“Untouchable” Boy Killed Over a Poem July 15, 2008

“Untouchable” Boy Killed Over a Poem

For anyone who doesn’t believe that religion leads to violence, a boy at the bottom of India’s caste system (considered a Dalit, or “untouchable”) was killed by those higher up on the social status ladder.

What was his crime?

He wrote a love poem to a girl in a higher caste.

Surjit Singh was beaten up on Tuesday by a teacher in the Nangal Kalan Government High school in public, said the Dalit sarpanch of the village Gyan Kaur. His two classmates said, “When the teacher came to know about the Surjit’s love poem, he caned him till he almost dropped dead.”

That was not the end of his ordeal; he was again beaten up by the family members of the girl the next day, Wednesday. Surjit was later found semi-conscious and taken to the hospital but succumbed to injuries.

It’s doubtful there will be any serious repercussions:

… Surjit’s father, Telu Ram, a labourer, said, “How can I think of filing a case? I have no money.”

How’s that to brighten your day…

(via The Daily Dish)

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  • Arlen

    I’m no expert on Hindu or Asian Sub-Continental history, but Wikipedia seems to strongly suggest that the caste system predates existing religions in India. From that article:

    Many European scholars from the colonial era regarded the Manusmriti as the “law book” of the Hindus, and thus concluded that the caste system is a part of Hinduism, an assertion that is rejected by many Hindu scholars, who state that it is an anachronistic social practice, not a religious one.

  • Ron in Houston

    It’s amazing that crap like that still happens; however, it’s a testament to the power of religious belief.

  • Wait… I must be completely off-base here. I thought the caste system was outlawed in India decades ago.

  • Polly

    Is the caste system a part of a religion?

    This is a vicious crime committed over nothing. Isn’t there any sense of proportionality of response EVEN if one grants the idiotic premise of different castes? And what does the father mean by having no money? Do you have to PAY for CRIMINAL courts in India?

    I sometimes doubt the veracity of the more outlandish stories I hear from afar.

    Of course, in the US not too long ago, such might have been the fate of a black boy WRT a white girl in the south.

  • Reynvaan

    Polly: “Is the caste system a part of a religion?”

    I’m not sure if its origin was religious or secular, but if it was definitely integrated into the Hindu religion at some point. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna claims that he (being the god Vishnu) created the caste system to divide people by their dharma or duty in life. He also says that basically everyone is equal, including “the filthy dog-eating outcaste;” so, as far as I know there really isn’t any precedent in Hinduism for the mistreatment of Dalits. It’s just a social development brought about by the existence of caste-enabled feelings of superiority. Then again, I haven’t read all of the Vedas, so I can’t be sure… Please, anyone correct me if I’m wrong here.

  • Spork

    Telephone support and caste-based honor killings. Great!

    Oops! Was that rude of me to ridicule a religious belief?

  • Larry Huffman

    It does not matter that it predates existing religions. Most of christian mythology was borrowed forward from other more primitive religions. The caste system, irregardless of the religion of origin, is now part of their religious culture.

  • Larry Huffman

    …But I will add that this should be kept in proportion. It is terrible…and a terrible testament to the hindu religion. But I am quite sure that this kind of incident is not as common as the senseless executions that happen daily all over the islamic world…mostly women.

    I see this as an example of a dark and ugly side of hinduism…but you cannot find any better example, in this day, than islam for true religious barbarism. (I said in today’s world…the christ followers of a few hundred years ago were a steller example themselves).

  • Polly


    Thank you for shedding light on that.

    It seems that bad policies tend to get codified (or ossified) into the culture by religions which then prevents the culture from shedding those bad practices over time.

    So sad.

  • Wes

    Oh, but you people need to understand how meaningful the symbolism of caste is to devout Hindus. To you militant atheists it’s “Just a frackin’ caste”, but to them it’s the most important thing in the whole world. That explains why they see it as a proper reason to take someone’s life and…

    Oops. Sorry. I just accidentally slipped into a bit of “I’m a pseudo-liberal relativist who respects everyone’s beliefs” non-thinking there. Gimme a moment so I can return to actual human thought…

    There we go. Caste-related beliefs, and the Hindu doctrines which support them, are morally repulsive and utterly irrational. As beliefs, they do not deserve any respect (but, of course, that does not translate into harming or disrespecting Hindus in general). By making their silly, pernicious superstitions more important than actual, concrete human life, they have excused themselves from the table of rational discourse. Hopefully more rational Indians will see this child’s death as a reason to increase their attempts to undermine caste-system beliefs with reason. And, yes, that will probably require some blasphemy and offended feelings.

    Personal beliefs, feelings of offense, symbols, and abstract ideas should not be made more important than actual, concrete, thinking, feeling human lives. “Faith” is not an excuse—it’s the problem.

