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‘Dalit’ sheds light on maligned Afro-Indian community

By KAREN JUANITA CARRILLO | 7/11/2013, 1:55 p.m. | Updated on 7/11/2013, 1:55 p.m.
The third edition of V.T. Rajshekar’s “Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India” (Atlanta, Ga.: Clarity Press, 1997) remains an important ...

The third edition of V.T. Rajshekar’s “Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India” (Atlanta, Ga.: Clarity Press, 1997) remains an important book for those interested in understanding the length and breadth of the African diaspora.

Dalits are a grouping of people in India who were traditionally known as the “Untouchables.” Today, many use the name Dalit to describe their community; in Indian Sanskrit, the word “Dalit” means “oppressed.” Rajshekar’s book was one of the first popular works to describe the oppression Dalits face and one of the first to note that Dalits can lay claim to African ancestry.

“The Dalit were the original inhabitants of India and resemble the African in physical features,” the author writes. “It is said that India and Africa were one land mass until separated by the ocean. So both the Africans and the Indian Untouchables and tribals had common ancestors. Some portion of these came to found the Indus Valley civilization. These original inhabitants of India put up a strong fight against the Aryan invaders. However, the latter, working through deceitful means, defeated the innocent but hard-working original inhabitants, who had built the world’s most ancient civilization in the Indus Valley.”

The author points to a 1971 census that said Dalits consisted of 15 percent of India’s population (while census figures from 2001 show them as constituting 16.2 percent). But Rajshekar claims that figure would be higher if the number of Dalits who have converted to other religions or who no longer quantify themselves as part of the Dalit community were taken into account.

Despite the percentage of Dalits in the population, those people who identify as Dalit face discrimination and violence. The author compares their situation to that of Blacks in South Africa during Apartheid, or of African-Americans during the Jim Crow period of segregation. The problem is that the Dalit situation is not as widely documented, Rajshekar contends, because those who know it most intimately—India’s politicians, scholars, professionals, etc.—are the ones who perpetuate the racism.

What Rajshekar calls the ruling class of India cannot see the difficulties Dalits face, because discriminating against them is a cultural norm. It is infused within their social, economic and cultural practices, he says. The influence of Brahmidic Hinduism is so pervasive that Hindu scriptures, which deem the original inhabitants of India as “untouchables” (because they were not originally part of the Hindu religious structure), are accepted, Rajshekar states. So questioning this cultural practice is like questioning the structure of Indian national life.

“Why do we say that the problem of Indian Black Untouchables is more serious than that of American Negroes or South African Blacks? The answer is simple: In these countries, the Black man or woman may be employed as a household servant, a wet nurse, a babysitter, a cook. Such a servant can cook for the whites and serve it too. But not so in India. The Indian Black Untouchables not only cannot enter the house of a Hindu, but even his very sight or shadow is prohibited by the dictates of the Hindu religion. That is why he is not only Untouchable, but also unseeable, unapproachable, unshadowable and even unthinkable. When the very sight of an Untouchable brings polution, we need not speak of anything further.”

“Dalit: The Black Untouchables of India” is a short book, but it gives an expansive introduction to an Afro-Indian community that remains in dire straits. It leaves a lot to consider regarding how far India—the land of Mahatma Ghandi and of the wisdom of Brahmidic Hinduism—has advanced in terms of social equality.