The Fourth World of the untouchables

The future of the untouchables’ struggle lies in international solidarity and collective work.

Dalit protests
People attend a protest against attacks on India's low-caste Dalit community in Mumbai, India on July 27, 2016 [File: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui]

Being a Dalit means being in permanent isolation, stuck in the dark chambers of one’s uncharted fears. The Dalit is that stubbornness that the Hindu ideology has adamantly maintained for more than 3,000 years.

I grew up in a world surrounded by Dalits. From early on I was conscious of my identity and that it meant we belonged to the lower strata. Parents and family members disciplined us to make sure we do not mess up elsewhere and face the wrath of the dominant castes – the rich people with power and position.

I grew up celebrating the birthday of B R Ambedkar, the eminent Dalit scholar and former justice minister, who inspired the Dalit movement. We stayed away from Hindu festivals as they were a reminder of our ancestral humiliation and of our secondary status in Indian society.

Our neighbour, a sahukar (merchant) caste, who ran a grocery shop, was one of the few non-Dalits in our neighbourhood. He resented us, but loved our money. He made sure all physical contact with us was avoided when we were paying for our purchases.

It is extremely difficult to receive small coins without physically touching the other person; to avoid this “blasphemy”, we were told to drop the coins in an open box. When we paid with a bank note, he would take it with his fingers from the other end, carefully avoiding physical touch.

Living among Dalits, the sahukar maintained his and his family’s purity by erecting a concrete wall around his house. The tallest wall in our neighbourhood was between our house and the sahukar‘s. He was also extremely suspicious of us; he’d often accuse us of stealing. We were made to feel like criminals in our homes.

When I went to high school, classmates, mostly from the dominant castes, refused to lend their time to me. They were contemptuous, just like their parents, and readily exercised “their right” to caste discrimination. 

My only close friends in the school were Dalits and I had the profound pleasure of hanging out at their home and sharing their food, a privilege I was denied by the dominant caste peers. The fact that I was never invited to break the bread in an upper caste home kept reminding me of my pitiful isolation. I was the child soaked in sweat in the summer heat, with a dry throat, desperate for a glass of water, standing outside a Brahmin classmate’s house. Never was I invited inside the house, nor was I entertained in the courtyard. 

I walked home thirsty after school till I graduated. And today I still see Dalit children who, just like me, are walking down the same street, thirsty and famished.

The caste system holds us responsible for our suffering. Solidarity and support from non-Dalits do not exist, even today in the 21st century.

Isn’t it absurd that we are now actively exploring another planet to settle and scouring other galaxies for life, but on our own Earth we are still unable to shake millennia-old inhumane and unscientific customs and perceptions that selectively devalue human life?

It is. And it is equally absurd that so-called progressive Indians lavishly spend their energy pushing a Hindu-only narrative of the Indian civilisation and choose not to accord any respect or equal status to us, the declared despicable, the wretched of the earth.

Stuck in this dark chamber of millennia-old, forcibly-imposed inferiority complex, fear and terror, we struggle to break free. The only way out is self-love.  

Caste systems around the world

It was not until university that I learned that there are other societies beyond India that have their own outcastes or untouchables. It was then that I came across a report written by human rights expert and lawyer, Smita Narula, called Broken people: Caste violence against India’s “untouchables” commissioned by Human Rights Watch. It put the caste systems across the world into perspective for me.

It referenced the “Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria’s Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal, Mauritania and Somalia” who suffer under “their own caste or caste-like systems”. The terrorism my community faced in our lives seemed no longer exclusive to us and certainly not attached to our fate only.

This “discovery” took me to places with hopes of finding fellow oppressed peoples who are fighting the monster of caste discrimination and hatred.

I started asking people from across the world about the caste system in their societies. During a lecture at Harvard University, for example, I asked Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, but he gave a rather vague answer about the Osu. I soon realised that most of the people I was meeting and asking were almost always the Brahmins of their societies who used their privileged position to tactically downplay or avoid mentioning the suffering of the subalterns.

I am yet to come across an oppressed/lower caste person from Nigeria, Japan, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Kenya, Somalia, the US, South Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel, Afghanistan, and others. Due to abject poverty and lack of representation, many untouchables of the world are still unable to challenge mainstream narratives in their societies.

Through my travels and research, I also discovered that the postcolonial scholarship and activism were another stratagem of the elites of native societies to hide the oppressions they practice and redirect public attention towards the external “other” – the moribund colonial state. 

They have thoroughly researched the historical and sociological underpinnings of colonial rule in their native societies, thus developing a novel yet spineless critique. In the postcolonial project, oppressor castes from the colonised societies ensured that the radical voices of dissent from among the lower castes never received the attention needed to achieve their liberation. The subalterns fighting for civil rights have sporadically made the news but almost never the headlines.

Because of this, entire generations of the last century were fed one-dimensional propaganda of postcolonial fears and tears. The actual pains of the suffering masses were buried under the heaps of mystified narratives of the Third World.

The Fourth World

In addition to the uniqueness of caste being a descent-based, inherited form of inescapable discrimination, there are other types of prejudice that result in similar oppression. There is what we can call a Fourth World of outcastes around the world who have been left out of the prominent discourses and debates concerning human rights and social and economic justice.

Today, there is an urgent need to identify these underprivileged groups and establish international solidarity networks.

Such solidarity work has been undertaken before but it has received little public and theoretical attention. Its traces were lost within the dominant discourses on nation-state building and the pursuit of democracy.

It is what happened with the international links built in the mid-20th century by pioneers like Ambedkar, who put the Dalit situation on the global map. He connected with African American leaders like W E B Du Bois; African American organisers and civil rights leaders paid attention to his work. Ambedkar also reached out to the Buddhist South and East Asian countries.

In Japan, the formidable Matsumoto Jiichiro, leader of the Buraku people, the outcastes in the Japanese feudal system, took notice of his work and they established a connection in the 1950s. 

Over the following decades, efforts to build upon the foundations Ambedkar laid were not successful in establishing strong international networks and cross-national collective action. More recently, there have been renewed efforts to rekindle solidarity outreach. In September, the Buraku and Dalit people met in September in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan to resolve to discuss ways to fight caste systems across the world. They passed 12 resolutions that ensured the international outlook of these communities remained intact. 

Similar solidarity work has been initiated by prominent African Americans, like Cornel WestMartin Luther King III and professor Kevin Brown of Indiana University. In the Boston area, the “Dalit and Black Lives Matter” movement stands as a testament to the renewed, re-energised solidarity of the younger generation of Dalit and black activists.

But there is still much work that needs to be done. It is about time that trans-national solidarity of oppressed people leaves the confines of elite platforms and reaches grassroots level. Being a Dalit means living in isolation; fighting against the injustice of the caste system inevitably will have to include breaking this isolation and creating vast networks of outcastes that are able to collectively struggle for their rights.

An organisation dedicated to this task, seeking to challenge mainstream narratives, a Fourth World think-tankcould serve this purpose. 

It would provide the most vulnerable groups around the world with a platform to discuss and share their experiences of marginalisation and learn ways to fight discrimination and oppression. It would take solidarity work to the grassroots and help build knowledge and activism structures among underprivileged groups across the world.

The oppressed castes need to come under one roof to develop a collective egalitarian vision for the future of the world. Coming together and working collectively is the only way in which we can break the bonds of oppression.

The geography of our struggle has to be a global one; we can no longer afford to be divided and isolated from each other.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.