Plight of the Dalits needs to be internationalised

Humanrights: Activists believe the plight of the Dalits needs to be internationalised: Anosh Malekar

Sanjay Dangia, 12, is quite used to a 'one-sided' view of the world around him. "I cannot see with this eye anymore," he says matter-of-factly, patting the left side of his face.

On May 17, 1998, he stood engrossed in a movie on television outside a grocery shop in his village, Vejalka, in Ranpur taluka, Ahmedabad district. Little did he know that as a member of the Bhangi or scavenger community, the lowest of the low in the caste hierarchy, he ought to have maintained a proper distance from the high caste Koli-Patel shop owner's counter.

When warned he did step back, only to unconsciously drift closer to the group huddled in front of the TV. It was enough to incense shop owner Bhikabhai Chikabhai Kalodra, who threw lime paste at his face. "I went home crying," recalls the boy.

Learning young: Sanjay, of the scavenging community, seems resigned to perform his caste's duty, beating the drum to announce a death. Three years ago he lost an eye when a shop owner threw lime paste at him

Sanjay is one among some 160 million people, one-sixth of the Indian population, living a precarious existence because of their status as Dalits. As a Bhangi, he is destined to grow up with little or no education, and perform his caste's age-old duties of scavenging, and beating the drum to announce deaths and other tragedies. As his grandfather Bhupatbhai Nanubhai, a well-built man in his fifties, puts it, "It is my dharma."

Bhupatbhai and his wife Jheluben might have accepted their lot in life, but not the human rights activists fighting for them. The year Sanjay lost his eye, a few of them got together to set up the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) to study the effectiveness of the Atrocities Act in the country. Apart from presenting a memorandum signed by 25 lakh signatories, it handed over to the President and the Prime Minister a copy of a 'Black Paper' on the broken promises and betrayal of the Dalits in Independent India.

"Our position is simple," says NCDHR's Gujarat-based convenor Martin Macwan. "We know from our experience as Dalits that irrespective of constitutional protection for over half a century, so common and accepted are rights violations against Dalits that they have become an invisible part of the total fabric of society."

A Dalit's is a life patterned by discrimination, even today more than 50 years after untouchability was abolished. No access to temples and public wells; separate cups at tea stalls; plates, ironically called 'Ram Paatras', hanging outside upper caste homes; the back benches for Dalit children; separate living premises outside villages and the most degrading of jobs (The Week, August 15, 1999).

Enough is enough: Dalits continue to live in squalor as seen in this file photo of a colony in Baroda district; but (below) they are waking up to their rights

Landless Dalit labourers live at the mercy of upper caste landlords who will tolerate no demands for a fair share of the wages or a piece of land (The Week, January 30, 2000). Besides, most victims of bonded and child labour and prostitution come from Dalit communities.

Appealing for justice also seems futile. In Sanjay's case, for instance, a criminal case was registered through the efforts of the Navsarjan Trust, an Ahmedabad-based NGO working for the Dalits. Bhikabhai was arrested, but eight days later he was a free man.

Some of the reasons why NCDHR is today at the forefront to highlight the Dalits' plight at the UN world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (WCAR) in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7. The NGO, which works in 14 states in the country, is also keen to include victims of atrocities in the delegation, and have them narrate their harrowing experiences.

It believes cases like Sanjay's cannot be the sole concern of one section of the Indian population. "It should be a national concern... an international concern precisely because of the fact that it addresses questions and challenges concerning human rights having universal value and implications, thus inviting all women and men to respond adequately and speedily to this centuries-old issue," wrote NCDHR to the national committee constituted for the world conference.

The stand has brought it into conflict with the Centre, which insists that caste-based discrimination is India's "internal" concern. Arguing that the conference is about race, and caste doesn't come under that head, it insists that the issue will not be allowed to appear on the WCAR agenda. Dr Abid Hussein, member of the national committee and a UN special rapporteur on freedom of speech and expression, has said that by equating caste with race, the NCDHR will harm national interest.

"We agree that caste is not race and have never said it is," counters Martin. "However, the WCAR is as much about discrimination and intolerance. That is its main focus." Moreover, says Martin, UN committees have acknowledged that caste is a category of widespread discrimination.

Even Nepal at the recently held Asia-Pacific preparatory meet to the WCAR in Teheran acknowledged that caste-based discrimination was a major concern for it. "India, which is committed to the international human rights regime, and known for supporting the fight against apartheid and the civil rights movement, cannot say that a gross violation of rights, which affects so large a number, is beyond the jurisdiction of the international community," says Martin.

NCDHR's efforts to drum up global support received a big boost when the European Parliament last week urged the European Union to voice its concern about caste discrimination and to formulate strategies to counter this widespread practice which affects some 260 million people across South Asian countries, mainly India.

The inclusion of two paragraphs to this effect in its human rights report was welcomed by the NCDHR, which termed it as a very significant development in the run-up to the world conference.

The European Union was also asked to investigate to what extent its policies contributed to the abolition of caste discrimination and "untouchability" in India. According to Martin, this provides hope that in the "mad scramble for globalisation, as witnessed in India, there could be checks on exploitative market practices, where protection of human rights will become mandatory".

It may take some more years for the Sanjays, Bhupatbhais and Jhelubens to wake up to their rights. "It is fate that has taken away his eye," says Jheluben. "You could die in a road accident. It's like that!" Today all that the ageing couple can give Sanjay is his grandfather's drum and the assurance that he will always have a job scavenging for the upper caste

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Referred by:Benjamin Paul
Published on: July 23, 2001
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