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Viewing Caste as a Global Human Rights Crisis

By Shreeya Bhayana

Even though the subcontinent’s past and present has borne witness to a magnitude of human rights violations when it comes to caste discrimination, it is not often classified as a human rights issue. Human rights issues are often described as belonging to “national, or ethnic, religious minorities” which cannot easily be translated to cover caste. Contrarily, one of the central tenants of modern human rights recognises that all persons are deserving of the right to life and liberty. Yet, by definition, untouchability in caste is built on the idea that a group of people deserves less respect and fewer rights than the rest because they were born into a particular social stratum. This article will attempt to map out the debates around the role of the State in caste-based discrimination in contemporary times and the need for internationalisation of the caste movement.

In 2016, a UN Special Rapporteur (SR) on minority issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye released a harrowing report on caste-based discrimination, which was claimed as the first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination. The report found that at least 250 million people worldwide were subject to dehumanising discrimination, solely on the basis of their birth and consequent inherited status. As per her report, “The resulting extreme exclusion and dehumanization of caste-affected groups translates into individuals and communities often being deprived of, or severely restricted from enjoying those most basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights,”. In response to these facts and practices being brought into the ambit of the United Nations, India’s permanent representative in Geneva at the UN, Ajit Kumar instead claimed that the report was invalid as it breached the Special Rapporteur’s mandate since caste was not covered as per the categories of minorities. Izsák-Ndiaye classified caste as a category that was encompassed in “complexity” since caste cannot easily be classified as either a religious or ethnic minority but does share a lot of minority-like characteristics, specifically their non-dominance and marginalised position within Indian society.

When it comes to discussing caste at international forums, India has shown reluctance to address how drastic and spread out the situation actually is.  This was also witnessed in 2004, when another SR report by Doudou Diène on forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance came to include the caste system under “political platforms which promote or incite racial discrimination”. The Indian representative at the time contested this inclusion, citing that caste “was a “social and class distinction which has its origins in the fundamental division of Indian society during ancient times” and the caste system was to be seen as contrary to the Indian constitution. In response, Diéne noted that when addressing caste discrimination, there is a need to extend beyond the law and understand identity constructions of the Indian identity. Also, the idea that a system can be traced historically and intellectually within a society and made to appear natural in its construction does not mean that the actions being carried out are not a form of discrimination. Discrimination is not a law of the cosmos and there is a scope for caste-based discrimination to be retraced and deconstructed, in order to combat it.

N Paul Divakar, the general secretary of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights expressed that this outlook was not surprised with the Indian stance at Geneva but exclaimed the need to abandon it in a rapidly globalising world. The similarities between the lived experiences of lower caste people when it comes to discrimination and violence and those of other racial minorities in other parts of the world are uncanny, and other people are taking note of it. India is the largest ground in the world for Caste-based discrimination, but not the only one, as the report by Rita Izsák-Ndiaye points out. But, Divakar indicates, that if India was to opt for a comprehensive model to deconstruct the caste system, other countries might follow. The internationalisation and acknowledgement of the Dalit struggle would go towards providing support to the movement within the legislative and legal framework. But this is prevented when they choose to ignore and deny the existence of caste-based discrimination. And they do so because, as Ashok Bharti, the chair of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations points out, the majority of the Government is made up of upper caste individuals, affected by their own guilt, are single-mindedly focussing on hiding their faults in the present caste-based regime rather than take steps to ensure its deconstruction.

In recent years, there has been a steady increase in crimes against Dalits with nearly 139,045 cases filed between 2018 and 2020 with UP leading the charge. Uttar Pradesh has the highest number of crimes against Dalits around 25.8% of the total cases in India with over 95% pendency rates for these crimes. The state also has the second-highest number of rapes of Dalit women (National Crime Records Bureau). This covers the cases that have been filed and it should be assumed that there are numerous other cases that are not being reported. Vimal Thorat, the national convenor of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, expressed that a lot of these cases are dropped because the opposing assertion of upper castes in the village is too great. According to her, “Less than 20% cases get a conviction, and over half of them are not pursued, as often the pressure on the families is very high,” Moreover, there are many incidents where cases are not registered until there is a committed activist alongside them to see the complaints through.

On 14th September 2020, a 19-year-old girl was gang-raped in the village of Hathras, Uttar Pradesh. The victim of the heinous crime belonged to the Dalit sub-caste of Valmikis, an “untouchable” caste while the four accused of the crime were upper-caste men from the Thakur caste (This caste accounts for the majority in the village). When the case was first reported, the police failed to file an FIR and claimed that the family was lying. Even though she was able to give her statement to the police in the hospitals and name her assaulters, before succumbing to her injury at the Jawahar Lal Nehru hospital, the police failed to arrest the perpetrators. The UP police, in the dead of the night, without the consent of her parents, with the victim’s mother weeping helplessly, took her body to the cremation site and did her final rites without most of her family. Even though there was a press present at the cremation site, the police made human chains to prevent any documentation. In the following days, the family of the perpetrators and they themselves continued to haggle and pressurize the family to take back the case and the police did nothing to prevent it.

Moreover, they continued to deny that a rape ever took place, claiming all of it to be some sort of caste-based conspiracy to turn the lower caste against the Thakurs. The police claim that the victim did not mention the rape until nine days, yet there is video evidence of the victim taken within the hour of the assault, naming her attackers. They also arrested journalists reporting on these proceedings under UAPA, claiming they were attempting to incite caste-based violence. Additionally, pro-government news channels have been reiterating that the rape and the victim’s statements are a conspiracy and that the victim’s family has taken money to fuel the conspiracy, in order to cast doubt onto the victim’s family; thereby furthering the UP government’s stance on “caste-riot conspiracy” (Mondal 2021). BJP leaders went as far as to hold large rallies in support of the accused men with the relatives of the accused in attendance.  The State worked in tandem with the privileged groups of upper-caste Thakur in the village to ensure that the Dalit girl’s assault went unreported and the arrest of the four accused only happened when the social outcry from different parts of the nation was too high.

The presence of laws supporting Caste-based affirmative action is not enough. Caste is sustained by informal institutions through violence, threats, and dehumanization. The Indian State is arbitrarily made up of and influenced by upper caste people, most of whom want to sustain the caste system. Internationalisation and mass-acknowledgement of caste-based discrimination as a human rights crisis may lead to better conditions for lower caste people based not just in India, but also in the rest of the world. International attention might not amount to much if India continues off in the same direction as it has since BJP’s election in 2014, which has contributed heavily towards Hindutva behaviors being incorporated into the State. Caste finds its footing and legitimacy in Hinduism, through the idea of ‘divine ordinance’ and if Hindutva were to be incorporated even more than it already is, the caste system would strengthen and not weaken.

Shreeya Bhayana is a 3rd-year liberal arts student, majoring in Economics and Sociology, at Jindal School of Liberal Arts.

Image credits – Newslaundry

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