Living In The Shadow Of Caste

Of Dalits and Burakumin

Suraj Yengde

The direct relation between quality education and employment is a well established fact. Education prepares eligible candidates for white- or pink-collar jobs, who would otherwise be unable to exercise these professions freely. This is the case for Dalits in India, who due to their lower educational outcomes are forced into pre-destined jobs. However, data shows that even after gaining higher education, the path to decent employment is an uphill task for Dalits. Prior to this stage, the enormous institutional discrimination and harassment meted out by casteist teachers and their curricula hinder the Dalit student’s confidence to assert their self positively.

Any Dalit success is eclipsed by the level of community oppression. Any news regarding Dalits is rarely an occasion of celebration or affirmation: in the rare moments that a Dalit success is highlighted, the dominant caste society reacts with hatred and dismissal. This is illustrated in August 2021 by the reaction to India’s loss of the semi-finals hockey games to Argentina in the Tokyo Olympics: shortly afterwards, two upper-caste men staged a mock celebration outside the home of Dalit hockey star Vandana Katariya, taunting her family that the result of the team having ‘too many Dalit players’.

While educational attainment has steadily improved in recent years, reflected in a significant uptick in literacy rates, higher education enrolment is still far below the national average: while total enrolment at primary level is 81 per cent, reducing to 60 per cent at secondary level, the proportion falls to just 11 per cent in colleges and universities. The graduation rates are even lower. This underrepresentation is the result of multiple factors in addition to caste discrimination, including poverty and the absence of institutional and infrastructural support, resulting in very high dropout rates. Irrespective of this, significant numbers of Dalit students have somehow managed to overcome these odds and continue their studies, though not without many difficulties. While Dalit students can enter colleges and universities through the quota system—a progressive policy of the Indian state intended to protect and promote education among Dalit students—in practice, many of the spaces allocated by the quota guidelines are not filled. Those Dalit students who do succeed in being admitted are made to undergo humiliation and harassment by dominant caste cohorts, teachers and the college administration.

Unsurprisingly, this marginali-sation and invisibility is subsequently transferred into the job market. On the one hand, the majority of Dalits who fail to finish secondary school generally have few options besides unskilled manual labour and the poorly paid, low status jobs such as waste collection that have historically been their lot. For those who do complete higher education, however, there is still a price to pay. Even though there is an employment quota in the public sector, for example, many Dalits do not pursue this option for fear of being harassed and targeted by their dominant caste superiors. Indeed, Dalit workers are often forced to dissociate themselves permanently from their community to achieve any kind of professional success. They also do not provide their children with information about their community, creating a cycle of inherited shame. In the rare moment a Dalit overcomes all these barriers to achieve professional success; the societal response is typically one of hatred and non-acceptance.

Yet countering this is a vibrant anti-caste movement, led by Dalit women and men, who are fearless and outspoken in their condemnation of these injustices. Dalits not only lead the struggle on the streets through popular movements, but also organise department-level organisations and unions to demand proper representation and seek redress when incidents of discrimination in the workplace occur. Notwithstanding the many barriers Dalits have faced in the past in this area, they are increasingly forming workplace organisations and unions across different vocational sectors to contest employment-based labour disputes as well as caste discrimination by colleagues and superiors. Indeed, the issue of employment and unequal treatment—be it the right to gain employment or if employed, the right to a fair wage—has been one of the cornerstones of Dalit activism. Due to the privatisation of the economy, many middle-men have undermined Dalit wages further by subcontracting their jobs through organisational hierarchies. This makes it difficult for the state as well as private players to be held directly accountable, despite existing labour laws.

