35177: Socioeconomic future of Dalits remains bleak

Most experts believe the key to ending discrimination is a comprehensive education campaign starting at the primary level to teach acceptance of dalits, a topic completely absent from India's public school system.

March 25, 2011 02:14 am | Updated November 17, 2021 02:42 am IST

35177, 6/22/2005 13:44, 05NEWDELHI4761, Embassy New Delhi, CONFIDENTIAL,, "This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.221344Z Jun 05","C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 NEW DELHI 004761


E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/06/2015 TAGS: PHUM, PGOV, ECON, ELAB, IN, Human Rights


Classified By: DCM Bob Blake for Reasons 1.4 (B, D)

1. (C) Summary: Embassy interlocutors report that after one year of UPA rule, limited government efforts to improve dalit (formerly called ""untouchables"") socioeconomic status have shown little success, ensuring that they continue to face severe economic and social discrimination. Government reservation laws do not extend to the private sector, the largest and fastest growing segment of the economy. Most experts believe the key to ending discrimination is a comprehensive education campaign starting at the primary level to teach acceptance of dalits, a topic completely absent from India's public school system. Despite the political success of dalits such as current Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Ram Vilas Paswan, dalits' failure to organize at the national level has limited their ability to demand equal rights. Until the Indian majority increases pressure to change the status quo, many dalits will remain trapped below the poverty line in manual labor jobs with few mechanisms for upward mobility. End Summary.

Discrimination Remains Despite Legal Protection

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2. (U) Dalits, who make up approximately 16% of India's population, roughly 166 million people, occupy the lowest position in the social structure and face constant and severe discrimination. Formerly called ""untouchables"" because ""caste Hindus"" believe they can be ""polluted"" by having any contact with them, most dalits remain trapped at the bottom rung of the caste ladder. In fact, most ""caste Hindus"" consider them to be so low as to be outside the caste system altogether.

3. (C) Despite the passage of the Anti-Untouchability Act of 1955 and the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989, crimes against dalits are still a major social problem, and discrimination is widespread. According to Jawarahal Nehru University Professor and Director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies SK Thorat, all of the trappings of untouchability remain in rural India and rampant job discrimination occurs in India's cities and towns. Thorat recently told Poloff that the approximately 18,000 caste-related discrimination cases filed annually with the Indian government are only a small fraction of the actual number. Vastly more cases go unreported, because dalits in rural areas still live under feudal systems and cannot risk angering their high-caste landlords. Thorat also commented that only the most serious and well-publicized acts of caste discrimination receive the attention of the Indian authorities.

4. (C) Ram Nath Kovind, himself a dalit and a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, expressed a more positive view to Poloff recently, stating that ""open"" discrimination against dalits has decreased dramatically over the last decade, while the number of persons who genuinely care about helping dalits has increased. He maintained that while discrimination persists in the housing sector, employment decisions are usually free from bias. Executive Director of the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center Ravi Nair agreed that employment discrimination against dalits has decreased over the last decade, while access to housing often remains based on caste.

The Reservation System


5. (U) The GOI uses a system of ""reservations,"" similar to affirmative action programs in the US, in an attempt to ameliorate the social and economic disparities resulting from the caste system. Under the system, dalits receive government-mandated, numerical quotas in government employment and education programs. The law requires the state to allocate approximately 16 percent of government jobs, seats in schools, the Parliament and State Assemblies, and public housing be to ""scheduled"" castes and tribes. These schedules contain a list of underprivileged groups determined by the government to need social assistance. There are no reservations for dalits in the military or the private sector.

6. (C) Nair argued that the reservation system has only been partially successful in empowering dalits, because they often discriminate against each other. For example, in North India, a subgroup of dalits known as the Jatevs have become very successful in the leather industry. Nair indicated that this group of dalits would never help other dalit groups in the area, such as the Bhangi, which they consider lower. He observed that due to the many strata within each caste, the reservation system has created a ""creamy layer"" of successful people within the dalit community. In general, these groups have focused on solidifying their own positions rather than helping to empower other dalits, Nair stated.

7. (C) Professor Thorat judged the reservation system as ""only a partial success"" and maintained that its effectiveness will decline in the future, because discrimination is rampant in the private sector, which is creating the most new jobs. Himself a dalit, Professor Thorat claimed that high-caste Hindus would almost always hire another caste Hindu over a dalit, even if the dalit were fully qualified for the job. He theorized that the religious basis of the caste system, which teaches that dalits hold their social position due to mistakes made in a prior life, allows caste Hindus to discriminate without guilt. BJP MP Kovind disagreed with Thorat, asserting to Poloff that current legislation has to a large degree been successful in protecting dalit rights, but that India still has work to do to end discrimination, citing increasing dalit access to primary education as a place to start.

