The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

The tsunami untouchable story

It would be against all the Plawg rules to delve into this - faraway place, don't know the language, breaking news, all that stuff - but I wish someone would.

Working from the Poor Man's Lexis, the first big story was from Reuters on January 3 about untouchables on the coast of Tamil Nadu collecting the bodies of victims that their higher caste brethren would not touch. (Not really a story - now, if the Brahmins had rolled up their sleeves...)

Then, we get an op-ed from a guy called Jeremy Reynalds which passes on the views of the Dalit Freedom Network [1] that
some Indian officials have been refusing Dalits relief help while their families are dying of starvation

Not an allegation made by the Reuters piece.

Then we get some more along the same lines - a Daily Telegraph piece with no attribution at all (not even to Agencies), for instance, with lede
India's untouchables, reeling from the tsunami disaster, are being forced out of relief camps by higher caste survivors and being denied aid supplies.

Then, on January 14, Human Rights Watch issued a press release calling on the Indian government to counter discrimination against untouchables in aid distribution.

And yesterday, the Washington Post had a piece from their Delhi correspondent Rama Lakshmi under hed Tsunami Opens Fault Lines in Old Caste System with some on-the-spot reporting from Nagapattinam District in Tamil Nadu [2].

There is also a January 10 piece from the Navhind Times (in Goa, the other side of the country from Tamil Nadu) with further details of discrimination, and an attack on the Tamil Nadu government for failing to ensure equitable distribution of aid.

The caste system in India is highly politicised - or rather, the political system is caste-icised. And, for all their being at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, untouchable parties can have serious political clout in some states [3].

There's a clear need for some investment in reporting here: the interest in the story, now the initial, picture-driven newsgasm is over, is in understanding the complexities of a society utterly unfamiliar to westerners.

Clearly, the Post have their man on the spot - giving her only three bylines in the last fortnight is somewhat disappointing, though.

Probably, what is needed is something like a New York Times Magazine cover story - in style and length. (We are now entering Druther County...)

Oddly, I was tipped off about the Post story listening to Janeane Garofalo ranting on radio (some GOP Congressmen claiming that discrimination against the untouchables was a proof of the moral superiority of Christianity, or some such nonsense - if it's happened, the story doesn't have it [4]).

That show is an incredible waste of time for the eons of airtime spent on empty rants, where there is so much of interest to the left to talk about - but only with the investment of some time and curbing of presenter egos [5].

  1. Dalit is the PC (and official) word for untouchable.
  2. His piece is datelined KEEZHAIVANAGIRI. And it's the only online reference to the place. There are around 600,000 villages in India - estimates seem to vary - so that's not completely surprising.

  3. I've no idea whether Tamil Nadu is one of them. To check would count as delving, I reckon...

  4. My understanding (caveat lector) is that so pervasive is the caste system on the subcontinent that even the churches recognise caste distinctions - at least in practice. And Islam does, too.

  5. Eric Alterman was guest co-hosting for a couple of days, and told her off for a couple of her more absurd rants - unproductive he called it. At last. I've no idea whether he was meant to be on today, but Janeane was flying solo...


You will see references to Scheduled Castes - thus identified by the Indian constitution as qualifying for varieties of affirmative action.

As a measure of the complexity of the system, one may consider 'the Schedule' - the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 (as amended) - a thousand and more names, I'd estimate.

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