Dalits are also a significant community politically in India. They are well aware of their importance in electoral democracy. That is why they rally collectively for fair representation in the parliament and state legislature. However, due to the nature of Indian politics, they have often ended up becoming pawns of the party leadership who, despite being generally led by dominant castes or Dalit-hating groups, have been able to mobilise fears of Muslims and other minorities to secure a large proportion of Dalit votes. But while Dalits in India have often been co-opted by political parties led by dominant caste groups, they have also become a much more visible presence in national politics in recent years, aided by organisations like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Besides official political parties, a diverse range of social and semi-political pressure groups exists at the neighbourhood level, allowing Dalit slum-dwellers to draw attention to their cause.

There is also a robust civil society, led by Dalit organisations like Backward and Minorities Central Employees Federation (BAMCEF), State and Central Government Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe Unions, non-profit organisations such as National Commission for Dalit Human Rights, the National Confederation of Dalit Adivasi Organisations and the Feminist Dalit Organisation who conduct awareness programmes, advocacy and research about the Dalit situation in India, in some cases liaising with international donor agencies.

Burakumin are a marginalised community who are still living with the reality of being outcastes from mainstream Japanese society. The word Buraku itself invites contestation. Though it has long been associated with stigma, the Buraku Liberation League (BLL) has sought to subvert its meaning and reclaim it. This is similar to what happened with the word Dalit, which was repurposed and deployed in militant action by the Dalit Panthers and Dalit literature, subverting the submissiveness attached to it.

Though official estimates suggest that there are around 1.2 million Burakumin in Japan, the actual total is likely to be significantly higher, given that many prefer not to disclose their ancestry out of concern for the repercussions. Like Dalits in India, Burakumin were routinely exploited as labourers to undertake the least desirable work—slaughtering animals, dealing with the hides, executing criminals—that was widely regarded as polluting according to Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. In the social hierarchy of feudal Japan, society was ordered into three principal classes—warrior, peasant, townsfolk—with Burakumin placed below them all in the seventeenth century.

Originally, the stigmatisation of Burakumin was tied closely to the work they undertook, such as tanning and leatherwork. But as Japan modernised economically during the Meiji era, other Japanese from outside the community entered these professions. By leveraging their political contacts and resources, they were ultimately able to displace Buraku merchants and establish a near monopoly over the leather industry. This one-sided ‘liberalisation’ meant that many Burakumin had to find employment in other sectors, such as agriculture or the military and police. Nevertheless, despite not being a visible minority, their exclusion persisted and was expressed through spatial discrimination.

The literal meaning of Burakumin is ‘hamlet people’, a reference to the rural settlements peripheral to villages where they were segregated, but as the country urbanised some of these areas evolved into marginalised neighbourhoods within cities such as Kyoto and Osaka. Until the publicly funded Special Measures for Dowa Projects were implemented from the late 1960s, these settlements were characterised by inadequate housing and spatial segregation. What it meant to be born and brought up as a Burakumin is exemplified in the case of Risa Kumamoto, a celebrated professor at Kindai University in Osaka. While growing up, Kumamoto would alight a few stations ahead so as not to send any signal to her classmates about her Burakumin background. It was only after she left the country to study abroad in Canada that she decided she would challenge this discrimination by publicly expressing her identity. Similar experiences have occurred among Roma communities where those members who managed to ‘make it’ are frequently reluctant to acknowledge their past due to social anxiety around the consequences of announcing their background assertively.

Indirectly, too, the structural legacy of casteist discrimination against them means that many still undertake the most harmful jobs. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, for instance, some reports suggested that a large number of Burakumin had been hired to clean the toxic waste: perhaps unsurprisingly, recruitment for this dangerous and difficult work focussed on the poorest Japanese neighbourhoods, many of which are formerly Buraku.

As is seen, Burakumin have been asserting their agency on their own terms without explicitly relying on the standards set up by the non-Buraku groups. This assertion is sophisticatedly expressed at the national and international levels. The BLL presents memorandums and submissions to important international conferences. To elaborate on their international human rights work and cement international solidarity work with other minorities, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) was launched out of Japan in 1988 and holds UN ECOSOC consultative status.


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Vol 55, No. 2, Jul 10 - 16, 2022