Spurred on by the anti-racism protests in the United States, Dalits (a marginalised community once referred to as “untouchables”) have called on India to acknowledge centuries of oppression they have endured.
Dalits find themselves outside the Hindu caste hierarchy – a membership determined at birth – and have historically faced violence, segregation and been barred from even having their shadows touch those of people from more privileged castes.
Dalit campaigners said they supported the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and hoped it would ignite a similar conversation in India.
“We extend our solidarity because we feel them and we have faced discrimination ourselves,” said Omprakash Mahato, president of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association, a Dalit organisation at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
India banned discrimination based on caste – a system which divided Hindus into groups based on occupations – in 1955.
But ancient biases against Dalits and members of the less privileged Hindu caste groups persist, making it harder for them to access education and jobs and buy homes.
“In India, people need to admit their role in everyday discrimination faced by Dalits and only then can a dialogue for change be initiated. We hope what they are seeing unfolding globally will lead to soul searching,” said Mahato.
“People need to understand that every life matters.”
Dalits, who were sometimes forced to perform “unclean” tasks like disposing of corpses, and scheduled tribes – Indigenous peoples who are often isolated or disadvantaged – make up about a quarter of India’s population of 1.3 billion.
“Indian Dalits have historically learned a lot from the struggle of the African Americans,” Ruth Manorama, who works for rights of Dalit women, told the Reuters news agency.
“This is a good moment to challenge the narrative in India also and talk about the age-old repression of Dalits, which is visible even during the COVID-19 pandemic with discrimination denying people aid.”
Dalits were among the worst-hit by India’s strict lockdown, often having to wait longer for their turn to receive food or financial aid at local distribution points, and even being turned away, she said.
About 300 people have signed a Change.org petition emphasising that the “lives of Dalits and minorities matter too” and urging Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “admit … that caste discrimination is included in racial discrimination”.
“It is a good time for people in India to understand and to point out to the government that racial discrimination is not only what you see in America,” said Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch, a charity backing the petition.
“It is the same as how so-called ‘untouchables’ are treated in India.”