Published: June 2003

Untouchable

By Tom O'Neill
Photographs by William Albert Allard
Laxman Singh Lost his legs after a beating by upper caste villagers in Rajasthan.

The sins of Girdharilal Maurya are many, his attackers insisted. He has bad karma. Why else would he, like his ancestors, be born an Untouchable, if not to pay for his past lives?

Look, he is a leatherworker, and Hindu law says that working with animal skins makes him unclean, someone to avoid and revile. And his unseemly prosperity is a sin. Who does this Untouchable think he is, buying a small plot of land outside the village? Then he dared speak up, to the police and other authorities, demanding to use the new village well. He got what Untouchables deserve.

One night, while Maurya was away in a nearby city, eight men from the higher Rajput caste came to his farm. They broke his fences, stole his tractor, beat his wife and daughter, and burned down his house. The message was clear: Stay at the bottom where you belong.

Girdharilal Maurya took his family and fled the village of Kharkada in India's western state of Rajasthan. It took two years for him to feel safe enough to return—and then only because human rights lawyers took up his case, affording him a thin shield of protection.

"I see them almost every day," Maurya now says of his attackers. "They roam around freely." Maurya has agreed to meet me—after dark—in the dirt courtyard of his village house. He is a tall, handsome man of 52, his hair white, his face lined with worry. On a chilly February night he pulls a bathrobe tight around him. His wife moves in the shadows preparing tea. They live with the rest of their caste on the southern end of the village, downwind of the upper caste families who believe that they must not smell Untouchables.

The court case against his attackers drags on, Maurya explains in a tense, level voice. He tries to sound positive: Untouchables use the well pump now; one of his sons has advanced to college, the first of his caste from the village.

But once Maurya confesses that he is still scared of his attackers, his voice rises—and his wife turns up the radio inside to mask it. "The government refuses to address problems like this business about the well because they say the caste system legally does not exist. Well, look around you. People treat animals better than us. This is not natural. We're only asking for human rights." His voice grows even louder to beseech the surrounding night: "Why did the gods let me be born in such a country?"

To be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world's longest surviving forms of social stratification. Embedded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years, the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal. The ranks in Hindu society come from a legend in which the main groupings, or varnas, emerge from a primordial being. From the mouth come the Brahmans—the priests and teachers. From the arms come the Kshatriyas—the rulers and soldiers. From the thighs come the Vaisyas—merchants and traders. From the feet come the Sudras—laborers. Each varna in turn contains hundreds of hereditary castes and subcastes with their own pecking orders.

A fifth group describes the people who are achuta, or untouchable. The primordial being does not claim them. Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India's people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down.

The ancient belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India's constitution forbids caste discrimination and specifically abolishes Untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India's population, governs daily life with its hierarchies and rigid social codes. Under its strictures, an Untouchable parent gives birth to an Untouchable child, condemned as unclean from the first breath.

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