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Several NGOs spoke out today (11 June 2013) at the Human Rights Council in Geneva about the appalling treatment of Dalits (so-called “untouchables”) in India.

The organisations were responding to the annual report of the Special Rapporteur against racism, who detailed systematic discrimination against Dalits in education. He said:

"Discrimination against Dalits in the educational system is a widespread… Alienation, social exclusion and physical abuse are present throughout all levels of education, from primary to university education. Illiteracy and dropout rates among Dalits are very high due to a number of social and physical factors. Legislation on the issue is limited, and measures to address the issue are often inadequately implemented. The forms of structural discrimination and abuse that Dalit children face in schools are often so stigmatizing that they are forced to drop out of school.

"One of the main issues is discriminatory practices conducted by teachers, which may include corporal punishment, denial of access to school water supplies, segregation in classrooms, and forcing Dalit children to perform “manual scavenging” on and around school premises. In addition, Dalit children face discriminatory attitudes from fellow students and the community as a whole, in particular from higher caste members, who perceive education for Dalits as a threat to village hierarchies and power relations.

"Intolerance of, prejudice against and harassment of Dalits are equally prevalent in institutions of higher education, where discrimination is practised by senior upper-caste students, teachers, faculties and university administrations. The caste bias manifests itself in the way teachers ignore Dalit students and unjustly fail them in exams and in the unwillingness of the university administration to assist and support Dalits. Reportedly, as a grave consequence of this harassment, a disproportionate number of Dalit students have committed suicide."

Among the states welcoming his statement was Nigeria, which itself is not immune from caste discrimination.

Roy Brown, IHEU Main Representative at the UN Geneva, speaking on this occasion as a member of the Center for Inquiry delegation, called upon India "to lift itself out of the gutter". Roy's speech follows below:

Caste is Racism

Mr President

Caste discrimination is a pernicious and deeply ingrained form of structural discrimination based on race. Whilst it occurs in Nigeria, Yemen, Gambia, Japan, and Korea, it mainly affects the Dalits of the Indian sub-continent.

Whilst the Indian government has put in place legislation aimed at alleviating discrimination, persecution and victimization based on caste, such discrimination is still widespread and denies the human rights of hundreds of millions of India’s citizens.

Far from the Indian response being a model of anti-discrimination legislation for other states to follow, it is an utter disgrace: legislation without implementation; inadequate or non-existent training of law enforcement officers; no nation-wide program of education for all levels of society to eradicate what is unquestionably the most pernicious form of racial discrimination on earth today, the Indian experience is an object lesson on how to pay lip service to a problem while in practice totally ignoring the plight of its victims.

No state, not even the largest and most powerful, should be allowed to escape censure by this Council for the continuation of daily rapes, murders and land clearances of Dalits by higher-caste Indians and large corporations. 

Mr President, we welcomed the High Commissioner’s suggestion of an observatory to collect information on all kinds of discrimination, including caste, but what is really needed is for the government of India to be held accountable for its lack of concrete action to lift itself out of the gutter as the world’s largest systematic abuser of the rights of its people.

The caste system is a shame on the entire nation of India. And however deeply embedded in Indian religion and culture, it is a crime against humanity that this Council should utterly condemn. 

Thank you sir.

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