Dalits, a community containing 166.6 million people, forms approximately 12 percent of the Indian population. Formerly known as the "untouchables," the Dalits form the lowest class under the caste system practiced in India and often suffer discrimination and harassment.
By: Guanxi Lew
After independence, India's constitution abolished "untouchability" in the law. In addition, it started various affirmative actions through the Protection of Civil Rights Act and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to help the Dalits. However, according to Minority Rights Group International (MRG), an organization working to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples can make their voices heard, the Dalits are still the most underprivileged group in India, even today.
Image Credits: The Economist
Mere legal regulations are never enough to drive progressive change within a society. For example, black slavery in the United States (US) was prohibited by law since 1865. However, 45 percent of African Americans today face racial discrimination when trying to rent an apartment or buy a home, based on the data from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on Racism and Health (RWJF). The inefficiency of laws in protecting the dignity of Dalits in India is rooted in the stiff mindset of the rulers in the upper class. The discriminatory system in the past aligns perfectly with their interest in staying in power and controlling the country's resources.
Some may ponder the question, can't the laws enacted punish those who discriminate against the Dalits? However, laws worldwide are political tools used by rulers to shape society according to their wishes. For example, media laws are introduced for the rulers to control the political narrative within the society so that any opposing values can be excluded.
Is the situation truly hopeless for the Dalits in India? Not exactly. According to MRG, more and more Dalits are employed in areas such as public service, banking and the railways, and private industry, which were inaccessible to them in the past. Their access to education has also improved throughout the past few years. In addition, democratic principles adopted in India allow its people to rule out discriminatory leaders through elections. It is hard for upper-class leaders to change their mindset, but the people hold power to choose what is best for them under a democracy. It is never a one-way solution but instead requires the solidarity of all groups of people to hold their leaders accountable.