Untouchability In A Flat World

By Kancha Ilaiah

25 October, 2005
Deccan Chronicle

My visit to the famous Wheaton College in Chicago to deliver two lectures on caste and untouchability was an eye-opening experience. It struck me how students remained ignorant of the world around them even in a globalised world. It is an alarming thought that these are the future citizens of the world.

The Wheaton College asked its students of Indian origin to conduct a series of programmes to create awareness about their home country. Two students who had roots in India — Davita Maharaj and Rebekah Moses — took the initiative to conduct a Dalit Freedom Week. They invited me and Nanci Ricks, an American who works against untouchability and apartheid and the executive
director of the Dalit Freedom Network, to speak. Wheaton is one of the elite colleges of the US.

Sometimes rich students prefer it to Harvard since it is known for its discipline. It takes quite a lot of money to get a good education in the US. For a four-year undergraduate course in Wheaton, one needs to spend about $120,000. The students live a hep life. Their cafeteria, for instance, serves food which would put our five-star hotels to shame. However, much of the curriculum is US-centric. So the students don’t have much of an idea about countries such as India, except for those who are well read.A book which is creating waves in US campuses nowadays is Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat. Interestingly enough, this book has a chapter on
India’s untouchability. Friedman makes the point that in a globalised “flat world,” American students have to study harder if they don’t want to lose their jobs to the Chinese and Indians. In the course of our lectures, when Nanci Ricks asked the students whether they had read Friedman’s book, half a dozen hands went up.

However, even these select few were not familiar with the practice of untouchability in India. Friedman, a veteran reporter of the New York Times, argues that unlike China, India as a country will not be unified and homogenised because of caste and untouchability. The English educated upper castes of the country can compete with American students as they too are
establishing their Wheatons and Harvards in India. But the Dalits and other lower castes will be left out of the “flat world” and will be consigned to menial tasks such as sweeping roads, scavenging and traditional cultivation. In short, the flat world will not be flat for the lower castes.

However, Friedman sees a ray of hope in the English medium schools that are being established by missionaries in various places. But one is afraid that Dalit students who study in these schools may not be able to go the entire way to the top. When I spoke about the caste system of India, the students were surprised as they were not aware of it. Neither did they understand how it operated. The same feeling was visible when other speakers were explaining the caste system and untouchability in the Hollywood seminar at Los Angeles on September 14, to an audience consisting of producers, directors, actors, script writers, TV anchors and documentary filmmakers.It is surprising that even in such a globalised world, where information is at your fingertips, young people don’t know much about other countries. Maybe this lack of awareness is also due to the conscious decision by upper caste intellectuals, film makers, artists, and writers not to present
the true picture of India to the world, since it would not be “nationalistic” to do so. In this flat world, we should honestly tell people about the evils in our country. Silence is a sin.

The Wheaton students were pensive when I invited their attention to the hunger, poverty, ignorance and untouchability plaguing vast masses. How long would they be able to sustain their elite lifestyle and their “war on terror” when multitudes in other nations suffered, I asked. Caste, untouchability and poverty are not going to be problems for India alone. It willinevitably become a problem for the US and other countries too.Probably realising the global nature of the caste problem, the United Nations and the human rights committee of the American Senate conducted a hearing on October 6. Efforts to end discrimination, poverty, caste and ignorance have to be speeded up if the benefits of the flat world have to be provided to all sections of people.


  1. Hi,

    Untouchability used to be a scourge once upon a time, but now it is on its last leg. It would have long withered away under the force of modernisation and economic progress had there been no use (rather, misuse)of this by politicians for their vote banks. Now people love to identify themselves as Dalits and anybody who should have been a Dalit owing to his lineage is incidentally not declared as such, he would definitely fight his case before law courts and get back his status of Dalithood!

    People out there have really misconceptions about that; some even equate with apartheid. India from the very advent of her Independence has deliberately been striving to eliminate this and with a lot of success. We have had our President from Dalits even before the US could elect Obama. At least three Muslims have been Presidents of India.

    As to Friedman's book, I read it only recently. It's an intensely readable book that rivetted my attention all through the months I was with that book. (I'm a slow reader!). It appears Friedman is explaining some philosophical dialectics of thesis antithesis but keeping mum when it is about the time he told the synthesis.

    I've attempted a review of the book in my blog. You might like to drop by.



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