India is censoring discussion of caste

Smita Narula is a senior researcher at the New York office of Human Rights Watch and coordinates their South Asia programme. Author of the organisation's book-length report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's Untouchables, she will represent Human Rights Watch at the United Nations Conference Against Racism to be held in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7. She spoke to Arun Venugopal from Lisbon, Portugal. Excerpts:

What is Human Rights Watch? Human Rights Watch is a monitoring and advocacy organisation that investigates human rights abuses in over 70 countries. We are the largest human rights organisation in the US and second largest in the world after Amnesty International.

How are you different from Amnesty? We do a lot of book-length reports. Amnesty has more of a campaigning mandate. Their mandate is also narrower than ours. They focus almost exclusively on civil and political rights. We can do more socioeconomic work. But the two organisations complement each other very well.

What's the purpose of the UN Conference Against Racism? It's the third of its kind, after conferences in the 1970s and 1980s. It's the first post-apartheid conference. It's a forum to discuss concrete remedies for transnational problems.

What is the charge against India? The charge is that India is censoring any discussion of caste-based discrimination. And that their tactics in the preparatory meeting so far have been aimed at dalit and Indian activists and also to take out of the agenda issues that affect people in many other countries. Caste-based discrimination affects approximately 250 million people worldwide -- untouchable castes and their equivalent in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and several countries in West Africa. It's far more insidious in the country [India], but the discrimination happens wherever there's a South Asian diaspora.

India's quota or reservations system for the scheduled castes and tribes is among the most ambitious in the world. What more can they do? It's true that the affirmative action programme is among the most ambitious, and it's also been pioneering. However, taken as a whole, the system of reservation affects no more than 3 per cent of the dalit population. There's also a great deal of under-enforcement in civil-sector jobs and in higher education, and the government also refuses to reveal statistics on the extent of implementation of reservation in this area.

The only area it's been fully implemented is in legislation and that's because it's so public. Given all of that, affirmative action is certainly a step in the right direction, but in another way does it compensate for the thousands of atrocities that take place on a daily basis?

What sort of atrocities? Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in slave-like conditions, and routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual abuse. Over 100,000 cases of rape, murder, arson, and other atrocities against dalits are reported in India each year, but the actual number of abuses is presumably much higher.

How has India tried to keep caste off the agenda? They have exerted their economic and political influence with other Asian countries. Asian countries typically vote as a bloc. Also with the US government, [using] its newfound strong alliance with the US to pressure them into a partnership of silence. Sadly, for many issues that NGOs have been trying to get on the agenda have been horse-traded by governments who are looking to hide their own dirty laundry.

India has also been sending many individuals to preparatory meetings who purport to belong to NGOs, but who in fact are there to disrupt NGO meetings and who have clearly received a government brief. They say there is no problem and that everything's fine. They actually use the same language as the government.

The United States is trying to avoid discussion of slave reparations and Europe is mute on gypsies. Are there any countries willingly including their own problems on the conference agenda?

Very few. On the caste issue Nepal has been quite forthcoming with UN human rights bodies and at the conference itself.

What do you make of that? It's unclear. I think Nepal has a lot to gain by showing themselves as being more progressive.Outside of the conference, how are you trying to address the problem of caste discrimination in India?

We've been asking for international assistance to help India with national programmes that are devised to combat caste discrimination. India fears scrutiny, but they also fear an international backlash. No one has suggested an economic boycott. Not a single sanction. However, both internal and international pressure is still needed to generate the political will in the country to actually enforce its own laws.

What is your projection of things to come? Despite the government's attempt to keep this off the agenda, the conference itself has helped to generate a national and international movement against caste discrimination worldwide. The conference is really just a first step toward a much larger, sustained campaign to bring international awareness to this issue.

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Referred by: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on: 23 Aug 2001
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