Dalits' plight highlighted at racism meet
DURBAN: The UN World Conference Against Racism here heard a heartbreaking story of how an attempt to rise above being an "untouchable" in an Indian village ended in a violent death.
Manimegalai Murugesan, a resident of Melevalavu village, about 400 km from Chennai, related in Tamil the tale of her husband's rise to the presidency of the local village council, and his subsequent death at the hands of upper caste men from the village.
Several delegates of the conference, scheduled to end Friday, were in tears as interpreter Monica Vincent, also a member of the Dalit community, translated Murugesan's story in English.
"I will always remember the faces of my husband and his seven friends who were beheaded, after the bus they were in was stopped and the Dalits separated from other villagers," Murugesan said, with tears in her eyes, as she held up her right arm with her husband Kannaga Karuppan Murugesan's name tattooed on it.
The tattoo was inscribed when they were married seven years ago, a popular custom in rural villages in India.
"My husband wanted to better the lot of our people through opportunities created for everyone to fairly elect a leader for the village. While the rest of the village was rejoicing at his election, upper caste members of the community said he would not last even six months in office," Murugesan said.
"We lived in constant fear with daily death threats, and on the very day that the six months ended, they carried out their promise, leaving me a widow with four children.
"I am here to tell my story for the world to hear. The Indian government and the upper castes are turning a blind eye to the suffering of the 160 million Dalits in our country who are oppressed and denied peace and security." Murugesan added she was glad that the United Nations was now taking note of their plight.
"We are living in conditions worse than those in the apartheid era in South Africa. Our villages are not only divided along the same lines, but we are also banned from praying at the same temples or drinking water from the same wells."
Dalits, whose numbers are variously estimated at 160 million to 300 million, are mostly landless agricultural labourers, constrained to live in segregated quarters because they are considered untouchables on the basis of the banned caste system, which is still prevalent in many places in India.
Earlier in the conference, minister of state for external affairs Omar Abdullah said it would be foolish to think that caste discrimination could be wished away overnight.
He said it would take education to change attitudes, which were centuries-old. Abdullah said India did not support the Dalit plea for caste to be placed on the agenda of the conference.