Interview with Paul Diwakar

'The SC & ST Prevention of Atrocities Act is whitewashing continuing atrocities against Dalits'

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) has stirred a hornets' nest by its decision to put forward the issue of discrimination against Dalits as a form of racism in the forthcoming third World Conference on Racism to be held under the aegis of the United Nations in Geneva. Although the government is dead set against the idea, the reality is that 170-million strong Dalits in India are still shunned as untouchables and are discriminated against. In this context Paul Diwakar, convenor of the NCDHR, tells Rinku Pegu in an interview the reason behind the NCDHR's decisions to compare the situation of caste-based discrimination to that of racial discrimination

New Delhi, May 1

The How did the national campaign for Dalit human rights begin?

It all started with the Scheduled Caste (SC) & Scheduled Tribes (ST) Prevention of Atrocities Act. Many of us who were activists and have been working for the past 10-15 years, have experienced the most frustrating thing ever. It is the impunity with which the perpetrators of the atrocities get away. The Act is just there as a symbol whitewashing the continuing atrocities against the SCs and STs. So in 1988 when 40 organisations working for the cause of Dalits and human rights got together we all felt that we needed a platform. That was when the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) was formed. It was felt that atrocities against Dalits is not confined to any particular region but prevalent throughout the country. And therefore, there should be a national campaign with 100-odd organisations.

What is the modus operandi of your agitation?

First of all, in the human rights map of India, the Dalit human rights issue is a specific aspect which one can never ignore in the Indian context. Secondly, we have to ensure the enforcement of whatever constitutional spaces are there for the Dalits. We did not want to go back to the villages because the people who are involved with the campaign have been closely working with the people at local level. We felt that the atrocities against the Dalits need visibility and should be told to the society so that we should be ashamed about it. And we should take all possible steps to change the situation.

How did the alliance with the United Nations (UN) working against the discrimination come about?

The 50 years of the universal declaration of human rights had taken place. At the time we felt that the atrocities against the Dalits should be formally brought into the notice of the UN, to put forth the cause that the atrocities against Dalits is a crime against humanity about which proper steps should be taken. Then the whole initiative of world conference on discrimination started and it was aligned in such a way that we had geared up. We had submitted 25 lakh signatures to the prime minister and made a resolution that the Global Conference was something which we should not let go.

We attended the UN Preparatory Committee on Discrimination. There we felt that Dalits alone could not go as an isolated group. The second World Conference on Discrimination focussed on the sole issue of apartheid. The third World Conference on Discrimination talks about the current forms of racism and ensure that these victims also have visibility. And this is the intention of the High Commissioner on Human Rights at the UN. But how far the commissioner will be successful is still a guess.

In the run up to the World Conference Against Racism many preparatory events take place. Some of them are given satellite status which means the inputs of such meetings will be taken officially into the secretariat of the conference. Such events ensure that allegations of discrimination are not just propaganda or campaign but proper participation and representations of the oppressed communities.

But despite all this the UN Human Rights Office has refused to farther grant the status of satellite meeting?

The reason given is that they have stopped all applications for satellite status irrespective of the authenticity because they have got overwhelming response for the status. And if they make one exception to the rule the others will cry foul.

How do you mobilise support for your cause?

Two things have happened. We have had the inputs of UN officials as well as that of an official which has been assigned the task by the UN sub-commission for the promotion and protection of human rights for specific study of the occupation-based racial discrimination. For us such inputs are invaluable as it would go to the UN. Also the body that will go from India to the UN for the Geneva conference will take our draft of this meeting. We ensure the voices of the people facing present form of discrimination. Dalits are not just from India. Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Senegal will also be represented to participate on this issue. The present forms of racism are not the earlier Black and White racism. It is covert and invisible.

What about the prejudices that an individual internalises? How does one tackle it?

The whole thing is linked. First one has to accept one's own identity. I cannot shy away from the fact that I am a Dalit or try to take other identity to escape the humiliation heaped on a Dalit, or for instance to escape the very culture which I feel is derogatory. Such escapism is fuelled by a lack of understanding of what actually the Dalit culture is. Once the visibility, once the acceptance, once pride comes, it makes me say, "I am proud that I am a Dalit. I don't have to hide myself."

The concept that I am not that kind of a person whose identity is imposed which is derogatory is linked to a powerful political expression of assertion. This implies that one may demand enforcements of certain provisions. You demand various solidarities of similar movements and say "I will not accept any kind of shit that is doled out by the system." All these are linked. It is not one against the other. One has to reflect. It is not only that laws must change but also that a Dalit should change internally by freeing oneself from the internalised subordinate position. Both society and individual are parts of the same coin.

But the government is dead set against your decision to equate discrimination against Dalits to racism.

We are only taking our issue forward. We are not trying to do anything against the Constitution. The truth is being portrayed and the discrimination against the Dalits which the establishment is trying is brush under the carpet can no longer remain hidden. The government fears that the visibility of the issue will result in some kind of negative repercussion. Yes, you have to a take a certain stand by not allowing the feudal mentality to persist. And the government should exhibit the political will to banish it. The reality is that although the world has entered the third millennium, feudalism still persists in India.

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: May 8, 2001
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