Broken People:

Caste Violence Against India’s ‘Untouchables’. Human Rights Watch, New York, 1998.

Dalits, officially defined as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, constitute one-fourth (24.56%) of India’s population. In absolute terms, Dalits (20.59 crore) outnumber the combined population of France, Germany and UK, and yet, there is not a single Dalit journalist in the capital’s media establishments. Similarly, most public institutions are ostensibly run by ‘enlightened’ Indians, but Dalits continue to have a near-zero presence in them. This symbolically mirrors not only the fate of the community, but also the attitude of caste society towards Dalits.

It is necessary to underscore the above explanation to understand Broken People – caste violence against India’s ‘untouchables’. What may otherwise have been a fantastic work, had the report taken into account characteristics of India’s varna/ caste-based social organization, has instead turned into a meaningless exercise.

Dalits are subjected to violence at every level, every possible form of violence. Documentation of violent acts, field surveys, analysis and identification of underlying causes, is an essential aspect of the campaign against human rights violations. To a large extent, this exercise is undertaken by a host of state level Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe panels, supplemented by a more powerful commission at the Centre. If hrw was genuinely interested in internationalizing the Dalits’ case, it could have simply reproduced one of the commission’s reports.

A human rights group like HRW should have learnt from the American experience. The civil rights movement in America, beginning from the case of the slave Dred Scott, who in mid-19th century filed a lawsuit to attain freedom, all the way to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, has revolved around a host of issues, including questions of representation in media, public institutions, the corporate world – in every sphere of social life. The movement won a major battle when the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1978, decided to grant proportionate representation to minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) in all departments of the media. The question of diversity in America’s educational institutions is a leading human rights issue in America today.

Further, the hrw cannot claim ignorance about the recommendations of the Kerner Commission, instituted in the wake of civil disorder in the two cities of Newark and Detroit in 1969. In the ensuing racial riot 83 people were killed, mostly African Americans. The commission, in its findings, found inequality, born out of the prejudices of White society, as a fundamental reason explaining violence against the African Americans. To eliminate occurrence of such violence, the commission recommended a range of measures to eliminate the fundamental reason – inequality.

Contrary to that rich experience of the Kerner Commission the HRW, in looking at Dalits in India, commits a twin blunder: first, it perceives violence solely as a human rights question for Dalits; second, it considers violence against Dalits as primarily a law and order problem. Driven by such perceptions, the report expectedly advocates a legal solution to violence against Dalits.

The report, in its preface, makes a loud claim that the organization ‘accepts no government funds, directly or indirectly’. Why does the HRW make this point? Is it to convey the message that the organization does not seek patronage from the state which, by definition, stands for ‘repression’? The report makes a concerted attempt to portray the police machinery as the main culprit. To that end, a host of references are presented.

Based on those references, the report indicts, ‘both state and private actors as responsible for caste-motivated attacks on Dalits.’ While there is no doubt that the police indulge in criminal activities and help the accused in a reasonable number of cases, but is that the complete truth? Truth cannot be seen in ‘absolute’ terms; it is always relative. If seen in relation to violence by ‘private agents’, the police violence against Dalits pales into insignificance. In fact, it is only the police which protects Dalits, not private agents. Why then does the report target the state, considering the fact that the state is the only hope for millions of Dalits?

Misrepresentation of facts, inconsistency, and related mistakes occur on almost every second page of the report. But the authors cannot be faulted for this as they come from an alien land, and may have lacked resources and competent staff. But a few points need clarification lest readers develop a low opinion about Dalits.

The report claims that untouchables are ‘manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers and cobblers.’ This is factually incorrect. According to the 1991 Census, 74.5% of the Scheduled Caste workforce was either cultivators or agricultural labourers and 17.53% worked in industry, construction, trade. Of the remaining 7.97%, a large chunk was in government service. Thus, not more than 3 to 4% would be in the occupations described by the report. Why does the report make this blunder? Similarly, without checking facts, the report asserts that most prostitutes and devdasis come from untouchable communities. The hrw should immediately correct such mistakes, lest some Dalit organization drags them to court.

Chandra Bhan Prasad

Referred by:Sashi Kanth
Published on: February 21, 2001
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