Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Being Untouchable

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th June, 2011

There are an estimated 170 million Dalits or ‘Untouchables’ in India, despite the fact that the country’s constitution prohibits the formalised discrimination inherent in India’s traditional caste system. Even the British tried in vain to overcome this situation during the Raj.The current Indian government has endeavoured to advance Dalit rights, including giving them quotas for university places. And indeed some Dalits hold high public office or are MPs. Yet the everday reality of most of their fellows is miserable, even disgusting. One task performed by many is so-called ‘manual scavenging’, whereby Dalit women, usually, have to clean public toilets with their hands, taking away human excrement in baskets on their heads. Dalits are also often the victims of violence. A powerful small exhibition of photographs by Marcus Perkins — which opened this evening in St Paul’s Cathedral, London — documents the suffering of those who have been beaten, abused or had their pitiful homes burned down or who live with leprosy. There is one particularly striking image of a seven-year-old girl, Kamlesh, who received horrendous burns to her right arm and leg when she was pushed into a burning pile of rubbish for daring to walk along a path reserved for higher castes. No wonder some Dalits have rejected Hinduism, which they feel has rejected them, instead turning to Christianity or, more recently, Buddhism. St Paul’s Cathedral is hosting the Perkins exhibition to draw attention to the systematic human rights violation of untouchability and is collecting money to help provide plastic surgery for little Kamlesh. The exhibition runs until 6 July.

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