Human rights organizations working against caste-based discrimination in the region must engage in debates on the need for a comprehensive UN framework to tackle caste- based discrimination and should encourage affected governments to support such initiative at the UN level. This is the response from the Asian Human Rights Commission and The International Dalit Solidarity Network to the recent media attention following a parallel meeting at the 12th session of the Human Rights Council.
There have been several attempts by institutions, for instance the UN, to address the problem of caste internationally. However, there have so far been very few effective interventions to address caste based discrimination internationally owing to political pressure and regional dynamics.
International attempts to recognise caste discrimination as a human rights violation have been 'diplomatically softened' owing to objections mostly by governments, particularly by the Government of India. Of particular relevance is the objection by India to consider caste based discrimination as a form of blatant human rights violation coming within the sweep of international instruments, for instance, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh are parties to this convention.
Of the five countries, India has remained the most active opponent of having caste-based discrimination included within the scope of the ICERD. The convention in its sweep, however, cover caste-based discrimination as a form of human rights violation based on descent. India's leading role in lobbying states against this view has been a subject of criticism within India.
On September 16 however, Nepal broke the ranks of states opposing the consideration of caste based discrimination as a serious human rights violation within the sweep of international human rights law. In a parallel event organized at the UN in Geneva, sponsored by The International Movement against all forms of Discrimination and Racism and co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International, Minority Rights Group International, The Lutheran World Federation, The World Council of Churches and Pax Romana/ICMICA in association with the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Nepal's State Minister for Ministry of General Administration, Mr. Jeet Bahadur Darjee Gautam said that his county welcomed the idea that the proposed draft principles and guidelines sponsored by the UN, would augment collective efforts of the international community, regional and international mechanisms, the UN and its organs, international civil society and the private sector to contribute to the elimination of caste based discrimination. The proceedings of the event and ensuing debates are available here.
Soon an article appeared in The Times of India titled 'UN set to treat caste as human rights violation'. While the article is slightly misleading, since caste-based discrimination is already considered as a form of human rights violation in international law, it speaks about the possibility of Government of India's objections of bringing caste-based discrimination as a subject for international debate, especially at the UN. In addition, the BBC World Service aired a 50 minute live radio debate on caste discrimination on September 29. A BBC blog has been established to debate further on this issue. This has created a vigorous debate on the internationalization of the issue of caste-based discrimination with contributions from all over the world. Another interesting debate is taking place on the Readers' Opinions page of The Times of India.
The response by the Government of India regarding this debate is eagerly awaited. But chances are, instead of viewing caste from a wrong point of view as a tool for 'Indian bashing' the government will show its maturity by contributing positively towards addressing the centuries-old practice of caste based discrimination. India's Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, has repeatedly expressed his view, that he and his government condemn caste based discrimination.
On September 7, Dr. Singh while inaugurating a new scheme intended for the Scheduled Castes in India, the Pradhanmantri Aadarsh Gram Yojna, said that much more need to be done at the domestic level on prevention of manual scavenging and the rehabilitation of manual scavengers. Manual scavenging is an evil practice in India rooted in caste based discrimination, where members of the Dalit communities are forced to work as manual scavengers.
While waiting for a response from other states in the region, particularly India, regarding the debate triggered off by the statement made by Mr. Jeet Bahadur Darjee Gautam on September 16, it is important for human rights organisations working against caste based discrimination in the region to make use of the new momentum to engage in debates against caste based discrimination. Such participation will further encourage the Government of India to take a positive position on the issue and support the initiative at the UN.
Caste discrimination – in context
Caste based discrimination is one of the worst forms of human rights violation known to humans. The widely accepted period of the origin of the inhuman practice dates back at least three thousand years. It is still actively practiced in societies following religious hierarchy, particularly among the Hindus. For this reason, the practice is mostly concentrated in regions influenced by the Hindu religion, in particular, countries like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
The concept of caste is stratification of society based on purity of origin and thus duties defined by birth to a particular caste group. It is a defining tool to cast obligatory duty on people that could not be taken away. The worst form of discrimination in caste is the practice of untouchability. Those who are worst affected by caste based discrimination are the members of the lowest group in the Brahminical hierarchy, including those considered to be outside the four Varna system of caste. This large group, more known as Dalits, is estimated to be slightly more than 250 million in number globally.
The closest comparison to discrimination based on caste is slavery. Caste based discrimination is however worse than slavery. This argument is crystallised in Dr. B. R. Ambedkar's statement comparing caste and slavery when he said, "either slavery nor untouchability is a free social order. But if a distinction is made, and there is no doubt that there is distinction between the two, the test is whether education, virtue, happiness, culture and wealth is possible within slavery or within untouchability. Judged by this test it is beyond controversy that slavery is hundred times better than untouchability. In slavery there is room for education, virtue, happiness, culture or wealth. In untouchability there is none". Dr. Ambedkar is the father of the Indian constitution.
Within India, there have been continuous attempts to address the problem of caste based discrimination. For instance, the practice of untouchability is prohibited in the constitution. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 criminalises untouchability, social ostracism based on caste and various other forms of caste based discrimination. The courts in India have also on several occasions adjudicated issues based on caste, often in favour of the Dalits and other lower caste groups. However, the practice of caste based discrimination still continues in India.