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The Fourth World of the untouchables | Human Rights

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Being a Dalit means being in permanent isolation, stuck in the dark chambers of one’s uncharted fears. The Dalit is that stubbornness that the Hindu ideology has adamantly maintained for more than 3,000 years.

I grew up in a world surrounded by Dalits. From early on I was conscious of my identity and that it meant we belonged to the lower strata. Parents and family members disciplined us to make sure we do not mess up elsewhere and face the wrath of the dominant castes – the rich people with power and position.

I grew up celebrating the birthday of B R Ambedkar, the eminent Dalit scholar and former justice minister, who inspired the Dalit movement. We stayed away from Hindu festivals as they were a reminder of our ancestral humiliation and of our secondary status in Indian society.

Our neighbour, a sahukar (merchant) caste, who ran a grocery shop, was one of the few non-Dalits in our neighbourhood. He resented us, but loved our money. He made sure all physical contact with us was avoided when we were paying for our purchases.

It is extremely difficult to receive small coins without physically touching the other person; to avoid this “blasphemy”, we were told to drop the coins in an open box. When we paid with a bank note, he would take it with his fingers from the other end, carefully avoiding physical touch.

Living among Dalits, the sahukar maintained his and his family’s purity by erecting a concrete wall around his house. The tallest wall in our neighbourhood was between our house and the sahukar‘s. He was also extremely suspicious of us; he’d often accuse us of stealing. We were made to feel like criminals in our homes.

When I went to high school, classmates, mostly from the dominant castes, refused to lend their time to me. They were contemptuous, just like their parents, and readily exercised “their right” to caste discrimination. 

My only close friends in the school were Dalits and I had the profound pleasure of hanging out at their home and sharing their food, a privilege I was denied by the dominant caste peers. The fact that I was never invited to break the bread in an upper caste home kept reminding me of my pitiful isolation. I was the child soaked in sweat in the summer heat, with a dry throat, desperate for a glass of water, standing outside a Brahmin classmate’s house. Never was I invited inside the house, nor was I entertained in the courtyard. 

I walked home thirsty after school till I graduated. And today I still see Dalit children who, just like me, are walking down the same street, thirsty and famished.

The caste system holds us responsible for our suffering. Solidarity and support from non-Dalits do not exist, even today in the 21st century.

Isn’t it absurd that we are now actively exploring another planet to settle and scouring other galaxies for life, but on our own Earth we are still unable to shake millennia-old inhumane and unscientific customs and perceptions that selectively devalue human life?

It is. And it is equally absurd that so-called progressive Indians lavishly spend their energy pushing a Hindu-only narrative of the Indian civilisation and choose not to accord any respect or equal status to us, the declared despicable, the wretched of the earth.

Stuck in this dark chamber of millennia-old, forcibly-imposed inferiority complex, fear and terror, we struggle to break free. The only way out is self-love.  

Caste systems around the world

It was not until university that I learned that there are other societies beyond India that have their own outcastes or untouchables. It was then that I came across a report written by human rights expert and lawyer, Smita Narula, called Broken people: Caste violence against India’s “untouchables” commissioned by Human Rights Watch. It put the caste systems across the world into perspective for me.

It referenced the “Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria’s Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal, Mauritania and Somalia” who suffer under “their own caste or caste-like systems”. The terrorism my community faced in our lives seemed no longer exclusive to us and certainly not attached to our fate only.

This “discovery” took me to places with hopes of finding fellow oppressed peoples who are fighting the monster of caste discrimination and hatred.

I started asking people from across the world about the caste system in their societies. During a lecture at Harvard University, for example, I asked Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, but he gave a rather vague answer about the Osu. I soon realised that most of the people I was meeting and asking were almost always the Brahmins of their societies who used their privileged position to tactically downplay or avoid mentioning the suffering of the subalterns.

I am yet to come across an oppressed/lower caste person from Nigeria, Japan, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Kenya, Somalia, the US, South Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Israel, Afghanistan, and others. Due to abject poverty and lack of representation, many untouchables of the world are still unable to challenge mainstream narratives in their societies.

Through my travels and research, I also discovered that the postcolonial scholarship and activism were another stratagem of the elites of native societies to hide the oppressions they practice and redirect public attention towards the external “other” – the moribund colonial state. 

