In the past month or so, a new source of social unrest has come to the surface in India.
In the past month or so, a new source of social unrest has come to the surface in India. The Harijans, the lowest social caste, have found a new militancy, and are demanding the share of land and jobs that the Indian constitution guarantees to them. This, in turn, has provoked a backlash among higher-caste Hindus, who have reacted violently to the Harijan demands.
SYNOPSIS: Harijans used to be called "untouchables" in the Hindu caste system until the word was outlawed by the Indian constitution in 1949. By tradition, they do all the jobs that higher-caste Hindus regard as unclean: sweeping, disposing of refuse, anything that involves killing animals and disposing of the bodies; and working with hides. And by tradition, the higher castes have kept them at a distance.
There are about eighty million Harijans, spread all over India. The government has made determined efforts to put an end to their social disabilities, to he extent of giving them preferential treatment. This itself has provoked resentment among the "caste" Hindus.
The latest troubles broke out in Solapur, in the state of Mahrasthra. Solapur is a textile town, and many Harijans had their homes burnt down by having spindles soaked in kerosene thrown into them. The basic cause of the disorder in Maharashtra was a proposal by the authorities to name a university after a distinguished Harijan lawyer, Dr. Ambedkar, who helped to draft the Indian constitution. About twelve people were killed and many injured in clashes involving Harijans, caste Hindus and the police.
Mahatma Gandhi first drew public attention to discrimination against the Harijans. He gave them their present name: it mean "Children of God". His campaign to bury the "untouchable" idea got them admitted to Hindu temples. In the past, they had been excluded. But caste and poverty combined to deny them higher education and social status.
The Defence Minister, Mr. Jagjivan Ram, is one member of the community who has reached high office, and is spoken of as a possible Prime Minister. People never think of him as a Harijan. He has stayed scrupulously aloof from the present disputes.
In the past, most Harijans were country people, working for landlords int he fields. But changes in farming methods, fear of attack, and economic prospects have combined to attract them to the towns. they have found work in the textile industry, and traditionally they are India's shoemakers; but they are still for the most part, the poorest members of the population. The government is required by law to reserve jobs and provide land for them; and it is this that is causing the trouble with the higher castes. The Prime Minister, Mr. Morarji Desai, spoke out strongly after a recent demonstration against Harijan land grants that took place outside his house. He called it a stigma on the Indian nation.