Dalits, race and human rights
By Praful Bidwai
Imagine a collective of people larger in number than the population of Germany, France and Britain put together, who face extreme, entrenched forms of discrimination on account of their biological descent or birth. The discrimination is so severe that it threatens to wipe out their culture, their human identity, their self-respect — despite its perpetrators’ promises to eliminate it. This is the classic situation in history of enslaved, colonised populations, of races declared “inferior”, and of ethnic groups facing virtual genocide.
Now, a multilateral organisation comes along and says it could consider discussing the injustice, discrimination and intolerance they suffer. Should the people persuade it to take this on its agenda, or squander that opportunity in the name of an Absolute Principle which their oppressors invoke, but constantly violate?
With minor differences, this is the dilemma that India’s Dalits face. They are the “people” in the analogy above. And the Absolute Principle is none other than national sovereignty, of the conservative kind, disembodied and separated from flesh-and-blood people, the salt of the earth.
The Dalits — at least the most committed, intellectually accomplished, dedicated activists among them — have resolved the dilemma by deciding to go to the “multilateral organisation”, the United Nations, which is holding the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia and Related Forms of Intolerance at Durban, in South Africa (August 31-September 4). Arrayed against the Dalits is the Indian State, which is doing its utmost to keep caste out of the WCAR altogether.
To start with, the government’s argument sounds especially jarring in the context of South Africa, the conference venue. This is the country many Indians associate with the politicisation of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian Nation. South Africa galvanised one of the world’s most inspiring collective struggles against a historic evil — that congealed, institutionalised, form of racism called apartheid.
And one of the strongest State-level supporters of that struggle was the Indian government which related the fight against racism to universal human rights, no less. And yet, the same government — not quite; the BJP is in power now — today advances pedantic, frivolous or hairsplitting distinctions between race and caste to claim that casteism does not fit into the WCAR agenda; we have outlawed it, you see, and we will tackle what it left of it within our borders, thank you...
In reality, casteism is alive and well in India and in numerous other countries too — from Japan (the Burakumin untouchables) to Nigeria and Nepal, and from Pakistan to South Korea and Sri Lanka, not to speak of the many other lands that are home to our own diaspora.
Most crucially, and centrally, casteism is concentrated in the system of exclusion, discrimination and oppression directed at the Dalits, who comprise (including Christians and Muslims) about 260 million people. Without understanding the Dalit question, it is impossible to comprehend the pathology of the social and economic servitude on which the present Indian order is based — leave alone to reform and transform that order into something minimally decent.
One only has to scan the daily newspapers to note the abiding reality of atrocities against Dalits in India. Every day, they are abused, insulted, bullied, beaten up, maimed, forced to perform unpaid labour — or massacred when they resist in an organised way.
Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted; every day, three Dalit women are raped and two Dalits are killed. There are 30,000 registered cases of anti-Dalit abuse and violent crime annually. (And these are only the reported cases, probably a fraction of the total). The annual reports of the National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Tribes
show how pervasive is the systemic oppression of Dalits. Half a century or more after untouchability was officially abolished, it thrives in different States in countless forms: Barring of access to village wells, prohibition of entry into temples and village chaupals, serving of tea in separate containers, en bloc prevention from exercising the right to vote. This quasi-apartheid extends from home to school, field to temple, from the street to the courts — from cradle to grave.
Underpinning the oppression is inequality and deprivation: In land ownership, literacy, access to sanitation, drinking water, or to non-menial jobs. Thus, a Dalit is 50 to 70 per cent likelier to be landless or living below the poverty line than other Indians, and twice as likely to drop out of school. Forty per cent of Dalits are bonded labourers. Under two-decades-long elitist neo-liberal economic policies, the Dalits’ lot has almost certainly worsened, with privatisation of common property resources, faster environmental degradation, greater rural unemployment, and rising food prices. Discrimination against Dalits runs in the deepest veins of society — and reaches all the way up to the top, barring token exceptions.
It is sanctioned by custom, tradition, ritual, and hierarchical ideologies which see severe iniquities as “natural”. Above all, it is legitimised by religion or its karmic and fatalistic interpretations. This embedded, multi-faceted character makes Dalit oppression uniquely malign and loathsome.
To redress this horrific situation, Indian society has only taken limited measures such as reservations, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1995, or bans on manual scavenging and carrying of night-soil on the head. As numerous official reports show, these have produced partial, limited, and uneven results. Dalit quotas in Category A and B government jobs remain chronically unfilled.
Dalits continue to be massively excluded from the liberal professions, the judiciary and the armed forces — which refuse reservations. The UGC has now decided to exclude them from quotas for post-graduate research and teaching too.
A particularly grave failure of policy is reflected in the plight of Dalit women, who bear the “double burden” of exploitation. Today’s caste oppression is not some medieval hangover.
It is integral to capitalism which relies heavily on bondage and violence to secure absolute control over labour. This includes non-payment of dues, sexual abuse of women, physical intimidation, and increasingly, outright murder.
The emerging pattern is one in which Dalits are not helpless, passive victims, but where their growing awareness and resistance is sought to be suppressed by the use of force. Yet, Dalit self-assertion is real and growing.
The campaign to get caste included in the Durban agenda is one of its manifestations. By resisting it, the government is only showing its paranoia and its growing unilateralism in international diplomacy. Its argument that caste is not exactly race is trivially correct, but irrelevant.
The WCAR agenda, itself derived from the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, focuses not on race, but on the key noun, “intolerance”, especially intolerance based on “descent” — a term originally included at India’s own instance in the Cerd process. Evidently, the government fears the inclusion of caste because it has a lot to hide.
This fear is reflected in New Delhi’s increasing unilateralism too — a steep degeneration from its earlier advocacy of multilateralism. Thus, India has become a major spoiler of or obstacle to good, equal, treaties: The International Criminal Court, Landmines Ban, Fissile Materials Cutoff, the (tripartite, broad-based, mild) World Commission on Dams report and numerous human rights conventions which it refuses to sign and/or ratify.
For instance, it has refused to ratify the Convention on Torture, the Convention on Status of Refugees and important protocols to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — in addition to several ILO conventions. In defending absurd notions of “sovereignty”, India often invites harm and ridicule — e.g., demanding exceptions to the Basel Convention against Hazardous Wastes, so it can import them and poison its own people! In the present instance, India’s major fear is international reprimand for Dalit oppression — as an instance of human rights violation. But this is indeed the reality. Dalit rights are human rights.
And as the government has itself repeatedly admitted, after signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights half-a-century ago, human rights come before national boundaries; they are universal.
Sovereignty cannot be a ground for breaching them. They become, are, a global concern — just as the Holocaust was despite Germany’s sovereignty, or the Kosovo issue despite Milosevic.
India can only gain by being transparent and honest on casteism, and admitting that there is a big Dalit problem. This would be a necessary first step before doing something about it, and being answerable to the international community on it.
It is futile to take cover by saying the issue’s origins are primarily domestic. They may be. But that does not negate the case for international attention and intervention. The two go hand in hand.
Put simply, the struggle against apartheid could never have been won quickly and decisively without the global Anti-Apartheid Movement and the sanctions imposed on the Pretoria regime. But nor could it have been won without strong domestic mass mobilisation.
The Dalits have shown remarkable restraint and patience in fighting centuries-old oppression. The government must reciprocate and listen to them.
If it refuses, it will only discredit itself. Worse, it will produce avoidable disaffection within this sensitive community, without whose participation Indian democracy will itself lack legitimacy, health and resilience.