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The Largest Group of Oppressed and Enslaved People on Earth

The Largest Group of Oppressed and Enslaved People on Earth July 26, 2012

NOTE: The following is a guest post from my sainted father, Galen C. Dalrymple, director at iam2.org, an organization devoted to crowd-sourcing compassion and empowering ministries serving the neediest children in the world.

Recently the filmmakers of Not Today, along with my friends at Lovell-Fairchild, took my father to India to learn more about the film. He is an extraordinary man of God with a passion for these issues and stands at the helm of a faith-informed organization that can make a real difference for children in need of food, water or protection. See the first installment of his story here — below is the second installment. 

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”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.” – National Geographic

If you were to venture a guess as to the largest group of oppressed and enslaved people in a single nation on the face of the earth in the 21st century, what people group do you think would wear that dubious title? Would it be people who were being persecuted because of their faith or race in the Middle East or Southeastern Asia? Would it be those who have a substandard education and are prevented from learning and developing their skills and abilities to become contributing members of society in sub-Saharan Africa? Would it be the indigenous peoples of Australia’s outback?

The correct answer the Dalit people of India, the largest group of enslaved people in the world. India is a crowded country, boasting a population of approximately 1.2 billion persons. Nearly one-quarter, 250 million of those people, are Dalits. Who are the Dalits? The Dalits
were historically called the “untouchables”…those in India who were not even considered high enough to be part of the caste system, but were below the lowest level of caste.

The term “Dalit” may be unfamiliar to you. It is not a racial group or a tribe or clan. It is a classification of human beings based upon their ancestry. It could be likened to being born Asian, or black, or white – things about which we have no voice or choice. Some things happen to us simply as a fact related to one’s birth and lot in life.

There are an estimated 250 million Dalits in India, nearly one quarter of India’s 1.2 billion people. They are, according to some, the longest standing group of oppressed people in history. Formerly referred to as the “untouchables”, the Dalits comprise the largest number of people categorized as victims of human trafficking and enslavement in any single nation on the face of the earth. On November 15, 2008, the Honorable Dr. Justice Arijit Pasayat of the Supreme Court of India stated that there is “no bigger problem in India today than human trafficking.” Later, in May 2009, India’s Home Secretary, Madhukar Gupta, remarked that by his estimates “at least 100 million people were involved in human trafficking in India.” Nearly all those 100 million persons are Dalits.

The word Dalit means “broken to pieces”, ground”, “suppressed”, or “crushed”. Systematically, the Dalits are ground down and crushed by discrimination. How bad is the oppression? Consider: Dalits will not live on the eastern side of a village because it is believed that if even their shadow were to fall upon a non-Dalit, the non-Dalit would be polluted. For years they were called “untouchables” because to touch such a person (or even a glass or bowl that had been touched by an untouchable) made those of higher castes impure.

The earliest descriptions and expression of the concept of caste is found in the Vedas, part of India’s body of religious scripture. The Vedas are believed to have been completed 1500-1000 BC. For generations, the Vedas were passed along verbally before being written down. The first of the four basic Vedic books is the Rig Veda, which contains the story in which the first man, Purusa, is sacrificed in order to bring about the rise of the four varnas. [EDITOR: see comment below from Agnikan] Purusa was cut up into four parts which each gave rise to one of the four castes: the Brahmin was from Purusa’s head and mouth and thus was the highest caste. The Kshatriya caste of warriors and nobility came from his shoulders and two arms, while the Vaishya caste (skilled tradesmen, etc.) came from his thighs. The serving caste, the Sudra, came from his feet. The untouchables, or Dalits as they are known today, were totally outside of the caste system, considered too lowly to be included.

While the caste system started out as a way to classify people according to their occupations, it soon became a matter of heredity and people were born into what became an unchangeable social status, or caste.

Untouchable status was historically conferred on those who had occupations that would cause them to be ritually impure, including working with leather, butchering of animals, clearing away trash, dead animal carcasses and human and animal waste products. The untouchables often labored at cleaning streets, latrines, and sewers. Such roles were believed to pollute the person and the pollution was believed to be contagious. As one might expect, the Dalits were isolated, banned from joining in the social life of those around them. They were not even allowed to enter a temple or school, and had to stay outside of villages.

Although the government of India has passed laws that make it a crime to treat one person differently than another because of caste, the stigma remains and so does prejudice and mistreatment.

In my next post, I’ll go into more detail about how the Dalits are treated in modern day India – and delve into the issues related to human trafficking and enslavement. There is hope. While in India I saw reason for hope first hand – but the problems remain huge and serious. The Dalits of India need and deserve our help and support. They have much to offer and have made some great strides, but there is
much to be done.

I hope you’ll stay with us for future stories about the Dalits of India!

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Thanks to Galen C. Dalrymple. Please check out the Not Today website and the iam2.org site.

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