The EU flexes its muscles on caste

The practices concerned are most widespread in South Asia and in South Asian diasporas. The European Parliament’s recent resolution circumvents India’s contention that caste oppression does not constitute racial discrimination.

November 05, 2013 01:20 am | Updated May 28, 2016 04:52 am IST

On October 10, the 766 members of the European Parliament, who represent just over half-a-billion people in 28-member-states, passed a historic resolution recognising caste-based discrimination and discrimination based on work and descent as a violation of human rights and an obstacle to development. The resolution, which was approved by an overwhelming majority, condemns all such forms of discrimination, and notes that they affect over 260 million people in several countries. Although many countries — those affected include Nigeria, Senegal, Mauritania, Somalia, Japan, Yemen and the United Kingdom — have ruled such discrimination illegal and even unconstitutional, the relevant practices are deeply entrenched. Among diaspora communities they often take new forms, such as restricted access to political participation and “serious discrimination” in the labour market. The latter is prohibited by several instruments in international human rights law.

In Asia

The practices concerned are most widespread in South Asia and in South Asian diasporas; the EU resolution also notes that the “overwhelming majority” of bonded labourers in South Asia are from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It states, further, that those most affected by caste discrimination are victims of multiple forms of discrimination in employment, in access to education and health care, to land, and to protection by the police and the judicial system. Nevertheless, the term preferred by the United Nations, namely discrimination based on work and descent, is wider than that of caste, which specifically relies on ideas of purity and pollution as well as a graded hierarchy with procedures for exclusion and untouchability.

By what may amount to a cruel irony, the European Parliament passed the resolution the day after the High Court in Patna acquitted all 26 convicted defendants in the case of the Laxmanpur-Bathe atrocity, in which 58 Dalits had been murdered by a 100-strong mob in 1997, in what seemed to be revenge for seeking an increase in the amount of grain they were paid monthly as wages in kind.

The case tragically exemplifies the problems. The victims knew their attackers and the survivors named them, but the police did not record the names, and then took three days to deliver the first information reports to the Chief Judicial Magistrate concerned. The investigating officer, despite substantial evidence of blood at the scene and on a boat on the Sone river, as well as 100-150 sets of footprints along the river bank, did not cross the Sone to investigate further. It took 11 years for the trial even to start, but the sessions court sentenced 16 of the accused to death and 10 to life imprisonment, only for the High Court to issue a blanket acquittal — in 2013.

Pat for Indian public sector

In the light of such episodes, the European Parliament calls on the European Commission, the administrative arm of the EU (which also drafts EU secondary legislation), to recognise caste as a distinct form of discrimination which is “rooted in the social and/or religious context” and needs to be tackled together with other forms of discrimination. The Parliament also calls on EU bodies to monitor the effect of EU programmes on victims of caste discrimination, to assess the impact of trade and investment agreements on the groups concerned, and to address those matters with the public and private sector as well as civil society bodies in the relevant countries. The resolution notes that the Indian public sector, for example, has made more headway — with its mandatory affirmative action procedures — than the private sector has done. The lack of such measures in the private sector worsens existing inequalities, but the European Parliament calls for EU bodies to include a clause on caste discrimination in all trade and association agreements, and to promote affirmative action for Dalits and others similarly affected in the labour market and the private sector. Forced and bonded labour are practices particularly prevalent in agriculture, mining and garment manufacture; the garment industry supplies to many multinational and EU-based companies. The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc.

The European Parliament resolution is, however, less interventionist than it might seem to be, and is remarkably constructive. By recognising the salience of caste in multiple forms of discrimination, it circumvents the Indian government’s contention that caste is not an element of race and therefore must be excluded from laws against racial discrimination, be they domestic laws like those of the U.K. or international agreements like the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. One implication is certainly that if countries which are caste-affected in the wider U.N. sense of the term do not address caste discrimination seriously, the EU will require them to do so in all their dealings with them — but if caste-affected countries themselves take a lead on the issue, they can be certain that the EU will aid and assist them in trying to eliminate the practice.


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