Facing up to the facts

THE NATIONAL Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has come out boldly on the side of the weak and the oppressed many a time. This was the purpose of its constitution. But the NHRC has been so beholden to the Government that it has often become part of the establishment.

Lately, it has been asserting itself but not to the extent human rights activists and the victims want. One expected it to be more articulate and more critical of the Government, particularly in regard to the security forces. It is still a body in the making, often giving the impression that it does not want to join issue with the Government. But the institution still evokes hope among those who find themselves helpless. The NHRC may only be a tiny light but even its little flicker gives some confidence.

Its diffidence has been disappointing. It was never so disappointing as now when it had to adopt, as an observer, a principled stand at the U.N. conference against racism in Durban. The Commission held two seminars, one in Hyderabad and the other in New Delhi. Going by the pronouncements at the seminars, the NHRC should have come down heavily on the Government of India and sided with the demand for an open discussion on the caste system. Instead, it has tried to hedge the issue.

The NHRC admits that discrimination based on ``race, caste and descent constitute an unacceptable assault on the dignity and worth of the human person and an egregious violation of human rights''. But it pins its hopes on the ``instruments of governance'' which have done little in the last four years. By not taking New Delhi to task for its hide-bound attitude, the NHRC has allowed the Government to get away with its biased view on caste and has let down the Indian NGOs in Durban.

In fact, New Delhi's diplomatic efforts have borne fruit. New Delhi argues that caste is an internal matter and should be discussed within India, not outside. How did New Delhi arrive at such a decision without knowing public opinion, without consulting Parliament? This is where the NHRC's lead was required to chide the Government. The body is either too timid or too divided. Either way, it is harming its status and stature. At times, it appears to be riding two horses at the same time. It has been saved from the embarrassment of weighing caste and race at the scales.

True, caste is not race but the fallout from caste is more discriminating and devastating. Why run away from the fact of caste which has been there for more than 2000 years and which prevails in the same ugly shape as it was a long time ago? If bias against women can be discussed at international conventions, why not caste? Do the Dalits not go through the same humiliation, the same harassment and the same horrors of living as women in many parts of the world? Borrowing words from Shakespeare, they can say: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The fate of the Dalits has not changed at all. The NHRC should have stood by them. No doubt on the basis of 20-odd Articles in the Constitution, India can get full marks. But all that is on paper. Dalits, the lowest rung of the caste system, face discrimination every minute and at every step of their life. The Government has done little to fight the caste system. Untouchability has been banned but not the caste system whose product untouchability is. All the pronouncements of equality or social justice in the preamble of the Constitution make no sense when the Dalits are no better economically after 54 years of Independence and no higher socially, the result of 2000 years of discrimination.Colour bar, however reprehensible, is better than the caste system. A Black can cross the colour limits. A Black can marry a White. After two or three generations, their descendants can pass off as Whites. But a Dalit cannot escape the caste system. His disability is in birth itself. Dalits remain Dalits.

Even if they marry outside their caste, which is very rare, they remain Dalit. Caste is the millstone that they have worn around their neck generation after generation. Manu divided the Hindu society into four castes. The structure has not changed - even after so many centuries. Reservation, an affirmative action of sorts, has had no effect on the attitude of the upper castes. They accept the Dalits in high positions like a tax, trying to avoid it as far as possible. That is the reason why there are so few Dalits in high positions. At present, there are no Secretary or Additional Secretary level officers from the Dalits at the Centre. In the private sector, even the fig-leaf cover of reservation is not there. Dalits are only peons or clerks. A study is long overdue to assess the plight of Dalits with regard to livelihood, equality, education, employment, security, etc. If every State in India had brought out every year a white paper on the progress of the Dalits, it might have shamed the upper castes and goaded them to action.

The Constitution has provided for a Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He produces an annual report, which is placed before the two Houses of Parliament. The perfunctory attitude towards the entire exercise shows that neither the Government, nor the MPs are serious about this report. It accumulates dust on the shelves of the Home Ministry for years and then comes to Parliament for discussion. The discussion in Parliament is perfunctory. The Commissioner points out the same lapses year after year. But nothing happens. And his complaint, like that of his predecessors, is that even a Deputy Secretary in the Government of India does not give him an appointment, let alone the Minister in charge.

True, the NHRC has its plate full. It cannot take upon itself the burden of the SC and ST Commission. But the Durban conference is one place where it can wash away the stigma of being equivocal on the matter of caste. New Delhi is determined to sweep everything under the carpet and keep it there. Will the NHRC have the courage to retrieve it and place in the open the scourge of the caste system which has reduced the Dalits to a status less than human beings. No democratic system should be ashamed of discussing at any forum its practices which disable its own people. A free society owes its existence to the tenets of freedom. The Dalits have never had a breath of freedom in the suffocating Hindu society.

The Dalits are a wounded people, battered and broken. India is strong enough democratically to admit that it has failed somewhere, despite all the guarantees in the Constitution, to provide the same glow of freedom which the upper castes enjoy. Someone should have taken New Delhi to task for not implementing the anti-discrimination laws in letter and spirit. New Delhi would have served the country's cause better by allowing at Durban an open discussion on the caste system which continues to be a social stigma. A discussion at Durban does not mean any international interference. If the Government takes what the WTO does in the spirit of improvement of economy, why is it afraid of the Durban conference? New Delhi does not accept all that comes from the WTO. Similarly, it does not have to implement the recommendations of the Durban conference if they are against the national interest.