In the cause of Dalits

Print edition : September 15, 2001

AT the end of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, the Indian government and the Dalit rights groups were in agreement on one point: that the conference has triggered in India a debate on Dalit rights. The debate in the run-up to the conference centred on the question whether caste can be equated with race. This was followed by assertions by Dalit rights groups that caste discrimination was first and foremost an issue of socio-economic and human rights. They got a shot in the arm when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) decided to raise in Durban the issue of caste-based discrimination.

A Dalit activist from India on hunger-strike outside the conference venue.-ALEXANDER JOE/AP

In India, the pre-conference arguments crystallised into two major questions. First, what will be the short- and long-term effects of the NHRC's refusal to toe the government line that caste discrimination is an internal matter that need not be taken to international forums? Secondly, will the Durban process have the effect of ensuring social and economic rights for Dalits through constitutional provisions?

The NHRC's stand received plaudits from the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in India. NHRC Chairman Justice J.S. Verma refused to join the national preparatory committee constituted by the Prime Minister ahead of the Durban conference and said that the Commission would formulate its own opinion. The NHRC conducted a national seminar in Bangalore on August 3 (Frontline, September 14) and a public hearing in New Delhi on August 11 (Frontline, August 31) to ascertain informed opinion on the issue of caste-based discrimination. On August 26, the Commission said that it was not against raising the issue in Durban and that it would support the Dalit groups in this regard. Addressing a press conference in New Delhi, Justice Verma said: "The NHRC has no problems with the discussion of caste-based discrimination at any international meet. We are not concerned about finding similarities between caste and race as the labels are of no importance to us." Refusing to comment on the government's stand, he said: "What I want to emphasise is that we want to fight caste-based discrimination and for that we are willing to take to any platform. If people discuss caste-based discrimination in an international meet and come up with better ideas, I would not have any problem."

In Durban, Justice K. Ramaswamy, a member of the NHRC, stressed the Commission's commitment to ending caste-based discrimination. According to him, the debate on whether race and caste were co-terminus or whether they signified similar forms of discrimination was not the essence of the matter. He said: "The Constitution of India in Article 15 expressly prohibits discrimination on either ground and that constitutional guarantee must be rigorously implemented. In this connection, the Commission believes deeply in the value of engaging governments, NGOs, national institutions and all concerned elements of civil society in the process of fighting discrimination, and urges that this process be conducted at all levels."

This stand earned praise from the UNHRC. Said Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights: "I congratulate the principled stand taken by the NHRC, which stood up to help Dalits and extended moral support." On the role of the NGOs, she said: "The NGOs have raised what they called discrimination against Dalits in India, and the issue has been brought before the international community."

What will be the long-term effect of the Commission's stand?

Said Editor of Communalism Combat, Teesta Setalvad, who participated in the conference: "The NHRC's stand is welcome as it signifies that as a statutory body it will take up Dalit-related issues seriously. The NHRC is approached by aggrieved Dalit individuals and groups. Its stand has shown that it would be willing to look into the patterns of discrimination against Dalits, where they are apparent."

Said another participant, Mohini Giri, vice-president of the Guild of Service: "The only ray of light for us at the conference was the NHRC's recognition that caste-based discrimination exists and needs to be looked into."

The NHRC's position at the conference reaffirmed the NGOs' argument that caste-based discrimination exists as a human rights problem in India. This argument, it is hoped, will help in exerting pressure on the government to devise ways to put an end to caste-based discrimination. In Durban the government took the line that the Constitution ensures that Dalits are not discriminated against, and hence caste is an internal matter, which the government is looking into.

The Constitution does provide some privileges to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes to help them overcome their social disabilities. The Untouchability Act of 1955 made the practice of untouchability a punishable offence. The Act was later improved upon and incorporated in the statute book as the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which was enacted in 1989, seeks to ensure that the perpetrators of caste-based atrocities do not escape punishment when the victims are unable to produce evidence in a court of law. These are radical measures but they have lulled the government into complacency. The debates preceding the Durban conference have initiated a process which, it is hoped, will eventually shake the government out of its complacency.

Dr. Sukhadeo Thorat, Professor of Economics at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, who attended the conference, said: "Durban highlighted that the Dalit rights issue is also an issue of economic and cultural rights. It is not only about ensuring constitutional safeguards, it highlighted the economic deprivation of Dalits in India. It emphasised that they do not have land and that the unemployment rate among them is twice that of the rest of India. Socially, Dalits are still untouchables. This is apparent in the segregation of their residences. It reaffirmed that caste-based discrimination is a multi-faceted issue involving social and economic rights."

The NGOs say that they will carry on with their multidimensional approach to the issue of caste-based discrimination. Said Martin Macwan, convener of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights: "We will continue to emphasise on pro-Dalit programmes such as land reforms, primary education, the fight for equal opportunities and uniform legislation, and the removal of manual scavenging."

A serious problem that the conference-related debates in India served to highlight was the failure of political parties, barring those of the Left, to make their stand clear on taking up the issue of caste-based discrimination at international forums. This despite the fact that they sent their representatives to Durban. The coming together of NGOs in the cause of Dalits had a lesson to offer. It is doubtful whether political parties are willing to learn from it.

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