  • andrew

    I want to cry…

  • Jesse

    Obviously this is a tragic crime, but I’m glad I’m not the only person here who can’t see a direct link between this event and religion. Doubtless this has a lot to do with the fact that I know nothing about India’s caste system / history, but this could be made a little but more clear…

  • Several here have mentioned the caste system pre-dating Hinduism, which would make it pretty freaking old, but that’s what I seem to recall too. Regardless, it’s based on a rigid superstitious belief and is just horrific, especially when things like this happen. I want to cry and I feel sick just thinking about this child and his family.

  • Whether or not the caste system came before Hinduism, it was embraced by the religion, and the religion encouraged the conflicts that resulted from the concept and perpetuated the concept itself.

  • Christophe Thill

    If I may draw a parallel: Protestants are, and have always been, strong supporter of the American free-market economy and the social system that derives from it. But it would be false to call this form of economy a creation of religion. I think it’s the same for the caste system in India. Social structures tend to fashion ideas (including religions) far more often than the opposite. So perhaps it’s the Hindu religion that derives from a pre-existing caste society; but I’m not a specialist of India and can say no more about it.

    Now what’s really chilling is the fact that the boy was first beaten by his teacher. Cross-burning seems almost innocent by comparison!

  • Hindu, first off, is barely a cohesive religion–it’s a bunch of religions the British lumped together ’cause that’s kinda what they do.

    But Punjabi Sikhs, Kashmiri Muslims, and Syrian Christians in Kerala all treat caste pretty seriously. It transcends religion. It is a social and mostly a racist thing, and if you intend to trace it to anything, it has its roots in the Aryan conquest of the subcontinent. Just because it is now tied to religion doesn’t mean it’s a religious thing, anymore than tying segregation to religion mean there were religious reasons when a black kid got lynched for whistling at a white woman.

  • n.s.

    I want to add my reaction to the news.

    I live in India, and one of the things I hate most here is the liberty given to teachers to beat up kids, injuring them many times, and even killing them in few instances.
    If a boy writes a love poem to a girl in his school, it will be treated as a major sin he has committed and he will get this kind of treatment no matter what his caste is or what caste the girl is.
    I don’t know the teacher, so I cannot say how much role was played by the caste difference in this case. Did it make no difference to him or was it the major reason I cannot say that.
    I think the caste is not the major problem here.
    The kids in India are told that the teacher has the right to beat them up they have to tolerate that. The teachers also know that they will not be punished for even killing a child by beating him/her mercilessly. That’s why they behave in this manner.
    I also believe that this problem is not corrected because media and police focusing it on caste and not on the actual problem.

  • JustinM

    If I may draw a parallel: Protestants are, and have always been, strong supporter of the American free-market economy and the social system that derives from it.

    Not true. Around the turn of the 20th Century, there was a quite sizeable portion of the Protestant community who were staunch socialists. And by socialist, I mean real socialism, not the “Barack Obama is a socialist” crap spewed by right-wing talk radio.

  • There is a heartless part of me that wants to know is his poetry was that bad? Obviously I’m not going to ask such a tactless and ill considered question except to foreshadow the bad jokes that will undoubtedly arise from this murder.

    My take on it is that the caste system is about power. It’s about keeping power within the group that has it while simultaneously preventing anyone else from challenging it. Whether or not it came from religion it certainly has a place in the thinking of those who use the church as a support for their societal power structure. A caste would support a divine rule that protects their position above another caste and that offers a way to advance (in the next life) by living within the constraints of the system

    In the west we had a type of caste system. It’s where we got serfs and the divine right of kings from. It certainly exists in a limited from today. At least it does in England despite us slowly dismantling the hereditary right of rule in the House of Lords. We have an underclass who are trapped a socio-economic poverty and dependence on state support with no plan or government motivation to end it. The desire to see someone worse off than you is very human and very unpleasant and isn’t limited just to religions. We get the government and the religion that we make so it’s no surprise that both often let us down.

  • cipher

    Two minor points:

    1. There is an opinion now among some academics that the “Aryan invasion” didn’t involve conquest by a foreign culture, but rather changes that developed within Indian society

    2. There is historical evidence that in the early days of the caste system, it represented more a division of labor than social status, and that relations and intermarriage between castes was more common. It became rigidly stratified later on.

    That said – this is beyond appalling. I’d like to find out if it is even remotely true, and, if it is, I’d like to get a letter-writing campaign started, threatening to boycott India goods unless the teacher and the girl’s family are prosecuted.

  • Allytude

    The Caste system may pre-date Hinduism, but then Hinduism as I know doe s not have a defined date of inception. However, the caste system is still a religiously mandated form of discrimination, justified now on the basis of hygeine or something else. It exists and is very much there. And even if people cling to it- at the cost of their “sentiments” getting hurt- it is terribly discriminatory and wrong- I would digress and say that those “pseudo” liberals( too often I am one of them) who support it do not fullyunderstand how evil it is . – I ccan safely talk about it- from personal experience havng grown up in India and seen how completely divisive it is in communities, regions and all. That said, I wonder why we hide under multiculturalism – for want of a better word- to excus these things.
    And sadly, on the incident noted above, I am not vey surprised- I have seen houses where glasses and dishes are kept aside for “those people” to eat out of- so this is not at all surprising. i am ashamed that it is not.

