India's urban middle class.
"The general public in India basically thinks that it's over," according to Jessica Mayberry, the American co-founder of Video Volunteers, the group that launched the Article 17 campaign. "There is this message of progress. Every year the average metropolitan Indian thinks that it's getting better and better."
Mayberry admits some things are better. There are laws protecting Dalits, and affirmative action for government jobs. And Dalits have worked hard to increase their political power; several states have even elected Dalit chief ministers. But those Dalits who make it out of poverty are few and far between, and discrimination remains. That's why Video Volunteers is preparing to file a lawsuit in India's Supreme Court based on the video evidence. They want the government to take steps to stop untouchability practices even when they don't involve violence.
"Untouchability itself isn't prosecuted, acts of violence are," Mayberry said. "They need public awareness campaigns to end untouchability in same way that government campaigns have been successful at raising awareness about other things, like family planning and domestic violence."
But some Dalits say they need more than that. Vinod Sonkar is a professor of law at New Law University in New Delhi. He says the discrimination he faced as a student was so deep and painful that he often considered quitting. Today he's the only Dalit professor at his university. He says he thinks nothing will change until more Dalits are helped through the system and have full representation in the media, police, government offices, and the courts.
"When there is no representation we can't expect justice. The whole constitution is made mockery of," Sonkar said. "We are still being excluded and marginalized. It's a very systematic effort to keep Dalits deprived off the mainstream."
One of the videos from the Article 17 campaign shows a group of Dalits trying to make a ritual donation in front of a village temple. But members of the upper caste block their way and throw away the offerings, as policemen standby and watch. Amit is the one who shot the video. It's from his village. I ask him to show me the temple, which is a public place.
Amit and his friend get on the bike; and we follow in a car. But instead of stopping at the temple, we park in an alleyway behind it. Amit leads me to a friend's house, where everyone looks nervous.
Finally, they explain what's going on. There are some upper cast people there, Amit and his friends tell me; they are too scared to enter the temple.
Dalit couple (Photo: Natalia Antelava)
Amit is one of 65 video volunteers. (Photo: Natalia Antelava)
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