In the hierarchy of the traditional Hindu caste system, still an influence in contemporary Indian society, to be a Dalit is to be an outcast, an untouchable. “Castes are the basis of our society. If the caste system loosens up, the whole society will fall apart” is the explanation offered by a municipal officer from Gujarat, interviewed in Veini’s informative introductory essay, for the Dalits’ continued suppression.

Published in Dutch and English, the essay recounts the origins of the Indian caste system, combining comment from individuals involved in awareness groups, working to improve the situation in the south and west of the country, with descriptions of specific cases of abuse to portray the desperate plight of a people forced into the lowliest of occupations.

Van der Stap’s photographs portray this “hidden apartheid”. The cover portrait of Misala Arjamma, a 36-year-old Dalit who has been cleaning toilets in her village for the past 20 years says it all – prematurely aged, the hardship of this woman’s life is written all over her face. Barefoot scavengers and families employed in hard labour on rubbish dumps, building sites and salt mines are recorded; a seemingly innocuous photograph of a tea stand illustrates that Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same glasses as the other customers.

In a densely populated country, with huge pressure for jobs, land and recognition, the Dalits’ position is slow to change and any attempt to move out of their lowly status in society is seen as a threat. It is shocking to be reminded that such abuse exists alongside the modern India, one of Bollywood and thrusting computer and telecommunications industries. Maybe documentary work like this will shame the country into doing something about it. 

Sophie Wright