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Being Untouchable

It may be tempting to forget the caste system and focus on India’s economic boom. However, the two cannot be separated so simply. Much of India’s economic infrastructure is overlaid on this ancient system of hierarchy and obligation. Caste is deeply-embedded, not only in the rural areas which almost never intersect with modern, trendy, industrialising India, but also in the fast-growing urban centres. 

In the past, Dalits had to ensure their shadow never fell on non-Dalits, so as not to pollute them. It is not quite like that today. But Dalits are still treated as untouchable in myriad ways. 

This exhibition exposes, through a series of portraits, what it means to be untouchable in an emerging superpower.

Commissioned by CSW

CSW is a human rights NGO specialising in religious freedom and related human rights issues, such as tackling the injustice, poverty and inequality suffered by many of India's 167 million Dalits (Untouchables).

Being Untouchable was envisaged as a tool to raise awareness of the diverse forms of suffering experienced by Dalit communities in India, and as a launch-pad for advocacy initiatives.

How the photography is being used

Launched at HOST, a leading photojournalism gallery in October 2010, the project has been featured in Prospect magazine, the New Statesman, and in the centre page Eyewitness feature by the Guardian. The project was also featured by BBC Online News as a front page linked story, a picture gallery and as a film report. 

In February 2011 the European Parliament used the project's signature image to highlight caste-based discrimination in South Asia. 

The exhibition moved to St Paul’s Cathedral in June-July 2011 for for a five week run - which coincided with the cathedral's 300th anniversary, and a visit by HM Queen Elizabeth II - where it was viewed by an estimated 90,000 people.

In 2015 key images were presented by David Griffiths, Head of the Secretary General's Office at Amnesty International to consider the transformative power of recognition in a TEDx talk.

In 2017 the project was published in the 20th anniversary edition of Gallerie Magazine, a double issue focusing on peace and hope.

Today the photographs continue to be used as signature images by Dalit support and activist organisations around the world.

All photographs: © Copyright Ecce Opus

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Kamlesh was just seven when she was pushed onto a pile of burning rubbish while walking with her mother. This was her punishment for walking along a path reserved for ‘high’ caste people.  Mathura District, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Ecce Opus for CSW
 

Kamlesh was just seven when she was pushed onto a pile of burning rubbish while walking with her mother. This was her punishment for walking along a path reserved for ‘high’ caste people.

Mathura District, Uttar Pradesh.

 
Every day, Uma walks through the village with her basket to the communal latrine. Nobody touches her along the way. She has an enamel toilet in her own home, but she cleans the excrement of others because this is the job assigned by her caste. This practice has been illegal since 1993, but still 700,000 Dalits, perhaps more, endure the same daily routine as Uma.  Kurnool District, Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Ecce Opus for CSW
 

Every day, Uma walks through the village with her basket to the communal latrine. Nobody touches her along the way. She has an enamel toilet in her own home, but she cleans the excrement of others because this is the job assigned by her caste. This practice has been illegal since 1993, but still 700,000 Dalits, perhaps more, endure the same daily routine as Uma. 

Kurnool District, Andhra Pradesh.

 
Young, bright, and impeccably courteous, Sanju cycles every day into Nasik to sweep its streets. Only Dalits do this work, he says, and his own prospects of doing anything else are severely restricted by the glass ceiling imposed by his caste.  Many Dalits here are Buddhists, including Sanju. They embraced Buddhism in the footsteps of the iconic Dalit figurehead, Dr B.R. Ambedkar.  Nasik, Maharashtra. Photo: Ecce Opus for CSW
 

Young, bright, and impeccably courteous, Sanju cycles every day into Nasik to sweep its streets. Only Dalits do this work, he says, and his own prospects of doing anything else are severely restricted by the glass ceiling imposed by his caste.

Many Dalits here are Buddhists, including Sanju. They embraced Buddhism in the footsteps of the iconic Dalit figurehead, Dr B.R. Ambedkar. 

Nasik, Maharashtra.

 
Sisters Savitri and Sarita learn the alphabet together. They are Musahars, a community of two million known as the Dalits of the Dalits. The Musahars are a landless people and 99 per cent are illiterate.  The Indian press has often highlighted their plight, but they face ridicule and derision from others around them. In a nearby Musahar community, 'high' caste villagers disrupted our visit and told the Dalits that this photography would be used to mock them.  Bhojpur District, Bihar. Photo: Ecce Opus for CSW
 

Sisters Savitri and Sarita learn the alphabet together. They are Musahars, a community of two million known as the Dalits of the Dalits. The Musahars are a landless people and 99 per cent are illiterate.

The Indian press has often highlighted their plight, but they face ridicule and derision from others around them. In a nearby Musahar community, 'high' caste villagers disrupted our visit and told the Dalits that this photography would be used to mock them.

Bhojpur District, Bihar.

Exhibition panels

 
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The Power of Recognition

David Griffiths, Head of the Secretary General's Office at Amnesty International, considers the transformative power of recognition in a TEDx talk about his thinking behind Being Untouchable, an exhibition highlighting the injustice suffered by many of India's 167 million Dalits.