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Thursday, February 21, 2008

India untouchable

I went to Nijmegen last Sunday to take part in a cultural event focusing on development and human rights in India. Unsurprisingly, one of the main topics was the Dalits (Harijans) or the untouchables. Despite its constitutional abolition in 1950, the caste system is a cruel reality in a large part of rural India. Dalits are considered less human then other castes, they are thought to be ‘polluted’ and should thus never be touched by anyone from a higher caste. For this reason they are discriminated against in all spheres, an exclusion that applies to adults and children alike. The story of the little boy that fell into the water and drowned because no-one wanted to touch him is hard to forget. It is one of the most severe human rights catastrophes in the world today.

But it is disturbing to see how this complex issue continues to be analysed and discussed in the simplest manner. The movies show fat and inherently evil Brahmins that shout that Dalits are inferior by nature and thus destined to clean their toilets. And this is described as the very essence of Hinduism. Religion is immediately given the blame. It is equally disturbing whenever ‘ Islam’ is equalised with terrorism. Even though religion plays an undeniable role in both of the above mentioned examples, it is hardly the one and only factor. It is not religion by itself that generates conflict, violence or human rights abuse. Religion, is a social construction such as ethnicity, or nationality, that is used as a tool to manifest other interests. It is the interpretation and violent enforcement of religion/ethnicity or nationality that is dangerous.

This clearly requires a higher level of analysis, which is more demanding than finding some Brahmins that are willing to misbehave in tv for their five minutes of fame (or bearded Muslims for that matter).

It is natural and inevitable in popular science and media to simplify complex social and political phenomenon in order to make them easy to comprehend. But this simplification also undermines the opportunities for accurate analysis and ultimately, a change.

The social order is based on our need to distinguish between good and evil and us and them; and evil is inherent in‘them’. Religion is an easy target because it allows us to project evil acts on ‘the others’.

In some instances, the solution to the ‘problem’ then simply is conversion to the ‘good’ religion. Unsurprisingly, yet shocking, conversion to Christianity is often proposed as a solution to the Dalits by Christian charity organisations.

And then we are surprised when the western human rights regime is being accused of pursuing a post colonial agenda?

Religion alone does not constitute the root cause of human misery. And it certainly does not hold the key to its solution.