8. (C) Centuries of discrimination have confined most dalits to the lowest paying jobs. Thorat claimed that 70% of all dalits live in rural areas, and over 90% work in the agricultural sector as unskilled or day laborers. Most of the remainder are employed in manual, unskilled labor jobs in urban areas. Given these facts, he argued that only 5% of the working dalit population has actually benefited from the Indian reservation law. He acknowledged that while GOI poverty alleviation programs help dalits, the government does not strictly monitor them and many are never implemented. Thorat asserted that the vast majority of dalits are denied upward socioeconomic mobility due to lack of access to education, land, and capital. Kovind commented that the true basis of discrimination is economic in nature rather than caste-based, as the ""haves discriminate against the have nots"" and use the caste system to perpetuate differences between economic groups. Comparing the caste system to the trade guilds in feudal Europe (in that certain groups performed specific jobs), he added that under the caste system persons acquire their trade at birth, while the guilds allowed job mobility. Caste factors are now used to protect jobs and livelihoods more than anything else, Kovind argued.

Poor Prospects for Improvement


9. (C) Thorat and Justice Party President and Chairman of the All-India Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Organizations Dr. Udit Raj commented to us recently that despite India's growing economy, the outlook for dalits remains bleak. According to Thorat, globalization and economic liberalization have actually hurt dalit prospects for progress and social mobility. Raj argued that liberalization will shift more of the economy from the public to the private sector, where hiring managers are almost exclusively from high castes and constantly discriminate against dalits, denying them the opportunities guaranteed by reservations. Unlike the United States, India has no equal opportunity law applicable to the private sector, which means that the rapidly expanding private sector is under no compulsion to hire dalits, while the public sector will have fewer jobs to offer. Kovind predicted that caste-based discrimination will exist for at least the next 50-100 years in India. He suggested that since the Hindu religion condones caste, it will take longer for the GOI to end caste discrimination in India than it will take to eradicate racial discrimination in the US.

10. (C) Sangh Priya Guatam, a dalit BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and one of its poorest, agreed that dalits will be left behind in a globalizing world and that job reservations in the private sector would be an important tool to ensure equality. Guatam stated that the BJP favors private sector reservations and would like the UPA government to take up the issue in Parliament and not rely on the private sector to develop a solution. Thorat confirmed that a Ministerial Commission is researching the issue of reservations in the private sector. Raj did not expect positive results, commenting that the private sector fears losing competitiveness, especially in the information technology realm, should the GOI extend reservations to private industry. Thorat and Raj both denied that private sector reservations would hurt productivity, as many qualified dalit applicants could fill reserved slots. Kovind stated that the BJP favors reservations in the private sector and will pressure the UPA government to institute them.

GOI-CII Agreement on Reservations


11. (C) Thorat asserted that a June 2 agreement between the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment will likely prevent the extension of reservations to the private sector. Under the agreement, the GOI will not press for government-legislated private sector reservations for dalits. In exchange, the CII pledged to promote vocational skill advancement programs for dalits in the private sector. Thorat agreed that vocational programs are necessary, but will not help dalits as much as reservations. Raj concurred, stating that with a rapidly growing population and an excess of workers, high-caste hiring managers will always choose non-dalits, regardless of qualifications, unless the law forces them to do otherwise.

12. (C) Dalits view the GOI-CII agreement as yet another mechanism to maintain the status quo, according to Raj. He argued that with the BJP and Congress dominated by upper-castes with little interest in increasing opportunities for the lower castes, both parties have abandoned platforms aimed at empowering the poor and elevating the socioeconomic status of dalits, while Congress has exploited its secular identity to justify inaction. The high castes want to preserve the status quo because they benefit from it. A large segment of the population living in desperation guarantees a pool of workers willing to work for minuscule salaries and perform the most menial jobs. Raj anticipates that the CII,s promise to offer vocational training to dalits will never be adequately implemented and is unlikely to increase dalit employment opportunities.



13. (C) Education programs for Indian youth to increase egalitarian attitudes are the only way to truly break caste discrimination, according to Thorat and Raj, although they asserted that the initiative needed to centrally mandate such education in all public schools is absent. Raj proffered that the upper-castes have enjoyed thousands of years of free access to education, at the expense of dalits. These same castes remain in control of India's educational institutions and, consequently, few administrators wish to mandate or incorporate education programs advocating dalit equality. Thorat and Raj contend that the human rights awareness classes currently offered in some schools are wholly inadequate, as they do not cover caste discrimination or critically investigate the unjust norms regarding interpersonal relationships between dalits and the caste Hindus still practiced today. Raj pointed out that until such education programs are implemented, schools will serve as breeding grounds for prejudice, and upper caste children will continue to learn that it is permissible to discriminate against dalits. He argued that the present system teaches caste Hindus that it is acceptable to cheat dalits and discriminate against them.

14. (C) Reservations in public education institutions have not translated into enhanced socioeconomic status for dalits, according to Thorat. Schools and teachers are unable to keep up with the growing numbers of children, and dalits are usually the first children denied an education when resources are scarce. Therefore, many dalits have no access to the primary education necessary to qualify for education-based reservations in the university system. Since public schools frequently offer substandard education, and the vernacular education they provide is held in low regard, few members of the Indian elite and middle class attend them. This leaves private, English-medium education as the principal tool for upward mobility. As a result, argues Raj, GOI-enforced dalit reservation in public schools has not led to increased social mobility, and most dalits with access to education remain in manual, unskilled jobs that others refuse to take.

