Branded as impure from the moment of birth one out of six Indians lives — and suffers — at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. They are
The sins of Girdharilal Maurya are many, his attackers insisted. He has bad karma. Why else would he, like his ancestors, be born an Untouchable, if not to pay for his past lives?
Look, he is a leatherworker, and Hindu law says that working with animal skins makes him unclean, someone to avoid and revile. And his unseemly prosperity is a sin. Who does this Untouchable think he is, buying a small plot of land outside the village? Then he dared speak up, to the police and other authorities, demanding to use the new village well. He got what Untouchables deserve.
One night, while Maurya was away in a nearby city, eight men from the higher Rajput caste came to his farm. They broke his fences, stole his tractor, beat his wife and daughter, and burned down his house. The message was clear: Stay at the bottom where you belong.
Girdharilal Maurya took his family and fled the village of Kharkada in India's western state of Rajasthan. It took two years for him to feel safe enough to return — and then only because human rights lawyers took up his case, affording him a thin shield of protection.
“I see them almost every day,” Maurya now says of his attackers. “They roam around freely.” Maurya has agreed to meet me — after dark — in the dirt courtyard of his village house. He is a tall, handsome man of 52, his hair white, his face lined with worry. On a chilly February night he pulls a bathrobe tight around him. His wife moves in the shadows preparing tea. They live with the rest of their caste on the southern end of the village, downwind of the upper caste families who believe that they must not smell Untouchables.
The court case against his attackers drags on, Maurya explains in a tense, level voice. He tries to sound positive: Untouchables use the well pump now; one of his sons has advanced to college, the first of his...