Debating India

Discrimination against Dalits

Monday 2 May 2005, by THEKAEKARA*Mari Marcel

The appointment of two U.N. Special Rapporteurs could strengthen the struggle to end caste-based discrimination.

DALITS ALL over the world have something to rejoice about. Durban was not in vain.

On April 19, 2005, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted a Resolution to appoint two Special Rapporteurs to tackle caste-based discrimination.

The appointment of the two rapporteurs, Yozo Yokota and Chin-Sung Chung, was the result of years of painstaking advocacy work by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) and the International Dalit Solidarity Network. The resolution was first passed in August 2004 by the U.N. Sub-Commission.

The struggle began with the build-up to the World Conference Against Racism in 2001. The then Indian Government was determined to block it. "Caste is not race," its representative in Geneva argued. "No, you’re right," said Martin Macwan, then Convener of NCDHR. "It’s far worse than race."

"You cannot wash our dirty linen in public" argued the Government. "Your admission that we have dirty linen is a first step forward. It’s an admission that the problem exists," retorted the NCDHR.

Difficult path

The road to U.N. recognition of the problem proved rocky. But a brilliant advocacy campaign managed the breakthrough.

The Sub-Commission, in August 2000, issued a significant resolution declaring that discrimination based on work and descent is prohibited by international human rights law, and called on Governments to take measures to eliminate this type of discrimination.

In a series of working papers presented to the Sub-Commission, the global dimensions of this form of discrimination, and its main features, have been examined in considerable detail.

The Commission’s decision comes in the wake of an International Consultation held in Kathmandu last year on how to address the problem.

Concrete steps

The Kathmandu Dalit Declaration provides concrete measures that can be taken not only by Governments, the U.N. and development agencies, but also the private sector, trade unions, and international financial institutions.

One of the proposals has now been fulfilled in the form of the appointment of the Special Rapporteurs.

The countries practising various forms of caste discrimination on the basis of descent or work and occupation have been listed as Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Ethiopia, India, Japan, Kenya, Mauritania, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Senegal, Somalia, and Sri Lanka.

Widespread discrimination

Research by Dalit groups points out that caste discrimination in various forms exists practically everywhere in the world where the Indian diaspora exists.

The Sub-Commission will now undertake a three-year study, led by Mr. Yozo Yokota and Ms. Chin-Sung Chung, and put together a draft set of guidelines to eliminate this form of discrimination.

Paul Divakar, NCDHR National Convener, said: "Dalits have pierced through the wall of silence in the U.N. For the first time, Dalit rights and similar concerns of descent and work based discrimination may be addressed by the High Commission on Human Rights on a par with other Human Rights concerns."

Getting visibility

Asked how this affected the Dalit community on the ground, Mr. Divakar said "the issues have to be decided at the panchayat level, but the tremendous amount of visibility that the issue is getting and the fact that every year the Special Rapporteurs have to present the issue at the U.N. is going to have an impact on the impunity factor.

"Instances of impunity will reduce, stricter monitoring systems will be put in place, formal channels will be more alert, the National Human Rights mechanisms which are part of the broader platform at the U.N. will have to take the issue more seriously, show results. So finally, the untouchability of caste in the U.N. is behind us."

Human rights defenders the world over will be watching and waiting. If this development succeeds in eliminating millennia of shameful discrimination, it will finally make us a civilised nation.

(The writer is Visiting Skoll Fellow, Said Business School, Oxford University.)

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0