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A Voice for Dalit Women in India: Ruth Manorama Speaks Out Against Caste-Based Discrimination

StorySeptember 29, 2015
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There are 200 million Dalits, who were previously called “untouchables,” in India. According to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day. Now the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Movement, a new national campaign to end caste-based sexual violence, is underway in India. The movement is the subject of the upcoming documentary, “#Dalitwomenfight!” We speak with Ruth Manorama, a well-known Dalit activist, who was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2006 for “her commitment over decades to achieving equality for Dalit women, building effective and committed women’s organizations and working for their rights at national and international levels.”

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AMY GOODMAN: As we continue our coverage of India, on the heels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the U.S., we turn to look at Dalits. There are 200 million Dalits, who were previously called “untouchables,” in India. According to the country’s National Crime Records Bureau, four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, two Dalit homes are torched every day. Well, in India, a new national campaign to end caste-based sexual violence is underway. It’s called the Dalit Women’s Self-Respect Movement. This is a clip from a documentary film that is following the movement’s rise. It’s called #Dalitwomenfight!

NARRATOR: There comes a point when you can’t take one more headline, when you are sick of the violence, and you are tired of being afraid.

DALIT WOMAN 1: [translated] We are already living like animals. And they use us like animals, as well.

DALIT WOMAN 2: [translated] Because I’m poor, I have no one to support me. He cursed me, and I yelled at him to leave. He whipped out his pistol, and I knew I could die then. He cocked his gun, and it was definitely full of bullets.

DALIT WOMAN 3: Dalit women’s bodies are used as the battleground for the caste war. The attacks on our bodies are used to teach a lesson to the larger community.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the forthcoming documentary called #Dalitwomenfight! Well, still with us, Ruth Manorama, well-known Dalit leader in India. In 2006, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award. Ruth Manorama, explain who Dalits are.

RUTH MANORAMA: Actually, the new name, Dalits, for the former untouchables. Dalits is like, you know, the—Dalit is really like the parallel name as the blacks, like blacks were named as before, you know, the Negroes and all that. But the Black Panther movement gave them the name “blacks.” Similarly, the untouchables, the origins—you know, the Dalit activists rejected this name and gave a name, Dalit. Dalit is really—is someone who revolt against the oppression and wanted to free themselves and, you know, really look for emancipation. Dalit word, as its inner meaning, that they fight on one side, revolt against a system, the caste system, revolt against all kinds of inequality and then work towards emancipation. That is what Dalit means. Today we are 260 million Dalits, not only in India, in South Asia. So, we are really the—we are called in India the scheduled caste. It’s a—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what this caste system is.

RUTH MANORAMA: Oh, caste system is really—it’s an ingrained inequality based on hierarchical forms. No Indians are equal. Indians are always put on hierarchy, Brahmins at the top, you know, Vaishyas, Kshatriyas, Shudras. At the end is the Dalit untouchables. Like in the social hierarchy, that—in the social hierarchy, the Dalits are put, you know, underneath, that they are crumpled, they are trash, you know, they are violated. They still face violences of unyielding violence, of violence and crimes against them. And you see women still do manual scavenging. Women are pushed into prostitution because of, you know, poverty situation. In India, if you really look at the poverty situation in India, 49 percent of the Dalit, much experiencing the poverty in India, and crimes against them, atrocity against them, social inequality. By all social indicators today, they are the lowest of the low. So, the Dalits, one is—one side, they face inequality of caste, that they experience, that you are an untouchable. You are always reminded. Even if you are educated and come up, they’ll think, “Where is this girl from? Where is this woman from?”

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Asha Kowtal, She just came to our studio a few days ago. She’s the general secretary of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum.

RUTH MANORAMA: Yes, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I asked her about the Prime Minister Modi, his administration’s treatment of Dalits.

ASHA KOWTAL: It has not been different in the earlier regime and not been like super different in this regime. But what we can say is that the brazenness of the impunity, the way in which perpetrators are getting away scot-free, the way in which spaces for civil society is shrinking, the way in which every day we are reading about a ban on what kind of food we should eat, we are reading about a ban on, you know, whom we should fall in love with—all these kind of very right-wing, fascist policies and small, small tinkering that’s happening within the institutions is very dangerous for us. And it’s just not a good time for those of us who believe in freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and organizing and demanding for justice. It is definitely not a good time in India.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Asha Kowtal, general secretary of the All India Dalit Women’s Rights Forum, traveling across the United States, of course, from India. Ruth Manorama, as we begin to wrap up, what do you think needs to be done?

RUTH MANORAMA: Today, the sustainable development goal has been—you know, have 17 goals, starting from poverty, inequality, inclusion. I think these three important norms is very suitable to the life of Dalits. What we are really looking for, that is parity is essential, free from discrimination, enjoying of human rights. You know, it’s very necessary that we are treated equal with others, enjoying the wealth of the nation. You know, if you really look at the conditions of Dalits, it is so precarious existence. Like Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, in one of his books called The Uncertain, Uncertainty [An Uncertain Glory], they say that in India—every country faces inequality, but India it’s like cocktails of inequality. One side is disparity, inequality of economic inequality; the other side is social discrimination. I think the Dalits today really want to be free from all this kind of torture, humiliation, undignified manner in which we are treated. When it comes to women, you know, sexual abuses, rape, it’s really multiple in its form. You can’t explain, you know, how they really suffer. But they have to keep quiet. Even if they go to the police station or to the court of law, everybody says, “It’s all right. Like, you know, this is happening everywhere in India.” So the impunity in which the human rights violations are continuing, we are against. So we really look for a purposeful and a dignified existence free from inequality. You know, when I say “inequality,” it’s not that big term—inequality in all sense, in education parity, economic parity, employment parity. I think, in all sectors, in all walks of life, we people really want freedom. We want inclusion. We want equality really exercised. This is what we are looking for.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to continue this discussion on another show, but of course we will. Ruth Manorama, Dalit activist from India who also works on women’s rights, awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 2006, here working at the United Nations on the U.N. development goals.

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