Dalits Remain 'Untouchables'


Davinder Kumar

Development journalist and Chevening Human Rights Scholar

Dalits Remain 'Untouchables'

Posted: 28/9/11 13:02 GMT

The UN General Assembly sessions, like listings at bookmakers' parlour, have favourites, and on occasions, even clear winners. As a scribe, for instance, you have a fair idea that Israel-Palestine issue will incite passions and dominate the agenda. From leaders with well-rehearsed speeches to news channels on a countdown, the stage is purpose-set for a grand show.

Political careers are pitched; channels get a ratings boost; activists have a field day before a global audience; and street vendors in New York too make a brisk business. Everybody wins. Then, who are the losers?

Ask 170 million dalits of India. For decades, organisations representing dalits who are traditionally regarded as 'untouchables' in centuries-old caste grouping in the Indian subcontinent, have tried relentlessly to make themselves heard at the UN forums. However, they very much remain outcasts in the world outside, as much as they remain excluded and marginalised within the South-Asian societies they live in.

Ten years ago in Durban, the UN World Conference Against Racism adopted the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Heralded as a united global action against racism, the declaration expressly set out to tackle racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. But despite years of protests, lobbying and advocacy, mention ofdalits and caste-based discrimination were ignored in the declaration following a strong opposition led by the Indian government.

Organisations representingdalits have for decades argued that caste-based discrimination is a distinct form of racism and must be acknowledged and addressed in its own identity. Being born a dalit may mean being made to sit separate from other children in a classroom or denied education altogether; forbidden to touch other higher caste people; denied entry into temples and places of worship; not allowed to own land or property; only expected to do menial jobs; and face risk of violent retribution if you dare to challenge or transgress your social ranking.

Even though caste-based discrimination is a crime and punishable in local laws across South Asia region, yet centuries of social hierarchy is still deeply rooted in the subcontinent and governs daily lives of hundreds of millions. It is existent more or less uniformly across all religions and cultures in the region, making it a very unique social practice of discrimination endemic to the region and even common among the South Asian diasporas across the world. As a result, millions are deprived of dignity and freedoms which constitute the basic core values of human rights. It is common to read about atrocities committed on dalits because of their caste and status in the society. Very often, their status is exacerbated by poverty and limited chances they enjoy to progress in life.

Dalitorganisations are often blamed for their failure to articulate their standpoints and advocate their rights. This, to a certain degree, is true. I recall sending stories to Outlook magazine in New Delhi from the media hub in Durban conference describing how fractured the dalit caucus was as compared to the Palestinians or the Israelis.

However, we are missing the point. It is not the failure of the dalit organisations or their leadership for their lack of ability and success in putting a robust case together. It is fundamentally a failure of the system that guarantees parity and fairness for all at platforms such as the UN. On the crest of political clamour, media rally and raucous protests, poorly resourced groups and unfashionable causes routinely fall off the agenda at key UN sessions. The case of dalits also exposes the fact that like the nations projecting themselves as moral torchbearers, human rights discourses too have a tendency to follow popular causes.

Last week, world leaders met at a high-level UN General Assembly meeting to reaffirm their commitment to the fight against racism on the 10th anniversary of the Durban Declaration. Once again, there was no mention of dalits. A scourge that blights the lives of millions who collectively represent more than half the population of the United States or roughly the populations of United Kingdom, France, Canada and Australia put together, continues to be underplayed or buried under generic definitions.

For leaders there is no political leverage to be gained; for sheer force, dalit protests rarely go beyond playing of traditional drums and sporadic sloganeering; caste-based discrimination isn't a sexy story for the media; and often broke dalit activists travelling on a shoestring budget from rural pockets in India are no joy to enterprising street hawkers either. Nobody wins, certainly not dalits. In their quest for a separate identity, dalits are fighting a very lonely battle. Not only at home, but also on global forums they continue to be 'untouchables.'

India abuse: Scores guilty of Dalit rape and torture


29 September 2011 Last updated at 18:37

India abuse: Scores guilty of Dalit rape and torture

All the victims have waived their right to anonymity to highlight their case

A court in India has convicted 269 police and forest officials of torturing and abusing more than 100 low-caste tribespeople in a 1992 raid.

Officials went to the village of Vachathi in southern Tamil Nadu state looking for smuggled sandalwood.

Over two days, 18 women were raped, at least 100 Dalits (former untouchables) abused and homes and cattle looted.

Seventeen officials were found guilty of rape and the rest were convicted of "atrocities against Dalits".

Nearly 100 of those convicted are policemen. Of the 269 convicted, 54 died during the course of the trial.

The court has sentenced all of those convicted: 12 men were given 10 years in prison and five were given seven years each. The remainder were given jail terms of between two and five years.

"This is an historic judgement. All the accused in this case are government officials. Till date I don't think so many government officials are convicted in a single case," said P Shanmugam, president of the Tamil Nadu Tribal People's Association.