  • The real problem here has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with India’s notoriously expensive and useless bureaucracy. Where are the prosecuting attorneys? Were is there justice system?

    India reminds me of that old tv series Alien Nation. All the evidence of gov’t corruption is there, but no one knows who the real top dog is.

  • cipher

    I live in India, and one of the things I hate most here is the liberty given to teachers to beat up kids, injuring them many times, and even killing them in few instances.


    I really had no idea. Is this a legacy of British colonialism? In any case, now I really want to start a boycott.

  • I am a horrible man. I was wondering if they managed to beat him to death without actually touching him.

    Or is the “untouchable” thing not so rigidly enforced these days? And if so, what was the problem?

  • Polly

    I hear a lot of condemnation of “liberal” cultural relativism. So far, no one has actually said that this practice is acceptable. It seems like we’re attacking windmills.

    I may draw some ire for saying this:

    I would not advocate any kind of external pressure from the US or any so-called “community of nations” to force India to change.


    #1) Because we’ve got a lot of our own shit to get straight and we would, quite rightly, be accused of hypocrisy. Case in point: just recently after decades of being denied water service on racial grounds, the black residents of Muskingham County, Ohio have finally won their court battle and will receive water service just as if they were white. Imagine that! We are NOT better, just differently dysfunctional. There are good and bad cultural practices and we should start eliminating the bad from our own country first.

    #2)Another reason is that humanitarian causes are often cynically exploited as cover for eliminating the competition among western military and corporate rulers.
    They spread propaganda to make the “other” look barbaric, and thus justify collective punishment on a whole society for, what is usually, a statistically infrequent occurence. They end up hurting the ones they’re supposed to be help while the rich never lack recourse even in dire times.
    #3) Also, as Obama implied: When people are insecure (from military threats or sanctions) they clutch their guns and Vedas. Outside threats only lead to greater support for tradition and the status quo.

    Bottom line, I don’t trust “foreigners” (and that’s who we are to India and to China) to be able to solve other country’s internal problems which are generally rooted and tied into such a complex web of cultural interactions and institutions that our ham-fisted, single-minded demands don’t even translate. We just fuck everything up, while benefitting the already powerful.

    PLUS, I never see “white” nations getting nominated for barbary-state status. Why is it when whites do stupid things, it’s regarded as an exception, but when brown people commit atrocities it reflects on their entire nation, culture, and history?

  • As has been mentioned, this has little to do with the caste system and an awful lot more to do with general lack of appropriate legal repercussions to criminal behavior in India.

    That’s not to say that the caste system (which is indeed religious – it is irrational faith-based dogma with no grounding in reality, even if it is not specifically Hindu, it is still irrational superstitious nonsense) isn’t an atrocious thing. It certainly is. It’s repulsive. It’s completely antithetical to human rights and the most basic concept of equality.

    I hope this event and others like it can eventually trigger a response to tear down this ancient evil.

  • Spork

    The caste system was incorporated into Hinduism based on the religious belief in reincarnation. Your Karmic debt or credits from past lives dictated into what caste it is into which one is born.

    So, Christophe, you could try to do a wee bit of research now and again, mmmkay?

  • Craig

    OK, how much money does he need to file a lawsuit?

  • n.s.

    I think Katie have understood the problem.

    I believe most of the people posting here are non-Indians, so most of them will have less information about the current situation than I am.

    As said by Katie, the problem is with failed administration and judicial system.
    Cipher asked “Is this a legacy of British colonialism?” well, some of it is that; and some of it is our traditions.

    Every parent and every teacher consider it their fundamental right to beat up kids, if they have done anything wrong according to society rules.
    This is based upon our old traditions.
    Police & Government officials can pick anybody, and beat them.
    This is a legacy of colonialism.

    As an answer to question asked by many, is caste system still prevalent in India?
    Yes it is still there, mostly in far off areas.

    One person here asked what could have been wrong in a love poem.

    The love poem is itself wrong accordingly to culture of rural India. As I already said, a teacher will beat up student if he has written a love poem/letter to a girl in school, no matter what his caste or religion is.

    By the way love or sex is not bad things according to Indian religions and gods. They are bad according to Judeo-Christian-Islamic God,
    but these are bad according to Indian culture.
    And they will be bad according to many Hindus (because of our current culture).
    That’s true, it is very complex situation.
    Foreigners will find it very difficult to understand.

  • Spork


    Y’all are still a bunch of violent, irrational nutbags. That part isn’t very complicated at all.

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