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DAWN, Wednesday 05 September, 2001

Dalit discrimination on racism moot agenda

DURBAN, Sept 4: Recognition of the plight of low-caste Dalits is one of the successes of the UN World Conference Against Racism, even though the talks are not yet over, a human rights campaigner said.

Two years ago, had anyone heard of Dalits? asked Smita Narula, of Human Rights Watch, at a news briefing on the sidelines of the talks in Durban, South Africa, adding that their situation was now "clearly identified as a human rights issue".

"For the first time, they are seeing their issue and their plight being discussed in an international forum," she told reporters.

More than 250 million people worldwide face caste-based discrimination, according to Human Rights Watch. They include the Dalits in India, and minorities in Japan, other parts of south Asia and west Africa.

Caste-based discrimination is one of many issues being discussed at the conference, though it has been controversy over the Arab-Israeli conflict that has grabbed the headlines.

Ahead of a US and Israeli walkout from the conference late Monday, international human rights' organisations urged UN government delegates not to get bogged down in political recrimination.

In India alone, about 16 percent of the more than one billion population are Dalits, or "oppressed", also formerly known as the "untouchables", and half of them are landless workers. They face segregation and are usually forced to carry out the most menial jobs.

Narula said India had attempted to keep the caste issue off the agenda of the UN talks. However, the question has been included, albeit within brackets in the draft programme of action and under an item on work and descent, without mentioning the word caste.

Bracketing indicates wording that is still open to change. "The government of India ... has been pressuring countries to keep any mention of this issue out of conference documents," said Narula, referring to draft texts being negotiated for final adoption by the UN meeting. But she said there was an "emerging global movement on behalf of Dalits ... people of other lower-cast communities will not let this issue be hidden any longer."

"The Indian government has continually maintained that caste discrimination is an internal matter, not for international concern," she said.

Supporters calling for change on caste-based discrimination have been active in Durban, and especially during a five-day forum of non-governmental organisations that closed Sunday.

Although the caste system is supposed to have been abolished in India and discrimination on the grounds of caste is illegal, it continues in many forms.

Prince Singh, of the Dalit Solidarity Forum, which took part in the NGO gathering on the sidelines of the UN talks, said last week that discrimination was widespread, though not always visible.

"In tea shops, they are served with different cups in rural villages. When they walk through higher caste villages they have to remove their shoes," Singh said. "There are also atrocities against them in terms of physical violence," he added.-AFP


DAWN, Nov 22, 2000
Dalit cause be put on UN agenda, says Indian

By Masood Haider

NEW YORK, Nov 21: Martin Macwan, a leader of India's 160 million Dalits (untouchables), has called upon the international community to put the cause of Dalits on the agenda of the United Nations' first international conference on racism and discrimination next summer.

The Dalits in India, Macwan says, are suffering under Indian rule due to the caste system and none of the laws against discrimination are ever enforced.

Macwan was honoured last Tuesday by the Human Rights Watch, in New York. He will also receive the Robert F. Kennedy award for human rights in Washington next week.

Last year the Human Rights Watch in a report said: "The Indian government has long failed to prevent widespread violence and discrimination against some 160 million people at the bottom of caste system. Dalits - or untouchables - continue to live in segregated colonies and perform demeaning caste-based occupations. They cannot enter the higher-caste sections of villages, may not use the same wells, wear shoes in the presence of upper castes, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs."

The report further said: "Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms and make up the majority of those sold into bondage. Attempts by Dalits to claim their legal rights or disturb the status quo are met with large-scale violence, destruction of property, and sexual violence against Dalit women. Dalit villagers have been the victims of many brutal massacres in recent years, often with the complicity of the police. Mr Macwan's work has been wake-up call to the international community about the suffering of the Dalits."

"The fact that we're honouring a Martin from India reminds us of yet another Martin from the US who fought racial discrimination in this country," Stephen Rickard, director of the R.F.K. Center for Human Rights, said in an interview.

