Cynthia Dettman:  Author

Training Young Indian Lawyers to Challenge the Caste System

Kathir, the executive director of Evidence, has advocated for Dalits (outcastes and tribal people) in India for several decades. He and his staff tirelessly investigate cases of “atrocities” (a term of art indicating physical, sexual or mental violence against these citizens), offer support and legal assistance, work with the media to educate the public, and conduct trainings all for the purpose of advocating for marginalized people, providing protection, and raising awareness.

Today I attended a training for Tamilnadu lawyers on “human rights” put on by this NGO (non-governmental organization).   The goal was to educate practicing attorneys, new attorneys, and law students on how to advocate for the rights of Dalits.  The training was offered in Tamil. Although I was able to follow much of the discussion, I certainly missed items because of my limited vocabulary.

Why is this such a big issue in India?  The caste system has existed for centuries in India, and is a complicated hierarchy of groups and communities based on Hinduism and the supremacy of the Brahmin, priestly caste.  At the bottom of the heap are “untouchables” and “tribals”.  Although the Indian Constitution and a series of laws have “banned” untouchability and caste, caste remains sadly alive and well in this very traditional society.  Dalits are burned, murdered, killed in honor killings, garlanded with sandals (a sign of disrespect), raped, and kept out of temples.  The atrocities are horrible and  continue to happen in modern India.  The attorneys attending today were rapt with attention and clearly dedicated to legal advocacy for Dalits.


Thanks to advocates, NGOs, the media and liberal judges, things are changing in India.  And not changing.  Kathir (who is Catholic, a Dalit, and not comfortable with English) does training in Tamil.  A very outspoken, articulate man, he is an internationally recognized advocate on caste issues.  His approach was very dynamic.

I did my best to follow his rapid, dramatic, humorous and engaging presentation.  More on what I learned about Indian law in the next post!




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