Dalit’s Rights and Indian Hypocrisy
Posted on December 3rd, 2009

Written by: Fatima Syed

 The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) proposes to equate all discrimination on the basis of caste, occupation and descent as violation of Human rights and also deliberated on the recognition of caste as race. Nearly 200 million people all over the world are victims of such discrimination of which more than 160 million existed in India. Despite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conviction that untouchability is apartheid, India is opposing this move and so far has been taking the stand that caste issues should not be internationalized as caste is not race and it’s our internal matter. BJP’s opposition to the UNHRC efforts is quite understandable, as its politics is based around the Hindutva ideology and as per that human rights for women and Dalits are unthinkable. But surprisingly, Manmohan Singh who equated untouchability with apartheid is also quite on this issue.

India , which is propagating itself to be a true democracy with rich civil rights, is ignoring  that its 160 million Dalits or untouchables still suffer from deplorable caste discrimination and  are deprived of even basic rights such as right to life and security. In addition to being target of physical and sexual violence, Dalits are often required to eat and drink from separate containers and restaurants, attend separate religious services, walk miles to get water and work in degrading conditions. India is truly a flawed democracy as it failed to implement the laws, which provide protection against such caste discriminations.

Dalits literally meaning “broken people” or “oppressed” in Hindi are the lowest members of Hindu caste system in India. The caste system is a Hindu hierarchical class structure in which Dalits are beyond caste. Dalits undertake occupations that the rest of Indian society found filthy and embarrassing and also receive ill-treatment from the members of the higher castes, particularly from Brahmins. For example Brahmins would have to bathe if a Dalit shadow fell on them, would not eat food prepared by Dalits, and would not drink from the same wells as Dalits. They are not allowed to defy caste system and punished otherwise.

       Although article 17 of the Indian Constitution banned untouchability in 1950, Dalits still suffer widespread discrimination and mistreatment. Local law enforcement personnel often refuse to document, investigate and respond adequately to Dalits’ complaints. Upper caste members often threaten and assault Dalits who dare protest against their mistreatment. The traditional practices of segregation between upper castes and Dalits are continuing in India.

    Despite the system of quotas for government employment, they rarely rise above traditional Dalit occupations. The existence of quotas often fuels upper caste disdain for Dalits. In the private sector, even the educated Dalits struggle to succeed. In many communities upper caste members still expect Dalits to perform their traditional occupations without pay.

      Dalit children are subjected to human rights abuses. These children are common victims of bonded labour practices, even though bonded labour is outlawed in India. When Dalit families become indebted to money lenders, Dalit children are often forced to work off these debts. Due to the low wages these children are paid, they can rarely even earn enough money to pay back their debts and break free from their labour obligations. Additionally, Dalit girls are selected for the practice of Devdasi or marriage to temple deities. As a part of Devdasi these girls must serve in the temple and perform sexual services for temple workers.

     Dalits are also the targets of hate crimes and violence. According to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, a total of 99,749 cases of crimes against lower castes were reported from July 2004 to August 2006, including 2,389 murders and 4,814 rapes. Many more cases go unreported.

     Although India is obligated under several International Instruments to uphold Dalit rights, there is little enforcement to ensure that India meets its obligations under International Law. First, as a UN member state, thus is bound to the provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The articles I & II of UDHR state that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that the human rights protected in the UDHR  belong to everyone without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion,  national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. India is violating its obligations under the UDHR as it has failed to protect Dalits against discrimination, degradation and violence.

     Second, India has also failed to meet its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which it ratified on 10 April 1979. Not only does the ICCPR protect against discrimination of “any kind” including discrimination based on “social origin” but it also protects against  torture, degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest, detention, and promotes equality in the courts and equal protection of the law. In failing to respect and ensure Dalits rights, India is not complying with ICCPR.      

       Third, India has failed to protect Dalit workers in accordance with its obligations under the International Labour Organization Convention (No 107) which it ratified on 29 September 1958. Under convention 107, India is obligated to protect the “institutions, persons, property and labour” of members of tribal or semi tribal populations.

    Finally, Dalit children, who are forced into bonded labour, or the practice of Devdasi, are protected under the provisions in the Convention of Rights of the Child of 1989 (CRC), which it ratified on 11 December 1992. In Article 32, the CRC protects against “Economic exploitation” and the performance of “any work that is likely to be hazardous… or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development”. Both the practices of child-bonded labour and the practice of Devdasi violate India’s commitment under the CRC.   

      Consequently, Dalits are converting their religion in order to get honour and prestige in the society. They are joining Buddhism to escape from the caste system which discriminates them as untouchables and forces slavery. Commenting on this phenomenon Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader said, “They want to embrace Buddhism because it is a free religion. It is open to all. It preaches non-violence and is not divided on the basis of caste”.  So how can India claim to be a big democracy where the minorities being the citizens are not enjoying liberty and freedom and live as a second class citizen? The Indian government has done nothing to remove caste prejudice and to provide justice to poor and powerless. The so-called true democratic India needs to shake up its tranquilized conscience before it is too late. As rightly pointed out by Khushwant singh, “Far from becoming mahaan (great), India is going to the dogs, and unless a miracle saves us, the country will break up”. 

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