In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Macwan, 41, described the lives of people who are deprived of land ownership, required to drink and eat from separate utensils, barred from wells and temples, forced into bonded labour and made to clean latrines with their bare hands and carry human waste away from the homes of caste Hindus.

Indian Express, March 26, 1999
In AP's untouchable village Dalits still thirst for reform


ANAKAPALLE, MARCH 25: When the world is all set to enter the next millennium, the Dalits of Pallapu Kumarapuram in Munagapaka mandal in Visakhapatnam district have to stand away from the village well for someone to draw water and pour into their pitchers, so that they do not `pollute' the water in the well by their touch.

Even at the village's lone small restaurant, the Dalits cannot step in to have a snack in the stainless steel plates in which the upper castes are served. That will invite the wrath of the upper castes for their audacity. They will have to hold leaf platters in their hands and ask the server at the restaurant to drop the snacks into them, like beggars. If they need a drink of water to wash the food down at the restaurant, they have to proffer the glasses brought with them and the attendant will fill them. They are barred from using the hotel glasses.

The village restaurant is run by a woman of upper caste. ``She is a kind woman. But she is afraid of crossing the line drawn by her castepeople,'' says Nukaraju, himself a Dalit.

The village has a population of 400 people. Of them, 12 families belong to Scheduled Castes. There is only one well for the entire village. The rest of the population belongs to an upper caste whose members loathe the very sight of the Dalits.

The dozen Dalit families have to wait outside the houses of upper caste families until they come out, draw water from the well and pour into the `untouchable' containers. If the upper caste people are busy, the Dalits have to wait until they are free and ready to be generous to them.

Even this facility had been denied to them for some time when the Dalits gathered courage and questioned the sarpanch as to why they could not draw water from the well. The upper castes then decided to offer them a concession -- the upper castes would first draw water and fill their containers at home and only after that would they draw water for the Dalits' needs.

Even when it comes to washing clothes, there is untouchability. The uppercaste families wash their clothes at one of the two tanks in the village which was intended to serve the needs of the Dalits. Only after they finish the day's washing, are the Dalits allowed to use the tank water for washing their clothes. The other tank nearby, the upper caste considers as its own and does not allow washing there by the Dalits.

Though the Dalit youths resent the apartheid, their parents restrain them from protesting. ``If we try to do anything to end the discrimination, our parents and grandparents shout at us as they do not want to annoy the upper caste,'' says Appalaraju, who is doing a course in industrial training.

As the Dalits swallow their self-respect and stay meek before the upper caste, this heinous practice does not seem to have caught the eye of the district administration. Which century is this village entering?


The News International, Wednesday August 29, 2001

Dalit's dream of escaping caste, poverty trap

SEER, India: Sanjay and Abishek, aged 11 and eight, go to a private school, speak English and dream of becoming doctors. Grinning and shy in school uniform, they are modern boys who stick pictures of film stars on the walls of their house and muddy their trousers on the way home from school, pretty much like boys of that age anywhere in the world.

The difference is they are Dalits, or "untouchables", the bottom of the pile in the Hindu caste system -- and poor. They live with their mother, Bimla, and 75-year-old grandmother, Dhanvati, in a two-room thatched hovel among a group of Dalits at the "wrong" end of the village of Seer in northern India. Bimla's wages of $15 a month as a midwife are barely enough to pay the school fees of 150 rupees a month plus living costs, and she says she does not know how long she will be able to keep the boys in education. But all the money they have is spent on the boys.

"This is my dream. I want them to become big people in life," says Dhanvati, who still remembers the days when even her shadow was not allowed to touch a member of the upper caste. The caste system is changing and the "so near and yet so far" story of Sanjay and Abishek is evidence of both the hopes and the plight of India's underclass. As India grapples with the question of whether a forthcoming United Nations conference on racism should cover caste, Sanjay and Abishek's future is at the heart of the debate: where does caste end and poverty start in keeping people down?

