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Though numerous minorities face severe discrimination in countries around the word, there are few that face the extreme conditions experienced by "untouchable" Dalits in India and other parts of south-east Asia. Though Dalits are actually a mixed population with different languages and religions, they are regarded as "untouchable" under the traditional caste system. As a result, Dalits are regarded as "polluting" all non-Dalits with whom they come in contact. Not only are they forbidden any physical contact, they are also not allowed to eat when other caste members are eating, use separate utensils and drinking containers, entering other caste homes, and endure complete segregation in terms of schooling, seating, and where they can live. They are also traditionlly banned from living inside villages to keep from "polluting" them and often forced to live in houses without basic plumbing or electricity. Dalits are also considered bound to carry out basic "duties" such as handling corpses or other sanitation tasks deemed too "unclean" for higher castes.
While the Indian government has banned the practice of untouchability and established new laws to protect Dalits from discrimination, that has made little difference in rural areas where Dalits face enormous prejudice. Violence directed against Dalits remains common including a recent incident where more than one hundred Dalits were forced to flee a village in northern India after a Dalit married an upper-caste woman. To combat anti-Dalit prejudice, an international media and human rights group has launched the Article 17 campaign to document the plight of Dalits in India and neighbouring countries. Video Volunteers was founded in 2003 to use community media to enable citizen journalism by members of marginalized communities around the world. Their Article 17 campaign launched in April of last year is named for Article 17 of the Indian constitution which states that:
Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
In organizing the Article 17 campaign, Video Volunteers director Stalin K. described it as the culmination of the ten years he spent documenting incidents of untouchability across India. In his video, India Untouched, he challenged the prevailing belief that untouchability was not widely practiced in modern India. As he describes the reaction to his video:
In the years since the making of that film, little has changed. We still receive reports of barber shops refusing to shave Dalits. Homeowners unwilling to rent their houses to Dalits. Children segregated and discriminated in schools, women not allowed to draw water from wells, families pushed out of temples. Segregated mosques, churches, even crematoriums. Pervasive violence aimed at those who challenge caste discrimination. Social and economic boycotts for those who dare to transgress caste boundaries. Newly-weds chased and killed because they chose to marry outside their own caste. Rapes. Acid attacks. The list goes on shamelessly.
The Article 17 campaign has already collected more than 30 videos describing breaches of laws against untouchability. Along with the videos, Video Volunteers has filed a formal appeal with government agencies charged with policing violations of caste law. Their appeal includes more than two thousand signatures pleading for action although they have received little response to date.
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