The segregation and abuse of the low-caste Dalit people is a stain on India’s reputation, but a militant fightback is under way.
Eight people were convicted on Monday of the murder of four members of a lower-caste Dalit family in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
A Dalit farmer’s wife, daughter and two sons were lynched and battered to death by an upper-caste mob in a land dispute in 2006. The women were also raped.
What is unusual about this case is that the perpetrators were successfully prosecuted. Normally, the killers of Dalits walk free.
One reason why the murderers have been bought to justice is the rising tide of Dalit militancy. There has been a wave of mass demonstrations by Dalit people demanding justice and equal treatment. Newly confident and organised, the Dalits are fighting back with strikes and boycotts. Shaken by this burgeoning protest movement, some Indian authorities are finally being pushed and pressured into action, albeit slowly and exceptionally.
About time too. India’s 170 million Dalit people, formerly known as “untouchables,” are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. They are victims of the most extreme form of caste discrimination. It is, in many ways, analogous to racism. By virtue of their birth into a Dalit family and community, they are condemned forever to a life of social stigma, exclusion and victimisation.
Human Rights Watch has condemned India’s abuse of its Dalit people as a “hidden apartheid,” comparable to the institutional discrimination of pre-democratic South Africa.
According to a major Human Rights Watch report, Dalit people are still today seen by many Indians as sub-human and undeserving of basic rights.
Shunned as inferiors and social outcasts, they suffer insults, violence, rape, discrimination and impoverishment. Often forced into de facto slave labour, they are made to eat, sleep and pray separately, and denied equal education and healthcare. In some schools, Dalit children are required to sit separately, at the back of the classroom. Similar segregation happens in housing, temples, hospitals and in relief camps after natural disasters like floods and earthquakes. Many Dalits are refused use of land and water wells. Others are pressed into degrading jobs, ranging from prostitution to the manual clearing of human waste. Payment is often in food, not money. Of those who get paid cash, many earn the equivalent of less than 50p for an eight hour day.
The plight of the Dalits is well known to the Indian government. In 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first serving Indian prime minister to acknowledge a parallel between the practice of “untouchability” and the abuses of apartheid. He condemned anti-Dalit casteism as a “blot on humanity”, adding: “Even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country.”
This failure by successive Indian governments to adequately address the sub-human mistreatment of the Dalit people was exposed in 1999 by Human Rights Watch.
Similar criticisms were voiced in 2007 in a report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
It reiterated that laws protecting Dalits were not strong enough and that existing laws were often not enforced. No surprise there. Anti-Dalit casteism is also deeply entrenched among law enforcement agencies, including government officials, police officers, judges and lawyers. Even many of the people who are employed to ensure the protection of Dalit human rights are either hostile, indifferent or fearful of a backlash if they do their job with any effectiveness.
Over 100,000 cases of rape, murder, arson and other abuses against Dalits are reported in India each year.
Some states record conviction rates as low as two or three percent. Moreover, the police themselves are sometimes the perpetrators of abuses against Dalit people. Human Rights Watch confirms that police officers have been guilty of detaining, torturing and extorting money from Dalits.
These abuses are not happening in apartheid-era South Africa. They are occurring, with virtual impunity, in modern-day India – the world’s largest democracy and an emerging economic superpower.
If India wants to be an internationally respected world player, as it has every right to be, it needs to eradicate this blight on its national character. As long as the feudal caste system exists, India will never fulfil its potential, economically or ethically.
You can help the Dalit struggle for dignity and human rights by emailing the Indian High Commissioner in London, Mr. Shiv Shankar Mukherjee: hc.london @ mea.gov.in
Urge him to press the Indian government for tougher laws and stronger law enforcement to protect the Dalit people, backed up with a mandatory education programme to promote Dalit equality in all Indian schools, businesses, temples, mosques, government offices and police and judicial agencies.