An 'Untouchable' Says Caste Is Truly a Human Rights Issue
The New York Timee, November 16, 2000
By BARBARA CROSSETTE
UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 15 — A leader of India's Dalits, the "untouchable" underclass of more than 160 million people whose campaign for an end to discrimination is rarely heard in the West, is being honored this month by two major American human rights organizations seeking to raise awareness of the issue.
On Tuesday in New York, Martin Macwan, a lawyer who founded the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, was named by Human Rights Watch as one of five outstanding human rights defenders around the world this year. And in Washington on Nov. 21, Mr. Macwan will receive the 2000 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.
Last year, Human Rights Watch published the first book-length report on the conditions of the Dalits and the organization is now also lobbying to put the cause on the agenda of the United Nations' first international conference on racism and discrimination next summer.
"The fact that we're honoring a Martin from India reminds us of yet another Martin from the U.S. who fought racial discrimination in this country," said Stephen Rickard, director of the R.F.K. Center for Human Rights, which will give Mr. Macwan his award in Washington.
In an interview today, Mr. Macwan, 41, described the lives of people who are deprived of land ownership, required to drink and eat from separate utensils, barred from wells and temples, forced into bonded labor and made to clean latrines with their bare hands and carry human waste away from the homes of caste Hindus.
The untouchables, literally outcasts, are also vulnerable to violence at the hands of upper-caste Hindus and the police, he said.
Dalits who convert to other religions, to escape the Hindu caste system, face double jeopardy in an era of Hindu nationalism, said Mr. Macwan, who is a Christian.
Mr. Macwan, who was born into a Dalit family in Gujarat, said in an interview today that as a student he watched the beatings and sometimes the killings of fellow untouchables, and decided to establish an organization to help them. He called it the Navsarjan (New Creation) Trust. More recently, he formed the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, linking similar organizations in 14 Indian states.
India has given opportunities to Dalits — the country's president, K. R. Narayanan, was born an untouchable. It also has laws forbidding discrimination, and has introduced affirmative action programs to bring Dalits into politics and educational institutions. But for a majority of the most disadvantaged, abuses continue.
"The Indian government has been very successful at manufacturing an image as the world's largest democracy with a very progressive constitution and many progressive laws on the books," said Smita Narula, who wrote the 1999 Human Rights Watch report, "Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's `Untouchables."
"We don't dispute any of this," she said, "but none of the laws are implemented and the Constitution is not enforced."
Mr. Macwan described caste discrimination as an "institutionalized" system that has allowed, for example, the highest Brahmin caste, with 3.5 percent of the population, to hold 78 percent of judicial positions and about half of parliamentary seats.
He said the Indian government has argued that caste — a complex division of society with religious, cultural and economic roots — is a domestic issue. Mr. Macwan disagrees.
"We say that India did support the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960's, and also the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa," he said. "In this era of the globalization of markets and of human rights, no country can claim that it's a domestic matter. It's a universal concern."