They have thoroughly researched the historical and sociological underpinnings of colonial rule in their native societies, thus developing a novel yet spineless critique. In the postcolonial project, oppressor castes from the colonised societies ensured that the radical voices of dissent from among the lower castes never received the attention needed to achieve their liberation. The subalterns fighting for civil rights have sporadically made the news but almost never the headlines.

Because of this, entire generations of the last century were fed one-dimensional propaganda of postcolonial fears and tears. The actual pains of the suffering masses were buried under the heaps of mystified narratives of the Third World.

The Fourth World

In addition to the uniqueness of caste being a descent-based, inherited form of inescapable discrimination, there are other types of prejudice that result in similar oppression. There is what we can call a Fourth World of outcastes around the world who have been left out of the prominent discourses and debates concerning human rights and social and economic justice.

Today, there is an urgent need to identify these underprivileged groups and establish international solidarity networks.

Such solidarity work has been undertaken before but it has received little public and theoretical attention. Its traces were lost within the dominant discourses on nation-state building and the pursuit of democracy.

It is what happened with the international links built in the mid-20th century by pioneers like Ambedkar, who put the Dalit situation on the global map. He connected with African American leaders like W E B Du Bois; African American organisers and civil rights leaders paid attention to his work. Ambedkar also reached out to the Buddhist South and East Asian countries.

In Japan, the formidable Matsumoto Jiichiro, leader of the Buraku people, the outcastes in the Japanese feudal system, took notice of his work and they established a connection in the 1950s. 

Over the following decades, efforts to build upon the foundations Ambedkar laid were not successful in establishing strong international networks and cross-national collective action. More recently, there have been renewed efforts to rekindle solidarity outreach. In September, the Buraku and Dalit people met in September in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan to resolve to discuss ways to fight caste systems across the world. They passed 12 resolutions that ensured the international outlook of these communities remained intact. 

Similar solidarity work has been initiated by prominent African Americans, like Cornel WestMartin Luther King III and professor Kevin Brown of Indiana University. In the Boston area, the “Dalit and Black Lives Matter” movement stands as a testament to the renewed, re-energised solidarity of the younger generation of Dalit and black activists.

But there is still much work that needs to be done. It is about time that trans-national solidarity of oppressed people leaves the confines of elite platforms and reaches grassroots level. Being a Dalit means living in isolation; fighting against the injustice of the caste system inevitably will have to include breaking this isolation and creating vast networks of outcastes that are able to collectively struggle for their rights.

An organisation dedicated to this task, seeking to challenge mainstream narratives, a Fourth World think-tankcould serve this purpose. 

It would provide the most vulnerable groups around the world with a platform to discuss and share their experiences of marginalisation and learn ways to fight discrimination and oppression. It would take solidarity work to the grassroots and help build knowledge and activism structures among underprivileged groups across the world.

The oppressed castes need to come under one roof to develop a collective egalitarian vision for the future of the world. Coming together and working collectively is the only way in which we can break the bonds of oppression.

The geography of our struggle has to be a global one; we can no longer afford to be divided and isolated from each other.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.  

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Ottawa transit commission hopes to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for OC Transpo workers

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Ottawa’s transit commission is pushing local and provincial health officials to recognize the role OC Transpo operators have played in keeping the city running during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping to bump train and bus drivers in the vaccination queue amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections affecting transit workers.

More than 100 OC Transpo staff across the entire organization have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, according to an update at Wednesday morning’s transit commission meeting.

Of those cases, 26 employees are currently recovering from the disease in self-isolation.

OC Transpo has seen a recent jump in COVID-19 cases, with Ottawa city council receiving reports of eight operators testing positive for the virus over a recent eight-day period.

Transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert attempted to find out how many of the total cases are traced to workplace transmission, but OC Transpo boss John Manconi said he’s been advised by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches that he can’t share that information for privacy reasons.

Transit operators are listed in the second priority group of essential workers as part of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine sequencing plans, but several commissioners speaking Wednesday wanted to get the city’s bus and train drivers bumped higher in the order.

Councillors Riley Brockington and Glen Gower both put forward motions looking to get front-line OC Transpo employees prioritization in vaccine sequencing, but others pointed out that the much-debated public health topic of who gets the vaccine and when is well beyond the scope of the transit commission.

“We are not in a position in transit commission to be decreeing, or making an edict, about what group of essential workers is more at risk than others and should be prioritized. That should be left up to public health experts,” Wright-Gilbert said.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who also chairs the Ottawa Board of Health, reflected on the board’s four-plus-hour meeting on Monday evening, during which vaccine sequencing and prioritizing essential workers dominated the conversation.

