VILLAGE elders in south-east India have ordered a young woman to be ostracised for 60 years because she took a menial job as a sweeper despite belonging to a higher caste.
Pinki Rajak, a 22-year-old member of the Dhobi community, which traditionally washes and irons clothes, caused outrage among her group's elders when she accepted a lowly sweeper's job at a local school near Raipur, Chhattisgarh.
Ms Rajak's plight has highlighted the continuing power of caste in rural India where strict segregation is maintained between 'higher' and 'lower' castes.
Sweeping work in India, including shoe polishing, is reserved for members of the Chamar 'untouchable' caste, along with other 'dirty' jobs like 'night-soil carrying' of human waste and tannery work. The Dhobis however are regarded as a 'cleansing' caste, said Dr Vidhu Verma, a caste expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Ms Rajak broke her community's strict caste rules because her elders believed she had stigmatised them by associating them with one of India's lowliest and most shunned castes. Some higher castes still believe it is polluting to even lay eyes on a chamar while others insist on calling a priest to 'purify' their homes if a Dalit has crossed the threshold.
Violence against Dalits or untouchables remains common in India. Despite government policies to reserve government jobs and college places for Dalits and other 'backward' castes, many lower caste students face abuse from higher caste students and teachers.
The discrimination and persecution suffered by India's 65 million 'untouchables' was declared an abuse of human rights in 2011.
Ms Rajak and her family, including her father who is himself a Dhobi community elder remain determined to defy the elders' order and have defended her right to make a living as best she can.
The first villager to obey the community or Samaj's order was her violent husband, she said, after the elders said he could no longer live with her while she was working as a sweeper.
Her father, who owns a small bicycle repair shop and is himself an elder of the Dhobi community told the Hindustan Times he was standing by his daughter. "Instead of appreciating her efforts to find a job, the community is punishing us," Budhulal Rajak told the Hindustan Times.
Ms Rajak remains defiant and insists she will not give up her job however great the 'stigma.' "No one can live without money. Why should the caste system be tied to employment?" she asked.