"As a child, I experienced untouchability at school where I was forced to sit and eat separately from the children of upper caste families," says 24-year old Neeru Rathod from Limbdi village in Gujarat. These days, instead of being victimized by such discriminatory behavior, she films it. As does Margaret Joshi, a Dalit railing against the segregation of Dalits in cemeteries in her community. And so is Mani Manickam, a Dalit who captured police massacring Dalits at a protest and who is motivated by the memories of his mom, a housemaid, not being allowed to drink the water in the houses she cleaned. All three of these activists are filming atrocities against their communities, screening their videos, and demanding people pay attention. These are some of the 100 or so Community Correspondents working across slums and villages in India whom I have trained over the past five years as managing trustee of Video Volunteers, a media and human rights organization.
This first episode of Video Volunteers' new webshow, On the Ground, highlights the past, present, and a hopefully more positive future for the practice of untouchability and the caste system in India. The show, which presents serious, often heart-wrenching issues in an exciting, entertaining manner, is the latest leg of a journey that began over 20 years ago, when I first encountered village women taking up the fight for clean drinking water which was reserved for upper caste community members. Armed with a camera, I filmed the women armed with a sample of the brown water they were forced to drink. They approached local authorities and told them "if you can drink it, we can drink it." Needless to say, the water wasn't consumed. But what consumed me was the power inherent in their action. What remained, and continues to remain, with me was the issue of dignity -- fighting for it, challenging the double standards that define it. Experiencing the immense power of moving images led me to question why only certain people were being allowed to tell stories... and defined what has become my life's work with Video Volunteers in enabling marginalized communities to voice their grievances, fight for their rights, and create better lives for themselves.
Indian society continues to be held together by the rigid and hierarchical caste system where scheduled castes are considered as the 'lowest of the low' (the untouchables). Dalit, translated as "oppressed" or "broken", is the community's term of self-definition. Indian society has been historically subject to a rigid caste structure, resulting in discrimination based on caste despite the illegality of this practice as set out in the Constitution of India. The hierarchy of caste-based identity politics remains central in the allocation of power, resources, education, infrastructure and basic health care. As members of the lowest rank of Indian society, Dalits face discrimination at almost every level -- from access to education and medical facilities to restrictions on where they can live and what jobs they can have. Discrimination against the Dalits is especially significant because of the number of people affected; there are approximately 167 million Dalits in India, constituting over 16 percent of the total population. In 1999, I made a film called Lesser Humans about the manual scavengers of Gujarat, who still today continue the caste-prescribed occupation given to them: the manual removal of human excreta. In 2007, I made India Untouched, a film chronicling untouchability across eight states, four religions, and all social castes. Both have won many awards and are evidence that this tradition continues. I then decided I wanted to empower Dalits themselves to tell their own stories, so I started training Dalits in video production so they didn't have to wait to be spoken for but were empowered to tell their own stories and address challenges within their own communities. This all led up to the ARTICLE 17 Campaign.
ARTICLE 17 is a campaign that was launched by Video Volunteers on April 14, 2012 urging the National Commission for Schedule Castes (the government body that is constitutionally appointed to direct and implement safeguards against untouchability) to prosecute everyday cases of untouchability, not just those that result in actions that can be deemed illegal such as murder or assault. Instances such as women being forced to remove their shoes while walking through upper caste communities, or the segregation of school children during meal time, are considered long-standing social norms rather than what they are: criminal offenses that are in direct violation of the Indian Constitution. It is the beginning of what we hope will be the end of the 2000-year-old atrocity of untouchability in all its forms. Video Volunteers Community Correspondents across the country continue to document video testimonies of different forms of untouchability. Because these men and women are members of communities afflicted by this destructive practice, or close to them, they have been able to capture intimate images rarely witnessed by outsiders.
And outside is a space we can no longer inhabit. Untouchability is a symptom of a larger, systemic social illness -- just as a runny nose is a symptom of the flu. No social system interested in a just, equitable, dignified society can prescribe to differential dignity. We can no longer stand by the sidelines and say it is someone else's problem. Not only because a society is only as strong as its weakest element, not only because the oppressed are in a weaker position than their oppressors and are therefore rarely unable to initiate positive change, but most importantly because people benefitting from any oppressive system must take responsibility for ending it.