Below them is the fifth category, the “untouchable,” the outcastes – or, as many call themselves, Dalits, from the Sanskrit for “broken people” – consigned to tasks deemed polluting (working with leather, sweeping streets), and excluded from almost all contact with the rest of society. In this region, the lowest rung is reserved for the Mushahar, traditionally known as rat-catchers.
All of this may sound like an ancient relic, with little relevance in the “Incredible India” of the tourism billboards, the emerging international powerhouse. The Indian constitution adopted in 1950 outlawed caste discrimination, and set aside 15 per cent of seats in government jobs and public educational institutions for Dalits, who make up a sixth of the population.
Those “reservations,” as they are known – a form of affirmative action – have improved the lives of many Dalits. So have the more recent processes of economic liberalization and urbanization. In the 1980s, Dalits emerged as a powerful voting bloc in many states, and Dalit-based political parties have since had a key role in forming governing coalitions at the national and state level.
The system has helped to create Dalit judges, professors and business leaders, provoking deep bitterness in some dominant- caste Hindus, who claim that their own children can no longer get into college or the civil service. Many social programs also aim to improve life for Dalits, including the Bihar government's “Mahadalit Mission,” which provides Sister Sudha funds to feed the girls of Prerna.
Yet hundreds of thousands of Indians still use the services of valmiki, or manual scavengers, who collect human waste and carry it away in baskets – a system viewed by some caste Hindus as less polluting than using a latrine. A recent national survey found that 45 per cent of villages maintain a “two-tumbler” system, in which separate dishes are kept for Dalits to use at tea stands. And even with her new education, Poonam will not take the shortcut past caste Hindus' houses, ever.
In the nation's newspapers, every single day, there is a report of an attack on Dalits who try to enter a temple, a Dalit woman who resists sexual advances by dominant-caste men or Dalits who try to use a village hand pump. Last year, police registered 38,597 cases of caste-based violence, ranging from rape to arson to assault. The real number is probably much higher – research by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights has found that only one in five such attacks is ever reported to the police.
But India's government prefers to focus on the success stories. When activists tried to have caste included in a United Nations declaration on discrimination in 2001, the government lobbied ferociously to keep it out. The government has consistently moved to block investigations or discussion by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights into caste-based discrimination.
After 21 years in Jamsaut observing all this at close range, Sister Sudha has developed a grimly pragmatic analysis. Caste gets a religious gloss, she says, but religions change: Caste is jealously protected because it is in truth an economic system, a power relationship. “The status quo has to be maintained so that the benefits that are there can continue: You get cheap labour. You get people at your beck and call for almost nothing. You have the machinery to terrorize them into obedience with almost no resistance, no opposition.”
The Mushahar, who own no land and subsist on farm labour that pays at best a dollar or two a day, rarely can give their children the education or economic mobility that might bring some social change. The caste system governs life in Jamsaut today much as it did 1,000 years ago.
Poonam had not thought much about caste before she went to Prerna. Now, she considers it curiously. “Before, we weren't able to go into the temples,” she notes. “Now, we can. And in the past if we touched any of their belongings, they would never use them again.”
She doesn't think that happens any more – though in fact she has rarely tried to touch anything belonging to a dominant-caste person. When Sister Sudha took the children to a festival at a temple, dominant-caste families let them in, but scrubbed it down ostentatiously after they left.