Kamal (name changed) was bewildered when he was ushered into a five-star hotel in Mumbai by girls in ceremonial dresses. Coming from a very poor background, he could not believe his eyes when they greeted him with a ‘namaste’, applied ‘tilak’ (vermillion mark on the forehead) and handed him a bouquet of fresh lilies and roses. He was, after all, a guest of honour and the kind of treatment was the way of welcoming guests on ceremonial occasions.
For Kamal, who is in his early 20s, the typical welcome was his first experience. He could not believe his eyes when the beautifully dressed girls touched him with a smile. It was something he could not have dreamt of. Back in his town, majority of the local people do not even touch him or others of his community. The young man belongs to the Dalit class, the lowest in India’s obnoxious caste system.
But if Kamal was getting such VIP treatment, it was because he is an exceptionally talented singer. The young man had beaten hundreds of aspirants for a place in one of India’s prestigious singing show.
A TV channel had selected and invited him for the show and lodged him in the luxury hotel. His melodious voice earned him a name in his small town in a backward district of Uttar Pradesh. Kamal was adored for his singing but most people did not like to sit with him or share food because he is a Dalit, an outcast for many.
What an irony! The scourge of untouchability is illegal and is a punishable with a jail term. Even addressing someone in banned terms can land one behind bars. Unfortunately, it is still prevalent. It continues to be discreetly practised by people who refuse to move with the times.
It is gratifying to see today that many young men and women from this class that remained oppressed for ages have started rejecting unofficial sanctions and taboos. They are rising up against such evil practices yet many still succumb to social pressures without murmur. Kamal is one of them.
He had no qualms betraying the embarrassing moments he experienced during his journey from his modest native place to the posh hotel and the massive studio stage.
Every day, I find that despite legal protection and growing awareness against such practices, many Dalits still lack the courage to assert their dignity and human rights. They meekly surrender and suffer the kind of humiliation that has no place in society.
The young Dalit kids are despised for having been born in a community considered inferior to others, but lauded for their talent. Likewise, they gain immense respect in the same prejudiced society if they excel in fine art. Such boys and girls rightly lament that they are ostracised for no fault of theirs.
Politicians face no prejudices
These caste-based prejudices are deep-rooted. Quite often, people do not take kindly when a Dalit boy finds fame on a national platform. Despite this, such talented boys continue to be selected from thousands and thousands of aspirants from across the country.
No such caste prejudices come into play when a Dalit becomes a Member of Parliament (MP) or a State Legislature, or even a small-time politician. He or she is honoured and adored. The so-called ‘upper caste’ people do not hesitate to share food with them. While a Dalit politician is hugged, one of his poor kin might still be looked down upon and treated as untouchable elsewhere.
I am reminded of a Dalit woman MP from the ruling party who recently entered a Hindu temple and came back triumphantly. No eyebrows were raised. But soon after she left, the temple authorities washed the premises with the sacred water of the Ganges! And the idols were sent to Allahabad for a holy dip in Sangam (confluence of sacred rivers), for purification!
Now, what would you call this? Dichotomy? Hypocrisy?!
Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.