Unequal Land Ownership At Root Of Caste Violence, Says Dalit Writer Sujatha Gidla

Most Dalits live without any land are at the bottom of the age-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to discrimination. (Representational image)

Mumbai: Education alone will not lift millions of lower-caste Indians out of poverty and oppression as long as land in the country is in the hands of a powerful few, according to a Dalit writer whose memoir chronicles her family’s struggles against caste.

Caste-based discrimination was banned in India in 1955, but centuries-old biases persist, with Dalits being the most marginalised communities in the country.

The biases persist even when a person is educated, and even in the country’s elite educational institutions, said Sujatha Gidla, whose parents were college professors and who herself studied at one of the country’s best known engineering colleges.

“The untouchability problem is really a problem of land ownership,” said Ms Gidla, 53, speaking by phone from New York, where she lives.

“As long as the land is in the hands of a few, there will be a caste system … (and) Dalits will continue to be untouchable,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than half of the country’s lower-caste population is living without the land.

Most Dalits live without any land are at the bottom of the age-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to discrimination.

Dalits were once barred from public places including temples and water taps frequented by higher-caste Hindus, and restricted to jobs considered dirty or dangerous such as manual scavenging and the disposal of animal carcasses.

Ms Gidla’s book “Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India” chronicles the lives of her family – including an uncle who went from being a student who wrote poetry to founding a guerrilla movement, as well as her mother’s struggles with caste and sexism.

Ms Gidla grew up Christian in southern part of the country, where many Dalits converted to Christianity as a way out of the caste system and to access educational opportunities otherwise denied to them.

“But even those who study don’t have the same opportunities as their high-caste counterparts,” said Ms Gidla, who moved to the United States when she was 26 years old.

“Things have not changed since my time,” she said.

Ms Gidla’s realisation of the inherent violence of the caste system came on July 17, 1985 when six Dalit men were killed and three young women raped by high-caste Hindus in Andhra Pradesh state in a case that shook the country for its brutality.

The current spate of mob violence across the country is a reflection that not much has changed, she said; it is also a result of Dalits demanding their rights.

“When Dalits stayed in their place, they weren’t subject to so much violence,” said Ms Gidla, who works for the New York subway and wrote the book on her commute and breaks.

“The mob violence against them now is linked to their own political awakening and assertion.”

“As long as Dalits are just workers, there is no violence; when they become owners, there is violence,” Ms Gidla said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)

© Thomson Reuters 2017