Being Untouchable - Indian Dalits

Being Untouchable - Indian Dalits

As home to one in six of the world's population, with a highly complex ethnic make-up, 1,600 languages, a third of the world's poor, 43% of its children under-nourished, and the fourth largest number of billionaires in the world, India confounds all expectations.

But India enjoys a rising global profile, and with that comes heightened responsibilities. The big ideas of our times, from global development goals, to environmental protection, to human rights, will succeed or fail based on how countries of India's stature deal with them.

We all have a stake in India. That is why we must not ignore one of the largest global scandals of all, which persists within its borders, and which fuels exploitation and poverty - a pervasive social hierarchy based on birth, which treats 167 million people as outcasts.

These are the Dalits. If a group of 100 people represented the population of the world, five would be Americans, three would be Indian Dalits. They form the 'bottom' of India's caste system, below the four main 'varna' groups. 'Dalit' means 'broken' or 'crushed'. It is the name chosen by these 'untouchables' of old, and it represents their sense of a history reverberating with oppression, exploitation and injustice.
Being Untouchable - Indian Dalits
Dalits are the worst victims of what is arguably the most tenacious hierarchy on earth. The caste system has ancient roots, and became a means of social stratification, in which 'low castes were expected to perform dirty, degrading and dangerous tasks for the rest of society. Caste has been described not as a means for the division of labour, but for the division of labourers.

Although associated originally with Hinduism, the caste system is practised across all religious communities in India today.

It may be tempting to forget the caste system and focus on India's economic boom. However, the two cannot be separated so simply. Much of India's economic infrastructure is overlaid on this ancient system of hierarchy and obligation. Caste is deeply-embedded, not only in the rural areas which almost never intersect with modern, trendy, industrialising India, but also in the fast-growing urban centres.

In the past, Dalits had to ensure their shadow never fell on non-Dalits, so as not to pollute them. It is not quite like that today. But Dalits are still treated as untouchable in myriad ways. This exhibition exposes, through a series of portraits, what it means to be untouchable in an emerging superpower.

Being untouchable has no place in our world

With its many different facets, there is no single solution to the plight of Dalits. However, Dalits plead for their cause to resonate worldwide, like apartheid in South Africa.

'Untouchability' was banned in India's Constitution, but as Dr B.R. Ambedkar, architect of India's constitution and Dalit icon, once said, "It will take more than a law to remove this stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it". The Indian Government has taken some remedial measures to address the social exclusion of Dalits, and the current political leadership has repeatedly stated its commitment to combat caste-based discrimination.

However, much more needs to be done.

Global corporations investing in India can play a role, by implementing the 'Ambedkar Principles', which set out how to comply with the UN Global Compact with special sensitivity to caste. Corporations must ensure all their supply chains are entirely clear of labour exploitation, for demand increases supply, and Dalits are the most susceptible to labour exploitation. They should take responsibility in hiring practices, to ensure Dalits are not excluded from employment because of the structural disadvantages faced by their communities.

India's global partners can play a role. The UN has charged the Indian Government with demonstrating clear progress to tackle the many different forms of caste-based discrimination, and this message needs to be reinforced by fellow UN member states.

Foreign aid and development policies, too, should specifically tackle the structures that support social exclusion, especially caste-based discrimination.

It is up to us to see that this happens.

Exhibition Dates

U.S. House of Representatives: (dates to be confirmed)
Washington, USA

St Paul's Cathedral: 14th June - 11th July 2011
London, EC4M 8AD, UK

Newcastle University: 26th February 2011
International Development Conference

HOST Gallery: 18th - 23rd October 2010
1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH

Kamlesh (pictured above) suffered severe burns when she was pushed onto a fire as her punishment for walking on a path reserved for 'high' caste people.

Following a number of generous donations in response to an article in the Gulf Times, Kamlesh underwent her first operation in June 2011, but will require several more.

St Paul's Cathedral also kindly provided a collection box to stand next to the exhibition in the Quire Aisles, bringing Kamlesh's second operation a step closer.

If you would like to help fund the ongoing surgery Kamlesh so desperately needs, why not buy a print.

Each year special prints are sold or donated for auction in order to raise money for a good cause. In 2010, over £14,000 was raised in support of Human Rights Watch.

In the Press

Eyewitness: Clean and bright World News - 8th June 2011

Indian Dalits' suffering laid bare by photographer
BBC News - 22nd October 2010

Being untouchable no longer
New Statesman - 27th October 2010

Anger, art and India's apartheid
Prospect - 22nd October 2010


"No description of mine can do justice to the power of these photos. This was no 'poverty porn'; you know the sort of thing - pictures of cute poor people for the galleristas to wave a sentimental glass of champagne at. They were pictures taken by a photographer who would spend all day with a few people until they were ready for him to take one or two shots, no more, of some aspect of their life. Making a cup of chai, dredging open sewers, picking through rubbish; or, sitting in a simple bare room, a man and wife hugging each other and laughing. Sadly the exhibition closed yesterday, or I would urge you to go. But they will be shown again in London, of that I have no doubt"- Reverend Andrew Hammond,
sermon at St Paul's Cathedral

"I can hardly speak and that surprises me because I am familiar with these issues, I've been writing on them for many years, but there's a tenderness and a humanity and a dignity to these pictures ... there's a sense in which the horror is not being ramped-up, it's not being exploited, but you've got to read the captions and then you realise what you're dealing with. So I think it has been beautifully done, it preserves the dignity of the people but it does not spare you the awfulness of what we're dealing with"
- Jenny Taylor, Lapido Media


Marcus Perkins and David Griffiths wish to express their great thanks to each of the subjects of the photographs, for their hospitality and for openly sharing their lives with us. We are also extremely grateful to very many people for their generous assistance with the project.

They include: Minesh Amin, Harish Arisalya, Indira Athawale, Penny Ayres, Jill Coombe, Dataram, Tom Fewell, Ganesh, Sarah Griffiths, Emma Howlett, Solomon Isaac, Ajay Kumar, the late Kamal Kumar, Manohar, Ashish Missal, Sam Paul, Sarah Perkins, Liz Pruett, Udit Raj, ‘Auto’ Raja, Bama Raman, Tina Ramirez, Chabinath Shiply, Ajay Kumar Singh, Madhu Chandra Singh, Meena Varma, Bezwada Wilson, and Angela Wu.

Others preferred to remain unnamed, but we gratefully acknowledge their contributions also.