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Submitted by admin on 7 June, 2005 - 18:25
The Indian caste system has a long history, dating back thousands of years. It imposes a hierarchical structure on society, based on descent, and forms an integral part of the Hindu religion. At the top of the heap are the Brahmins, the priestly class. At the bottom are the “Untouchables” who have the filthiest jobs and live in poverty and squalor; they are not permitted to live in the villages of caste people, nor even draw water from the same wells. They are frequently the victims of violence, and many women are forced to work as prostitutes or sex slaves. The Untouchables, together with many of the tribal groups, make up the Dalits, a name coined by the Untouchables themselves and meaning “broken people”. There are an estimated 170 million Dalits living in India and a total of about 260 million in the whole of South Asia.
Untouchability was outlawed in the Indian Constitution, and the Government have passed several laws aimed at stopping the most blatant abuses and providing some affirmative action programs. Unfortunately the laws are widely disregarded and many reserved places in schools and Government employment remain unfilled.
The Indian Government’s Stance
The Government of India has long argued that discrimination based on caste (or in UN parlance, discrimination based on work and descent) was outside the remit of the Human Rights Commission, nor was it covered by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). In 2001 the Government succeeded in keeping caste-based discrimination off the agenda of the Durban Conference on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Nevertheless, no fewer than 300 Dalit activists had turned up for that conference and succeeded in turning the international spotlight onto the issue.
In 2002, at a meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), India argued that “the tools to bring about change were in place and are available within the Indian democratic polity itself and do not have to be sought elsewhere.” They also challenged the right of the CERD to discuss caste-based discrimination because the Convention (ICERD) refers to ‘racial descent’.
Statements by pro-Dalit campaigners that untouchability was “worse than apartheid” have invariably brought down the full fury of the Indian Government on their heads. “Such a comparison is odious nonsense” argued one Indian delegate, “apartheid was the law in South Africa, whereas in India such discrimination is not only illegal it is outlawed under the constitution”. The problem, as anyone with any knowledge of Indian society is fully aware, is that unconstitutional or not, caste-based discrimination is still the norm, with untold millions of Dalits condemned to lives of utter misery. In one respect, however, the Indian delegate was right. There is no comparison between apartheid and caste-based discrimination: caste-based discrimination affects ten times as many people as apartheid ever did, and has proven far more difficult to eradicate.
Progress was made, however, in August last year when the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights meeting in Geneva appointed two Special Rapporteurs to undertake a comprehensive study on discrimination based on work and descent and to propose strategies for its elimination.
Speaking in India in January, I promised that IHEU would raise the issue of untouchability and caste-based discrimination at the Human Rights Commission this year, and Babu Gogineni addressed the Commission on 21st March. In a strong statement, he said in part:
Though the situation of the Dalits has undoubtedly improved during the last 50 years, bonded labour, scavenging and religious prostitution (devadasis) have not been eliminated. Merely criminalising untouchability has proven inadequate. The entire Caste system must disappear before significant progress can be made. We are faced with a deep-rooted cultural system that will require new, creative initiatives if it is ever to be eliminated. We urge the Government of India to bring progressive NGOs into partnership, and to accept international discussion of this issue: the plight of the victims of the Caste system comes fully within the work of the UN Human Rights Commission.
We recognise that this problem is not confined to India. We, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and its Indian member organisations, call for the appointment of a UN expert commission to examine the plight of lower caste peoples, particularly in Indian society, but also in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. And we urge you to consider appointing a UN Special Rapporteur on the abuse of the human rights of the lower castes throughout the subcontinent. Our humanity will continue to remain diminished while we allow so many millions of our fellow humans to be brutally victimized, and their victimization to be ignored by the international community.
Addressing the Commission on 29th March, however, a member of the Indian delegation expressed surprise that the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education intended to report on discrimination against Dalits because, she opined,
“India had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that discrimination on the basis of caste, as any other, was not allowed”.
There was discrimination, she said, but this was positive discrimination, on the lines of affirmative action, and this had been done for the Dalits. If the Special Rapporteur was speaking about the social practices of discrimination, rather than the responsibility of the Government for the right to education, “he should confine himself to his mandate”. Clearly, the attitude of the Indian Government has not changed: the international community should keep its nose out of India’s affairs; the Government has done all it was obliged to do by passing legislation. Implementation of these laws in the face of the social practice of discrimination was not its concern, nor that of the Special Rapporteur.
In response to this wholly negative washing of hands, IHEU representatives raised the issue twice more at the Commission. On 7th April, Roy Brown read a statement by Michele Vincent on the plight of Dalit women, expressing regret that the Indian delegation should have claimed that social practices in India were not the responsibility of the Government, and pointing out that:
Indian Dalit women and girls number more than 80 million. The Indian delegation must be aware that Government affirmative action programs have had negligible impact on their lives, and that in many rural areas more than 90% of Dalit women remain functionally illiterate. The Government clearly has a responsibility to address the social practices of discrimination that have so far negated its efforts. Many thousands of Dalit women and girls suffer daily abuse and violence at the hands of men, both family members and members of the upper castes. Child marriage of girls as young as 9, whilst illegal, is commonplace. Furthermore, the total hypocrisy of the notion of untouchablity is revealed by the millions of Dalit women forced into prostitution, many living virtually as sex slaves, used mainly by men whose religion teaches that they will be defiled by any such contact. Thousands of cases are reported annually of the stripping and public parading of Dalit women, of homes being burnt, of wells polluted, and of men and women being beaten and sometimes killed by upper caste gangs, frequently aided and abetted by agents of the state.
IHEU urged the Government of India to recognise its responsibility not only for legislation and affirmative action in favour of Dalits, and Dalit women in particular, but for the effective implementation and enforcement of these measures.
World’s Largest Group of Victims
On 10th April, (after a wait of four days for the chance to speak) IHEU representative Leonore Reverdin pointed out that the Dalits of India were the world’s largest group of individuals suffering systematic discrimination and denial of human rights:
Dalits represent about 17% of the population of India, some 170 million people: equal to the combined populations of the Holland, Belgium, France and Germany.
She went on to describe some of the problems they face:
Every year in India some 15,000 atrocities against Dalits are officially reported, but sadly, the vast majority of cases go unreported because of intimidation and violence against those who dare to complain. Despite the very considerable efforts made by the Government of India to address this problem through legislation and affirmative action programs, deeprooted attitudes have hardly changed and too little has been achieved. The problem is not legislation but implementation. The laws are quite simply ignored by the higher castes, by those in power, and by the police.
She then described discrimination against Dalits in the wake of the recent tsunami disaster (see IHN, Feb 2005) and urged the Indian Government to co-operate fully with the Special Rapporteurs, concluding:
The aim of the international community is not to condemn India, but to help solve what is surely one of the world’s most intractable problems. The NGO community stands ready to help in any way it can.
The full text of all three IHEU statements can be found on the IHEU website at: www.iheu.org/humanrights It is pleasing to record that on 19th April the Commission on Human Rights approved the decision of the Sub-Commission to appoint the two Special Rapporteurs. The plight of the Dalits in India – and in South Asia generally – is now firmly on the international agenda. IHEU, together with its Indian member organizations and the other groups active in the field, will now work to build on this new momentum.