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INDIA: From a lower caste: Groom needs police protection for his wedding

INDIA: From a lower caste: Groom needs police protection for his wedding

For months, a lower-caste law student has been fighting to lead his wedding procession on horseback. The case highlights the ongoing discrimination against the so-called untouchables.

Ulrike Putz, Singapore

If all goes well, then Sanjay and Sheetal will finally get married in July. The wedding parade, with which the 27-year-old groom will be led by his relatives and friends to the house of his loved ones, will be a typical Indian spectacle: Brightly colored wedding robes, drums, shrill flutes, singing and dancing give the parades called "Baraat" the paint a noisy carnival.

But the procession through the village of Nizampur will be more than just the usual prelude to a long festival: When Sanjay goes on horseback through the hometown of his bride in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, it will be a triumphal procession for him and his followers, for for many of the villagers, however, a taboo break and a provocation.

16 percent of the population belong to the lowest castes

Sanjay, who like many Indians does not have a surname, belongs to the lower caste of the Jatav according to the old Indian social order. And because grooms from the lower classes were previously forbidden to lead their wedding procession on horseback, Sanjay should also refrain from doing so. This was mostly decided by the members of the higher caste of the Thakurs, who dominate the village of Nizampur: Sanjay's plan to mount a horse was a presumption, a breach of tradition and therefore prohibited around 50 Jatavs live. The Thakurs did not expect any contradiction: Even if the caste system in India was officially abolished in 1950, the society of the 1.3 billion-inhabitant country is still structured according to the age-old pecking order. At the top are the Brahmins, the members of the priestly caste. Then come warriors, traders, peasants and servants in a confusingly nested hierarchy. At the bottom are those whose ancestors did unclean jobs and who were therefore considered untouchable: latrine cleaners, street sweepers or day laborers.

More than 160 million people, about 16 percent of India's population, fall into this last category, which India's first Justice Minister Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar called "Dalits" (the battered). Ambedkar, who himself came from a Dalit family, rebelled against the traditional order at the beginning of the 20th century and finally enforced the ban on institutionalized discrimination. But belonging to a caste still determines the life of an Indian: the elites oppose the lifting of the caste barriers because this would endanger their privileged position.

The caste system remains in the villages

"Indians can convert to another religion, but they will never lose their caste," says sociologist Bindeshwar Pathak. The son of a Brahmin family had his awakening experience when, as a student, he moved to a colony of latrine cleaners for a few months in 1961. «People were worse off than slaves. They were humiliated, insulted, most died before they were 40, ”says Pathak. His hosts were outlaws whose fate was determined by birth to remove human feces. To save his friends from their fate, Pathak decided to build toilets so that it would no longer be necessary to clean latrines by hand. Pathak has built 1.5 million organic outhouses in the villages of India over the past 50 years and retrained 200,000 Dalits as seamstresses, beauticians and carpet makers. Where philanthropists try to bring about change with private initiatives, the state tries to offset the disadvantage of the Dalits through positive discrimination. There are quota regulations in India for this: 15 percent of the study places are reserved for Dalits, a percentage of the places in the public service are also reserved for the lowest social classes. But even Dalits who get hold of a coveted civil servant position have a hard time: They are hardly taken into account in promotions. The old system has been preserved especially in the villages of India, where the central state is far away. There, Dalits are still de facto forbidden from attending the same temples and schools as members of higher castes. Wells and water tanks for the higher-ups are also taboo for them.

Supreme court reprimands village chiefs

The ongoing degradation stirs up anger that repeatedly turns into open resistance: In April eight people were killed when tens of thousands of Dalits took to the streets in India's metropolises. They protested against a decision by the Supreme Court to defuse a law to protect Dalits from hate crimes.

In 2016, 40,000 acts of caste hatred were recorded across India, despite heavy penalties for caste crimes. The murder and rape of members of the lower castes continue to go unpunished on a regular basis. The riot that lasted for weeks prompted the government to ask the court to reconsider its decision - with 160 million members, the Dalits are a group of voters who must keep New Delhi-minded. While the Dalits in the big cities manage to exert pressure through their sheer numbers, in the villages it is left to individuals like Sanjay to enforce the equality of all Indians. The law student litigated for several months to be allowed to celebrate his dream wedding. The wedding date had to be postponed several times. The first instances thwarted Sanjay's request to pick up his bride on the horse, saying that such behavior "only brings trouble".

Indeed, Sanjay and Sheetal's wedding has what it takes to set a precedent: A 2006 study on untouchables in India examined 565 villages in 11 states. Dalits were not allowed to hold wedding processions in 47 percent of the villages. Sanjay, who is involved in the Dalit party Bahujan Samaj Party, was lucky: the Indian media picked up his case. Eventually the Supreme Court of Uttar Pradesh ordered the village chiefs to grant Sanjay his wish. On his wedding day, Sanjay will actually ride down the village street. Police officers will be posted along the entire route and other officers will protect the bride's family home: The fact that Sanjay won his rights comes with the price of fear. Bittu, the bride's brother, has told Indian media that he fears the revenge of the Thakurs.

When the journalists left and the police left, it would become clear who had the say in the village, said the young man: Members of higher castes had punished Dalits for alleged misconduct by destroying the irrigation canals for their fields. The Thakurs would certainly teach a lesson to the Dalits in Nizampur, said Sanjay's future brother-in-law.