On July 18th, in what many believe to be a historic moment, India ushered in a new era by electing its 14th president, Ram Nath Kovind. What separates Kovind from all but one other Indian president is that he originates from the lowest tier of Indian society. According to National Geographic, more than 160 million people in India are known as the Dalit or “the untouchables.” The Dalit lie outside of India’s Caste System, a centuries old practice that divides members of Indian society into different “castes” or social rankings. For much of the nation’s history, the caste system strongly influenced essentially all aspects of Indian society. However, in more recent times, there has been a strong effort to dismantle the system as it has traditionally perpetuated a culture of sharp discrimination and injustice to those of lower caste.
The Dalit in particular have suffered severe discrimination in Indian society. Their status of being in a class below the caste system renders them as subhuman in the eyes of many, and composing of about 15% of the population, the majority live in severe poverty and work in extremely harsh working conditions. According to National Geographic, approximately 95% of all Indians who are illiterate are Dalit. The lack of accessibility to education and high level employment opportunities, makes it a seemingly impossible to move out of the Dalit social class.
While some progress has been made to aid the Dalit to achieve economic mobility and equality, many believe that change has been far too slow. Even though the Indian constitution renders any act of discrimination based on caste illegal, discrimination and violence against Dalits is still commonplace. National Geographic states that: every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched. These numbers are severe underestimations however, since most crimes against the Dalit go unreported or unacknowledged and even hushed by police and the government. In an article by BBC News, a Dalit states that: “Today, here in Haryana, we the Dalits are still being tied to trees and beaten by upper caste people. Police do nothing because none of the policemen are Dalit.” Despite the harsh conditions many Dalit endure today, India’s recent election provides some hope for the future.
While in India, the president does not hold much political power, Ram Nath Kovind will provide an emotional boost for those of lower castes. Kovind belongs to BJP, one of India’s most prominent political parties, and his recent election represents their recent strategy of gaining Dalit support for future elections. It is no doubt that the best way for Dalits to gain equality in Indian society is by having more political representation. Hopefully, the BJP will try to not just pander to the Dalit vote, but instead try to make an effort to integrate Dalits into India’s political system. If so, the election of president Ram Nath Kovind will be more than just a moral victory, and instead actually be a catalyst for a movement that will lead to a new era of opportunity for one of India’s most marginalized groups of people.
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