Balakrishnan Rajagopal

Having taken a principled stand in foreign policy against racial discrimination and apartheid, India should not hide behind a false sense of Third World sovereignty in discussing the real problems of how to effectively end caste discrimination in a complex society.

In what was perhaps a controversial but telling comparison, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on December 27, 2006, likened discrimination against Dalits in India to the apartheid system in South Africa. A couple of months later, in February, Indian officials were busily denying the existence of caste discrimination and untouchability, in February 2007 in New York, before a leading U.N. human rights body — the committee in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Indian Solicitor General flatly denied that caste discrimination was something the outside world should care about. This attitude of the Indian bureaucracy flatly flies in the face of not only the Prime Minister’s own statement, it does not fit in with India’s own track record in dealing with caste discrimination against Dalits, which should not make it act defensively but should make it more determined to wipe out such practices. This attitude also reveals a knee-jerk negativist mindset that the Indian foreign policy establishment has developed over the years towards international human rights, which needs to change.

It is well known that caste discrimination against Dalits is rampant in India. In an overt form, it is both a political reality and social fact. Dalits are subjected to violence, especially in rural areas, their women raped, and their land stolen. Dalits perform the most dangerous and odious forms of labour in Indian society including that of manual scavenging (removing human or animal waste) or performing low-end ‘dirty’ wage labour in tanneries. For the past two years, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team has been working with Navsarjan, a leading Dalit rights NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Gujarat, documenting the socio-economic and health consequences of manual scavenging in Gujarat, and has designed new technological and planning solutions to the problem that go beyond the simple adoption of more anti-discrimination or sector-specific laws and policies. In Gujarat, the legal route has been pursued as much as possible, through public interest litigation and government orders. Nevertheless, the data reveal that the number of manual scavengers has kept increasing and is likely to be between 50,000 and 60,000 in Gujarat alone. Research indicates that social and economic discrimination against Dalits persists to an alarming degree despite all the laws in the books. For example, in the village of Paliyad in Gujarat, where the MIT-Navsarjan team has been working, data indicate that more than 40 per cent of manual scavengers are frequently or always denied access to the marketplace, thus preventing normal economic activity or labour mobility.

Dalits are poorly represented in the professions, business, media, and the higher levels of the government including the police, the army, and the judiciary. Recent studies based on available data indicate, for example, that 47 per cent of the Chief Justices of India have been Brahmins (who constitute 6.4 per cent of the population) as have been 40 per cent of all the other judges. There is also rampant social discrimination against Dalits, including through the caste-ridden system of ‘arranged’ marriages. There is little social mixing of forward castes with the Dalits through shared festivals or even routine social interaction. Residential areas tend to be segregated along caste lines, especially in rural areas where most people still live. Caste discrimination against Dalits is deep-rooted in society and the economy and quick-fix solutions through the law alone will not help. Measures against discrimination are complicated by the fact that there is increasing evidence of intra-caste differentiation among Dalits, with some sub-castes like manual scavengers suffering significantly more discrimination. For example, in the village of Paliyad, the water source for 47 per cent of manual scavengers is a 30-minute or longer walk from their homes, while for a majority of non-scavenger Dalits that time is only five minutes or less of travel. Distance to water collection affects health, economic productivity, and gender equality.

The Indian government delegation that appeared before the U.N. human rights body cited a litany of laws that have been passed to end caste discrimination and atrocities against Dalits. This much is, in fact, true and India should certainly take much pride in the establishment of a formal system of equality through laws. The political gains made by Dalit parties in recent years can also be celebrated as a healthy example of the virtues of Indian democracy in ending social ills. But, in practice, these laws are poorly implemented. The Indian delegation refused to share data on implementation with the U.N. body, which it is legally obligated to do. Instead, the government delegation argued that ‘descent-based discrimination’ does not constitute racial discrimination under the specific U.N. treaty in question, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

This is a misguided position. India’s own Prime Minister has compared caste discrimination to apartheid, which is the worst example of racial discrimination. India should also not forget that its current position goes against much of the history of the last 50 years of human rights law making. The irony is that it was India that suggested the definition in the CERD be expanded for ‘descent-based discrimination’ to include caste when the treaty was being drafted. India’s current position simply disavows its own history.

India’s position before the U.N. human rights body also typifies its overall attitude towards the place of human rights in its foreign policy. Nervous, Third Worldist, lacking confidence in its own democratic credentials, India constantly sides with the likes of Zimbabwe and Sudan at the U.N. on human rights issues. In international politics, as in domestic life, one is often judged by the company one keeps. There is no reason why India should not recover the moral high ground it occupied in the first few decades after Independence, suffused with the glow of Gandhian anti-colonialism, and often taking a leading position on human rights issues of the day. Instead, it has abandoned the human rights agenda to the west. On the issue of caste discrimination against Dalits, India’s recalcitrant and nervous attitude is only reminiscent of similar attitudes adopted by the government of the U.S. in its treatment of minorities or the white South African state over apartheid. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister aptly compared caste discrimination to apartheid.

Nervousness about being accused of racial discrimination is understandable but the Indian bureaucracy is too quick in biting its finger nails. The Prime Minister’s reference to apartheid should fan the flames of moral outrage at caste discrimination, rather than acting as a panic button. India has a proud history of battling South African apartheid and was the first nation to put the apartheid issue on the agenda of the U.N. General Assembly in 1948, when no nation dared to criticise the ‘internal affairs’ of other nations. Having taken a principled stand in foreign policy against racial discrimination and apartheid, India should not hide behind a false sense of Third World sovereignty in discussing the real problems of how to effectively end caste discrimination in a complex society.

How to end caste discrimination against Dalits is a profound issue because its roots go to the structural importance of caste for the operation of Indian society and the economy itself. After decades of legislating to end caste discrimination, it is legitimate now to ask: can one end caste discrimination without ending caste itself? If so, what does that imply for policy making and law? Caste discrimination exists because people continue to believe in caste. Indian democracy is, paradoxically, a culprit. By encouraging the formation of democratic participation along the lines of identity, caste is, in fact, reinforced every time India goes to the polls. The recent electoral gains of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh must be seen in the context of this double-edged nature of caste. It may be hard to imagine Indian society and state outside of the system of caste. Even Dalit Christians, Sikhs, and Muslims find that caste discrimination continues to exist after they have acquired different religious identities. Yet caste discrimination against Dalits, in all its forms, is a stain on the idea of a modern India, and needs to be eliminated effectively.

While the Indian Constitution outlawed untouchability and caste discrimination, it did not abolish caste itself. This was realised by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution, who called for the ‘annihilation of caste’ itself. It may be time for the government and society to reorient themselves towards this goal and begin the process of ending India’s system of apartheid.

(The writer is Ford International Associate Professor of Law and Development and Director, MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice. He is currently leading a collaborative effort between MIT and Navsarjan, a major Dalit NGO in Gujarat, on the elimination of manual scavenging.)