National Geographic : 2003 Jun
he sins of Girdharilal Maurya are many, his attackers insisted. He has bad karma. Why else would he, like his ancestors, be born an Untouchable, if not to pay for his past lives? Look, he is a leatherworker, and Hindu law says that working with animal skins makes him unclean, someone to avoid and revile. And his unseemly prosperity is a sin. Who does this Untouchable think he is, buying a small plot of land outside the village? Then he dared speak up, to the police and other authorities, demanding to use the new village well. He got what Untouchables deserve. One night, while Maurya was away in a nearby city, eight men from the higher Rajput caste came to his farm. They broke his fences, stole his tractor, beat his wife and daughter, and burned down his house. The message was clear: Stay at the bottom where you belong. Girdharilal Maurya took his family and fled the village of Kharkada in India's western state of Rajasthan. It took two years for him to feel safe enough to return-and then only because human rights lawyers took up his case, afford ing him a thin shield of protection. "I see them almost every day," Maurya now says of his attackers. "They roam around freely." Maurya has agreed to meet me-after dark-in the dirt courtyard of his village house. He is a tall, handsome man of 52, his hair white, his face lined with worry. On a chilly February night he pulls a bathrobe tight around him. His wife moves in the shadows preparing tea. They live with the rest of their caste on the southern end of the village, down wind of the upper caste families who believe that they must not smell Untouchables. The court case against his attackers drags on, Maurya explains in a tense, level voice. He tries to sound positive: Untouchables use the well pump now; one of his sons has advanced to college, the first of his caste from the village. But once Maurya confesses that he is still scared of his attackers, his voice rises-and his wife turns up the radio inside to mask it. "The government refuses to address problems like this business about the well because they say the caste system legally does not exist. Well, look around you. People treat animals better 8 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * JUNE 2003 than us. This is not natural. We're only asking for human rights." His voice grows even louder to beseech the surrounding night: "Why did the gods let me be born in such a country?" To be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world's longest sur viving forms of social stratification. Embed ded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years, the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal. The ranks in Hindu Amrutbhai Sarasiya does his job, immersing himself in excrement to unclog a sewer in Ahmadabad in Gujarat state. He is a Bhangi, a member of a scavenger caste-lowest of the hundreds of Untouch able castes. Some 10,000 Bhangis in Ah madabad earn money by manually cleaning latrines, sewers, and gutters, and by remov ing dead animals from the streets. Working without protective gear, many suffer from stom ach and lung infections. After this picture was taken, Sarasiya was rebuffed at several neighborhood wells before being given water to clean himself. Caste discrimina tion, including the prac tice of Untouchability, is forbidden by the Indian constitution, but police and courts rarely enforce the law.