“Vaccine sequencing is obviously a very difficult maze to get through,” he said.

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COVID-19: Ottawa police announce end of 24-7 presence at Ontario-Quebec border

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Less than two days after the Ontario government’s latest COVID-19 restrictions came into effect, calling for non-essential traffic to be stopped at the province’s borders with Quebec and Manitoba, the Ottawa Police Service has announced it is stopping its 24-hour checkpoints.

According to a statement issued by the service Tuesday evening, the around-the-clock border checkpoints were set to end as of 8 p.m. on Tuesday in favour of rotating checkpoints across the city throughout the day until Ontario’s temporary regulations end.

“Since the onset of the border operations, the OPS has been working closely with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) along with local stakeholders and interprovincial stakeholders (the City of Ottawa, the City of Gatineau, the Ontario Provincial Police etc.) to assess any local public health, traffic and safety impacts. The assessment resulted in today’s operational changes,” the statement said.

“The operational changes announced today are designed to better ensure the health and safety of all, to minimize delays and/or hazards for travellers and to ensure essential workers can get to their places of employment on time.”

The statement also said the police service, while working to comply with the provincial order, was focused on education and enforcement actions that “support improved public health outcomes and respect the concerns of our most marginalized and racialized communities”

Officers said they will be conducting daily assessments on border crossings and that there could be further changes.

In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said that the border closures are ultimately subject to the discretion of local police enforcing the regulations.

“Local police services are best positioned to determine the operational deployments necessary to ensure the continued safety of their communities,” the spokesperson said, noting that the order’s regulations still apply to individuals entering the province.

The temporary order restricts Quebec residents from entering Ontario. If prompted, individuals must stop when directed by an enforcement officials and provide their reason for entering the province.

The main exemptions to the restrictions include if the person’s main home is in the province, if they work in Ontario, if they’re transporting goods, if they’re exercising Indigenous or treaty rights, if they need health care or if there’s a basis on compassionate grounds.

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COVID-19 vaccines in Ottawa: Nearly half of all residents in their 60s have at least one dose

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Public Health’s latest COVID-19 vaccination update shows that nearly half of all residents 60 to 69 years old have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, a figure that has all but doubled in the past week.

OPH’s COVID-19 vaccination dashboard shows 58,000 residents 60 to 69 have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, accounting for 49.3 per cent of that age group’s population in Ottawa. Last Wednesday, OPH reported 30,000 residents 60 to 69 had had at least one dose, which was 25.4 per cent.

As age demographics get younger, the population grows larger and the coverage by percentage may appear to grow more slowly, even if clinics are vaccinating greater numbers of people. For example, the latest figures show that 83 per cent of people aged 70 to 79 have had at least one dose. By raw population that’s 60,000 people, only slightly higher than half of all people in their 60s.

Vaccinations are open through the Ontario portal to anyone 60 and older and, this week, the AstraZeneca vaccine was approved for administration at pharmacies and primary care clinics to anyone in Ontario 40 and older.

OPH reported a new shipment this week of 25,740 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. To date, Ottawa has received 305,130 doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the provincial government.

The number of eligible residents (i.e. 16 and older) with at least one dose of a vaccine is now up to 28 per cent.

Tuesday was Ottawa’s second-busiest day for vaccinations overall, with the OPH reporting 9,729 shots administered. Last Friday saw 9,887 shots administered in a single day.

QUICK STATS

  • Ottawa residents with at least one dose: 248,668
  • Ottawa residents with two doses: 26,722
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with at least one dose: 28 per cent
  • Percent of eligible population (residents 16 and older) with two doses: 3 per cent
  • Percent of total population with at least one dose: 24 per cent
  • Percent of total population with two doses: 3 per cent

VACCINATION COVERAGE BY AGE FOR OTTAWA RESIDENTS WITH AT LEAST ONE DOSE

  • 10-19: 1.6 per cent (1,804 people)
  • 20-29: 8.3 per cent (13,452 people)
  • 30-39: 9.5 per cent (14,999 people)
  • 40-49: 12.9 per cent (17,350 people)
  • 50-59: 28.8 per cent (40,320 people)
  • 60-69: 49.3 per cent (58,627 people)
  • 70-79: 82.9 per cent (62,808 people)
  • 80-89: 87.5 per cent (29,358 people)
  • 90+: 89.2 per cent (7,893 people)
  • Unknown age: 2,057 people 

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