Since the constitution outlaws caste discrimination and the government reserves jobs for lower castes, there are those who believe boys like Sanjay and Abishek need money not words. "In liberalised times it is almost bad manners to argue that at the base of social discrimination is grinding poverty," Dipankar Gupta, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wrote in a newspaper column. Others say recognition from the UN racism conference, which starts in South Africa on Friday (August 31), that caste discrimination is an abuse of human rights would force the government to do more to stop it. "Poverty is an evil thing but caste-based discrimination has nothing to do with poverty," says Arjun Sengupta from New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research.

"If you are low caste and poor you are in double jeopardy." The government has so far rejected calls to discuss caste at the conference, saying it cannot be equated with racism. So what is caste-based discrimination? In some cases it involves gruesome massacres of lower castes by upper caste villagers and then reprisal killings by lower castes -- as happens particularly in the poor eastern state of Bihar. Often it prevents inter-caste marriages. In rural India, where some three-quarters of the population live, castes marry within castes. Anyone who defies this breaks not only the caste taboo but also the prevalent tradition of arranged marriages.

Last month a boy and a girl of different castes were hanged in front of their families because they ignored these rules. Then there are more subtle forms of prejudice, created by changes to the caste system which muddy the traditional picture of upper caste against Dalits, also known as Scheduled Castes.

In Seer, the new oppressors are the Yadavs, a group of so-called Other Backward Castes (OBCs), which occupy the space in the social hierarchy between the upper castes and Dalits. The Yadavs -- the name means dairy farmer -- have been among the big beneficiaries of caste affirmative action programmes and have gained substantial economic and political clout. "Here this area is dominated by Yadavs. Their word is law here. They have muscle power and money," says one Dalit woman. "They don't mind taking money from us, touching our hand, but they can't take a glass touched by our hand," adds villager Dinesh.

The Dalit villagers have few problems with Seer's upper caste minority, but say Yadavs harass them, refuse to drink or eat with them and control everything, right down to elections. "There have been times when I have gone to vote and my vote has already been cast and no matter how much we plead nobody is willing to listen to us," complains Dinesh.

Many of the Yadavs, with their own land and airy two-storey brick houses, look down on the Dalits, landless labourers living in a cluster of one-storey thatched buildings. "They are lazy people and they don't like to work. Otherwise, who is stopping them from earning?," says Mohan Yadav, sitting by the roadside chewing tobacco and betel nut. And even those who don't have such prejudices would die rather than marry a Dalit. "If somebody tries to do it, he will be thrown out of the village," says Satyanarain Yadav.

This is only one village. In others, Dalits or upper castes dominate and use their greater numbers to intimidate or connive with election officials to keep political and economic power. Ironically, lower castes are fighting discrimination in a way which is actually making the system more rigid by grouping in political parties defined along caste lines.

In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where Seer is situated, virtually everyone believes forthcoming state elections there will be determined by caste not issues. The caste system may even be doing what it has done for centuries, mutating to accommodate change and surviving -- if anything -- in a more virulent from. The caste system probably arrived some 3,500 years ago along with Aryan invaders from the west.

Hindu scriptures separated people into Brahmin priests, warriors, farmers and labours, while the rest were beyond definition -- literally outcastes or untouchables. Scholars argue about whether these scriptures say caste is hereditary, but it became so over the years while multiplying into sub-castes as people defined profession by caste or sought new labels for themselves to break out of caste constraints.

A census just completed in Uttar Pradesh found 79 sub-castes of Other Backward Castes and 66 sub-castes of Scheduled Castes. Caste became -- and to some extent still is -- social protection in a country without a welfare state, and a closed shop where professions were handed down through generations. Then came Mahatma Gandhi, who denounced caste and renamed the untouchables as the Children of God -- though some say even he may have been influenced by his own merchant or bania caste to argue in favour of economic self-sufficiency for India.

After independence, job quotas for lower castes created a new division between those who got rich through it and those who remained poor; and along with that came caste politics. But Sanjay and Abishek still hope their generation will see an end to caste discrimination. "When I grow up I would like to fight against this. I would go and argue with people that what they are doing is wrong. Human beings are the same," says Sanjay.

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