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Untouchables rise as political force

After 5,000 years, India's lowest caste emerges as a swing vote in this month's elections.

By Robert MarquandStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1999


They pick cotton, dig graves, scavenge, beg, cobble, bang the drum at weddings, live on other people's land, and clean up other people's messes.

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Now they are learning to vote.

For the first time in India's quite ancient history, the lowest of its low - the untouchables - are becoming a political force to reckon with.

As India's national elections get under way this week, the future of this recent member of the nuclear club will partly be shaped by new blocks of restless and assertive lower-caste voters. The untouchable caste, or Dalits as they now prefer to be called, are 20 percent of India's 1 billion people - and in 1999, prompted by a new breed of savvy (and some say opportunistic) leaders, Dalits can swing or decide elections in five large states, including the most crucial state of Uttar Pradesh in the northern Hindu "cowbelt."

Mohandas Gandhi called them Harijans, or "the children of God," and offered Dalits his sympathy and protection despite a rigid caste system that for eons literally treated them as subhuman - not fit to mix or even stand in the same room with members of upper castes.

Yet 52 years after Indian independence, Dalits are still largely denied the jobs, education, and land ownership they say are their right under India's Constitution - written by B.R. Ambedkar, himself a Dalit - which technically reserves about 15 percent of state jobs and money for Dalits.

Since 1947, Dalits were mainly content to be lumped with other lower- and backward-caste and minority groups who lobbied together for a greater share of the public pie. But with the end of the one-party Congress-led dynasty in the 1990s, with a small but growing core of educated Dalits, and with a constant and often violent struggle between Dalits and the other "backward castes" who competed with them for power and money - the long oppressed Dalits are breaking old political alliances and quietly forming a plethora of caste-based parties.

Yet whether these parties represent a step toward ending injustices, or whether they will further disempower Dalits by fragmenting the mainstream lower-caste lobby - is still an unwritten story. For now, they are on the rise.

"The changing temperament of the Dalit community in our times is perhaps the most explosive and the most heartening development in the society," says Ravinder Kumar, former director of the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

No national political movement of Dalits yet exists in India. So far, the clout of these "scheduled castes," their official designation, is felt at the state level.

Here in balmy Tamil Nadu in South India, a state with a long history of lower-caste uprisings, Dalits this summer formed an alliance of four smaller Dalit parties that control as many as 40 percent of the voters in some districts. For two weeks a charismatic Dalit medical doctor named K. Krishnasamy hit the hustings in south Tamil Nadu - and is expected to win a seat there. So is R. Thirumiavalavan, creator of something called the "Dalit Panthers," whose motto is, "We will not be quiet, we will retaliate."

Partly, the Panther sentiment for separation is stoked by tensions and riots between Dalits and other backward classes in the villages. Translated, this could be called the "uppity Dalits" syndrome. For years now, Tamil Dalits have found offshore work in the Gulf states, where they earn money and get an education; also, a small core get public jobs in Tamil Nadu. Their children learn to read and write, learn about human rights, and how to use a computer. The pattern then follows: They try to find work in the cities, and don't. When they go back to the villages, they are treated badly, often by lazy or illiterate locals who taunt them either out of jealousy or anger that those inferior to them are putting on airs.