One day in March 1985, I went to a village near the town of Tuni in the southeast Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to distribute relief aid to the survivors of a major fire. After a day’s work in 145 degrees heat I sat, parched with thirst, in the shade of a tree near a house. I asked the lady of the house to give me a glass of drinking water.
“What is your caste?” she immediately asked. When I replied “I am a Dalit”, she refused to give me water. The reason? I was a Dalit, an Untouchable.
Caste segregates all Indians into upper, lower and untouchable castes. Under this pernicious social pecking order Dalits are defined as polluted, inferior, almost sub-human. In India, according to the ancient Hindu lawmaker Manu all men are not born equal, they are divided by birth and caste. I have been humiliated with the word ‘untouchable’ since childhood. In school I was forbidden to sit beside other children or touch the class water jug.
I had barely recovered from the woman’s insult when two villagers approached. They were Dalits, naked but for loincloths and near-starved. They were nothing like human beings created in His image. I looked into their lifeless eyes. They told me their woes: How they had surrendered their children to upper caste landlords as bonded labourers; how their women were exploited and abused; how Dalits were barred from the public well and the temple; how Dalit customers in tea shops had to drink outside, from separate glasses to other customers.
I instantly realized that I need to work for the liberation of the Dalits and other deprived brethren without basic needs like drinking water, medical facilities, homes, roads, hygiene and protection for their children from exploitation by the rich and the upper castes.
Please also join your hands to reach the unreached and touch the untouched.