15. (C) Raj also questioned whether the GOI was committed to taking effective action to end discrimination against dalits, claiming that most members of the Indian Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which investigates violations of anti-caste discrimination law are from the upper castes and not genuinely interested in the plight of dalits. As a result, the Commission overlooks most day-to-day discrimination to concentrate on a few highly publicized acts of violence or discrimination, he stated.

Dalit Rights Movements


16. (U) Dalits' perception of their plight varies from region to region, according to Thorat. He noted that the civil rights agitation for dalits began in South India with the ""self-respect movement"" in the early 20th century. Consequently, dalits in the South have seen more improvements than their counterparts in the North, where the movement for equality was much slower and began only after Partition in 1947. As a result, Northern dalits generally harbor greater ill will towards the upper castes than those in the South, because of the higher and more recent levels of discrimination against them.

17. (U) This finds expression in the bitter caste-based politics of the North India ""Hindi Belt"" which has spawned such parties as the dalit-based Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Uttar Pradesh and its fiery leader Mayawati, who routinely rails against the excesses of ""caste Hindus,"" while pledging to openly discriminate in favor of dalits. In South India, the dalit agenda has been largely absorbed by more broad-based regional parties such as the AIDMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu, or the Communists in Kerala.

18. (U) With dalits estimated to constitute from 16% to 27% of the Indian population, the lack of progress for dalits has both political and social implications. Their lack of access to jobs in the growing private sector, and limited access to land and capital, has led increasing numbers of dalits to convert to other religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, which have not institutionalized caste, in hope of obtaining redress. However, for many, interpersonal and economic discrimination has continued despite conversion, as most caste Hindus in their local communities continue to regard them as dalits despite their change of religion.

19. (U) Thorat argued that political organizations have also proven ineffective. After 1947, most dalits pledged allegiance to Congress, but many became discouraged by what they viewed as the party's failure to live up to its promises in the ensuing decades. With the departure of many dalits from Congress, their votes have become fragmented between numerous and disparate political organizations, preventing them from forming a cohesive lobby capable of pressuring the GOI to address their concerns. Congress is trying to convince dalits to return to the fold, but with little success, and they remain divided. Thorat and Raj argue that massive religious conversions or political organization have failed to provide necessary social change. With these avenues proving largely ineffective, dalits remain discouraged and fatalistic. Kovind, who heads the BJP's dalit cell, disagreed, asserting that his party is determined to help dalits and shed the image that it is only an ""upper caste party."" He argued that only a nationalist party like the BJP will succeed in fighting discrimination against dalits, as India cannot become a world power until dalits and low-caste persons are brought up to the level of the rest of society.

20. (C) Prominent human rights expert Nair stated that dalits need to take their case to the courts if they want to achieve emancipation. He argued that laws protecting dalits exist, but that they have not used them effectively, and that dalit groups do not use the large donations they receive from the government, the donor community and private sources effectively. He said that they should mirror the civil rights movement in the US and set up legal aid defense groups. These groups of lawyers would ensure that dalit cases are heard and judgments rendered against those who discriminate. Nair warned that nothing will change until people who discriminate go to jail or face stiff financial penalties. He did not expect dalits to implement his plan, because their leaders are more interested in rhetoric than doing the hard work required to mount a meaningful challenge in the courts.

Success Stories


21. (U) Despite widespread discrimination, a number of dalits have become successful. The highest profile case is that of K.R. Narayanan, who served as President of India from 1997-2002. Ram Vilas Paswan, currently holding two Ministerial level positions (Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers and Minister for Steel), is a very successful politician from Bihar. BSP president and a three-time Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh Mayawati is also a well-known dalit. However, these persons have all benefited from the reservation system and local interlocutors stated it unlikely that they would have reached these positions without affirmative action programs. The Dalit NGO Dalitawaz lists dalits from a wide range of professions, including doctors, lawyers, engineers and civil servants, indicating that, despite the odds, it is possible for members of this disenfranchised group to do well.



22. (C) While the UPA has focused on bettering the lot of the dalit community, it is dominated by upper caste Hindus, very few of whom are genuinely concerned about the plight of dalits. This ensures that dalits will continue to be an oppressed, discriminated group in India. Although the GOI has passed legislation and established government bodies to administer these laws, it has failed to attack the root of the problem. There are success stories, but acts of violence and prejudice against dalits, combined with government negligence, persist and there is little upward mobility among the dalit population. Without a broader, more comprehensive approach to teach tolerance and equality early in primary schools, it is unlikely that the social acceptance of caste-based discrimination will fade any time soon. The increasing dominance of the private sector in the economy could also result in greater economic polarization if there is no mechanism in place to combat job discrimination.


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