Talking to children about untouchability

A street play in Mangaluru on the need to fight to untouchability.  

Many of us, especially in urban areas, think about caste only in the context of reservations or when we come across media reports of Dalits being attacked, as it happened recently, in Una, Gujarat. It may seem that caste hardly plays a role in modern society. People may think: ‘I certainly don’t discriminate based on caste.’ Unfortunately, our research suggests that caste discrimination is far more commonplace than most educated urbanites would care to acknowledge.

We set out to measure attitudes towards Dalits in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh using the same method used to measure social attitudes in other countries for decades: representative phone surveys. A new survey called SARI (Social Attitudes Research for India) uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialling, within household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults between 18-65 years old. A small research team carries out the interviews. In Delhi, we interviewed 1,270 adults; in Uttar Pradesh, the figure was 1,470.

What we found about people’s attitudes towards their Dalit neighbours is sobering: among non-Dalit Hindus in Delhi, a third said that someone in their household practises untouchability. In Uttar Pradesh, half of adults said that someone practises it.

How could these numbers be so high? Didn’t Article 17 of the Constitution abolish untouchability? Wasn’t untouchability made punishable under the Untouchability Offences Act, 1955? Hasn’t India had decades of reservations to include Dalits in the government and in schools?

All this is true, yet, when you ask a representative group of non-Scheduled Caste (SC) Hindu adults the question: “Kya aapke parivar me kuch sadasya chuachut ko mante hain? (Do some members of your family practise untouchability?”), many of them unabashedly say “Yes.”

Talking to children about untouchability

Admitting to untouchability

How many people in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh practise untouchability? Knowing that someone in a household practises untouchability doesn’t mean that she does it. Is it the case that only older people engage in such discriminatory practices?

Unfortunately, that is not what we found. If a respondent said that someone in the household practises untouchability, we asked whether he or she practises it. In Delhi, half the adults in non-SC Hindu households, where someone practises untouchability, said they themselves practise it; in Uttar Pradesh 70 per cent did. The graphic shows that there are actually very few age variations in reported untouchability: in neither Delhi and U.P. are young people much less likely to practise untouchability than their parents or grandparents.

As surprising and disappointing as these numbers are, we don’t think that they capture the full extent of the problem. That is because some people know that it is not politically correct to admit practising untouchability to a stranger. The graphic separating data into Delhi, urban U.P., and rural U.P., gives us some idea of the extent to which answers to this question are affected by social desirability bias.

Even though women and men live in similar households, women are more likely to report untouchability in the household. This suggests that either men are uninformed or they are giving a socially desirable, but incorrect, answer. Women may be more likely to report untouchability where it exists because they are less aware that it is not a politically correct thing to say. Another reason why women may be more likely to report untouchability is it is often practised in the context of food, utensils, and domestic help. Women are more likely to work with food and utensils than men, and so they are probably more likely than men to enforce untouchability.

If we use women’s figures, which are likely more accurate, we find that 40 per cent of non-Dalit Hindu households in Delhi report practising untouchability. In rural Uttar Pradesh, this figure is over 60 per cent! Of course, even this high figure will be an underestimate if some women do not admit to practising untouchability or do not recognise some of the things they do in their interactions with Dalits as untouchability.

Creating awareness in children

Many urban families find themselves talking explicitly about caste only when their children are trying to get admitted to colleges. Some children want to know what reservation is. Why do some social groups have this so-called privilege and not others?

Yet, the fact that women are particularly likely to report practising untouchability, and the fact that mothers are often the first and most influential teachers of their children, suggests that children’s first impressions of caste differences may be ingrained at a much younger age. So, rather than simply denying the existence of untouchability, or hoping it will disappear as this computer-using generation of youngsters becomes more educated than the previous generations, it is time for parents, teachers, and even the government to start talking to children about ending these practices today. Just as children are able to learn to have a separate glass for the maid, they are also able to learn what discrimination is, to understand that it is hurtful, and to have kinder attitudes towards people from different groups. A study of primary school students in the United States found that white students who read about both the accomplishments of and the discrimination faced by black Americans later displayed less biased attitudes towards blacks than white children who had merely read about accomplishments.

To end untouchability will mean that everyone, from government official, to teacher, to young mother has to make an effort. Everyone needs to admit that untouchability is still a widespread problem, not only in rural India but also in urban India. Even people who don’t agree with the practice of untouchability themselves need to talk with children in their lives about where it came from, what it feels like, and how it can be stopped. If they don’t, their neighbours, many of whom do practise untouchability, may end up teaching their children to perpetuate these archaic, hurtful social norms.

Diane Coffey is a visiting researcher at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi; Amit Thorat is Assistant Professor at Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU. This is the second of a four-part series on prejudice. The first appeared on December 29, 2016.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 2:47:21 AM |

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