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Stan Guthrie

The Shackles of Caste

How India's former "untouchables" are finding freedom.

Guruammal, 26, was a member of India's despised Dalits (formerly known as untouchables). As such, she possessed fewer rights than almost anyone on earth. Working the fields, she earned the equivalent of 44 cents a day. But Guruammal and her husband were glad for the work. She was four months pregnant, and the family would need every bit they could scrape together.

One day in December, the police raided her village. The superintendent called Guruammal a pallachi, a caste name for a prostitute, and unzipped his pants in a sign of utter disrespect. Later that morning, Guruammal complained to another official about the superintendent.

The next morning, the police were back, and they were looking for revenge. Guruammal's husband hid under the bed. The police broke down all the doors of the villagers' homes and arrested 53 men, but the superintendent was looking for Guruammal. Finding her in her nightclothes, the police called her a pallachi again and began beating her. The superintendent dragged her, naked, for 100 feet. A 60-year-old neighbor woman asked the officers to stop, and the police beat her, too, fracturing her hands. One of the village men gave Guruammal his wrap so she could cover up.

At the jail, Guruammal asked the officers for help, saying she was pregnant. They simply mocked her for the previous day's boldness and locked her up. After 10 days, she miscarried the baby. Fifteen days later, they let her go. No charges were filed against the officers.

Prisoners of the Hindu caste system, India's 250 million Dalits face such indignities on a daily basis. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 100,000 crimes of hate were committed against Dalits between 1994 and 1996 nationwide—including many cases of murder, rape, and assault as well as lesser crimes. Many more incidents were not reported. Observers believe that with the rise of rightwing Hindu fundamentalists in India, such attacks are increasing in frequency. And apart from physical assault, Dalits face systematic ...

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