Call It What It Is!

Ten years ago this month I started on a journey to document practices of untouchability across several states and religions of India. Twenty-five-thousand kilometers, 9,000 minutes of footage and four years later I put together a documentary called India UNTOUCHED. The primary reason for making this film was to challenge the belief of most Indians that Untouchability is a thing of the past.

In the years since the making of that film, little has changed. We still receive reports of barber shops refusing to shave Dalits. Homeowners unwilling to rent their houses to Dalits. Children segregated and discriminated in schools, women not allowed to draw water from wells, families pushed out of temples. Segregated mosques, churches even crematoriums. Pervasive violence aimed at those who challenge caste discrimination. Social and economic boycotts for those who dare to transgress caste boundaries. Newly weds chased and killed because they chose to marry outside their own caste. Rapes. Acid attacks. The list goes on shamelessly.

What is more shameful still is that these practices are manifestations of a belief that views certain castes as nothing but an impure sect, which should remain servile and accepting of its lesser status. Our failure is to see this belief as endorsing of and perpetuating criminal behavior.

Article 17 of the Indian Constitution states that: "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of Untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law." However, society continues to look on Untouchability as a social given, grounded in 'tradition.' Instead, we should see such practices for what they are: criminal acts. If your house were burgled you would expect the case to be treated as a criminal occurrence. Such a luxury is not afforded, however, to Dalits facing discrimination and persecution. The laws in place to address the scourge of caste-based discrimination may be progressive, but the mechanisms that exist to enforce legislation are quite simply regressive.

A large part of the problem is that law enforcement agencies operate in a reactive rather than proactive manner. Despite the prevalence of caste-based behavior leading to Untouchability (criminal offenses) these agencies wait for an aggrieved party to file a complaint -- and report violation of Article 17 -- rather than do their job in enforcing the law! How else does one explain the fact that police stations and courts have not taken any suo moto cognition of these everyday events? How else can we understand that there are no public or government campaigns to remind citizens that Untouchability has been abolished, and that those practicing it will be treated as criminals? In order to fall in line with the shifted morality and ethics of our time, we need there to be a strong and proactive law enforcement mechanism. We do not have this in India.

On April 14, 2012, we launched a campaign at Video Volunteers (a media and human rights organization) to draw attention to the issue of Untouchability. To date, we've collated 30 videos that document breaches of Article 17. Together with the videos, we collected 2,800 signatures that were sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes with an appeal that the videos be taken as evidences of offenses, and that those involved be prosecuted. Despite submitting the petition and video evidence twice over, we've not received any sort of acknowledgement -- let alone action -- from the NCSC. We have now sought answers with an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act! It's a sign of the times when one needs to file an RTI with the institution responsible for protecting the rights of Scheduled Castes, just to find out what is going on. No wonder we have these problems in 2013!

As a society, when we hear about Untouchability practices we should feel outraged, as we would with other criminal acts like murder and rape. It's time we accepted that the practice of Untouchability is not the vestigial remains of some backward, social phenomenon or tradition: it's a criminal offense. Let's start calling it what it is!