On his barefoot trudge to school decades ago, a young Ashok Khade passed inescapable reminders of what he was: the well from which he was not allowed to drink; the temple where he was not permitted to worship. At school, he took his place on the floor in a part of the classroom built a step lower than the rest. Untouchables like him, considered to be spiritually and physically unclean, could not be permitted to pollute their upper-caste neighbors and classmates. But on a recent afternoon, as Mr. Khade’s chauffeur guided his shimmering silver BMW sedan onto that same street in a village in the southern state of Maharashtra, village leaders rushed to greet him. He paid his respects at the temple, which he paid to rebuild. The untouchable boy had become golden, thanks to the newest god in the Indian pantheon: money.
As the founder of a successful offshore oil-rig engineering company, Mr. Khade is part of a tiny but growing class of millionaires from the Dalit population, the 200 million so-called untouchables who occupy the very lowest rung in Hinduism’s social hierarchy.
“I’ve gone from village to palace,” Mr. Khade exclaimed, using his favorite phrase to describe his remarkable journey from the son of an illiterate cobbler in the 1960s to a wealthy business partner of Arab sheiks.
The rapid growth that followed the opening of India’s economy in 1991 has widened the gulf between rich and poor, and some here have begun to blame liberalization for the rising tide of corruption. But the era of growth has also created something unthinkable a generation ago: a tiny but growing group of wealthy Dalit business people.
Some measure their fortunes in hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a handful, like Mr. Khade, have started companies worth tens of millions. With their new wealth they have also won a measure of social acceptance.
“This is a golden period for Dalits,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit activist and researcher who has championed capitalism among the untouchables.“Because of the new market economy, material markers are replacing social markers. Dalits can buy rank in the market economy. India is moving from a caste-based to a class-based society, where if you have all the goodies in life and your bank account is booming, you are acceptable.”
Milind Kamble, a Dalit contractor based in the city of Pune in Maharashtra State, said that out of the 100 or so members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in his city, only one was in business before 1991.
“We are fighting the caste system with capitalism,” he said.
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