For months, people in parts of rural India have been left struggling as an unusually dry monsoon season has dried up many of the wells that people rely on for water every day. However, not only is the drought making life harder for people in these communities, but it is highlighting many of the caste tensions that are still a daily part of life for many Indian people known as “Dalit.”
Dalit, who are often referred to as “Untouchables,” are traditionally considered to be the lowest in the Indian caste system. For thousands of years, Dalit were relegated to the margins of Indian society, forced to take on the worst jobs and thought of as so unclean that people born to higher castes could not drink the same water or even sit next to them, Laura Santhanam reports for PBS Newshour. But while the Indian Constitution has banned prejudice against Dalit since 1950, prejudice and discrimination against these people nevertheless persists.
Recently, a man from a rural village in the the Indian state of Maharashtra gained international attention for standing up to prejudice against Dalit in his community. Prejudice against Dalit runs deep in many parts of India, and even in the midst of one of the worst droughts the region has experienced in decades, villagers from higher castes barred Bapurao Tajne and his family from gathering water from the town well for being “Untouchables,” the Press Trust of India (PTI) reports.
"I don't want to name the well owner for I don't want bad blood in the village,” Tajne tells Ashish Roy for the Times of India. “However, I feel that he insulted us because we are poor and Dalits. I came home that day in March and almost cried.”
In response, Tajne began digging a new well in a nearby town. Tajne spent as much as six hours a day on top of his usual job as a day laborer working on the well, the location of which he chose “on instinct,” he told reporters. To the surprise of his friends and family, after 40 days of hard work Tajne struck groundwater, Roy reports.
"It is difficult to explain what I felt in those days,” Tajne tells Roy. “I just wanted to provide water for my whole locality so that we Dalits did not have to beg for water from other castes."
Tajne was lucky – he had no hydrological surveys to inform him, the local terrain is rocky, and several wells in the area had recently dried up, Roy reports. While Tajne had the good fortune to find the well in the midst of the drought, he is far from alone when it comes to the experience of being shamed and discriminated against for being Dalit.
Caste discrimination isn’t limited to rural parts of the country: Dalit make up about 16 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, and many experience prejudice no matter where they are from. While some Dalit are able to pass themselves off as members of higher castes by changing their surnames and lying about their family histories, the constant pressure can take its toll. In one recent high-profile case, an Indian doctoral student named Rohith Vemula killed himself to protest the treatment he experienced as a Dalit during his university studies as well as the treatment of Dalit throughout India, Soutik Biswas reports for the BBC. But while this sparked waves of protests across India, it is likely that this prejudice will not go away anytime soon.
“Caste-based discrimination goes back centuries, and it is very deeply entrenched in Indian society,” Jayshree Bajoria, a New Delhi-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, tells Santhanam. “This will have to be battled at every level.”