'Repeatedly raped'

All of the low caste tribal rape victims have waived their right to anonymity. One of them, Gandhimathi, told the BBC that she would like to have seen life terms for those who committed the rapes.

She said that she and 17 other women were taken in a police truck to a lake embankment of and repeatedly raped.

"Afterwards they took us to a forest department and tortured us for the whole night. They took us in groups and photographed us in front of sandlewood and later produced [the pictures] before the magistrate, who remanded us for 45 days in jail.

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"The officials warned us that if we made any complaints about the rapes to the magistrate our male relatives will be arrested under a draconian law. So we kept quiet."

Ms Gandhimathi said that after the crime, government officials killed all their livestock and took whatever they had.

"When we came back from jail, the whole village was deserted," she said.

"All our homes were destroyed. They killed our animals for food and dumped the leftovers in our wells. As a result all the water was contaminated."

Vachathi is close to Sathyamangalam forest which was the hunting ground of sandalwood smuggler and elephant poacher Veerappan.

Police and forest department officials raided the village on 20 June 1992, following reports that the villagers were involved in sandalwood smuggling, the BBC Tamil's TN Gopalan reports from Madras (Chennai).

The team was made up of 155 forest officials, 108 policemen and six officials of the revenue department.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation [CBI] says they ran amok, thrashing men, women and children, and demolishing huts.

Officials initially denied any wrongdoing and took a long time to register a case.

It was handed over to the CBI following campaigns by civil society activists and left-wing political parties, our correspondent says.

Racial Discrimination & Caste in UK

The hate that dare not speak its name in twenty first century England


UK: The secret scandal of Britain’s caste system

Posted on June 26, 2011

Description: http://secular-europe-campaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/nick-cohen.jpg

Why isn’t the Equality and Human Rights Commission taking action against this prejudice?

You can tell that speakers are preparing to say something scandalous when they assert that “militant atheists” are the moral equivalents of the religious militants that so afflict humanity. Trevor Phillips, whose flighty management of the Equality and Human Rights Commission is becoming a scandal, was no exception when he announced last week that British believers were “under siege” from “fashionable” atheists.

If his claim that “people who want to drive religion underground are much more active, much more vocal” contained a jot of truth, we would have read the following stories in the days after his intervention.

• Inflamed after reading an acerbic passage by Richard Dawkins, “fashionable” Belfast atheists decide to lay siege to Catholic homes in the Short Strand area of the city. They terrify its residents and attack the police with petrol bombs and fireworks. (As it was, the riots were the work of Belfast Protestants motivated by a hatred of Catholicism. They were met by Republican IRA “dissidents”, filled with an equal hatred of Protestantism.)

• “Vocal” Iraqi secularists decide that they want to drive the Shia Muslims in Baghdad underground. They ignite bombs in a Shia market during its busiest time of the week and a mosque, killing 40 in all. (As it was, the murders were the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, which regards Shia Muslims as heretics and was determined to demonstrate again that no one is as murderously “Islamophobic” as Islamists are.

• Free-thinking Americans decide they have had enough of religious leaders laying down the law. They descend on the New York State Senate and heckle and jostle a woman rabbi as she tries to influence a debate on gay marriage. (As it was, the heckling and jostling was done by Orthodox Jews, who said the rabbi had no right to speak for Judaism because she was a lesbian.)

Since the end of communist-inspired persecutions in all the old socialist countries bar China and North Korea, religious hatred has become unique among the prejudices. Overwhelmingly, it is directed by the religious against the religious. Domineering believers threaten members of their own faith when they break taboos by experimenting with new thoughts and ways of living. Or they engage in sectarian conflicts with other religions.

Trevor Phillips’s attack on “fashionable” atheists for exercising their right to speak their minds shows he does not begin to understand modern sectarianism. From his ignorance flows a cowardly refusal to face down those who would bully and harass others, as a story that deserves more attention than it has received shows.

British Asians, secularists and Liberal Democrat and Labour politicians have been trying for years to persuade the government to tackle caste discrimination. They have had no success because the treatment of untouchables is one of the great unmentionables of British politics. They are certainly the victims of a form of religious prejudice – the sanction for the oppression of lower castes in a pre-ordained hierarchy comes from Hindu creation myths. Yet caste prejudice does not fit easily into established views of how discrimination works, because caste divisions exist among Sikhs, Muslims and Christians whose families came from the sub-continent, as well as Hindus.

Faced with the prospect of confronting the prejudices of core supporters, the Labour government preferred holding on to seats to living by liberal principles and backed away from extending anti-discrimination law to cover caste. With Labour gone, campaigners for just treatment for tens of thousands of British Asians have a glimmer of hope.

They are trying to persuade the coalition to take seriously a study of bullying and harassment conducted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It is a dispiriting read – little more than a list of pointless cruelties. The Indian supervisor of an NHS worker discovers that he is from a lower caste and makes his life such a misery he becomes ill under the pressure and is suspended; a social services care worker refuses to help an elderly woman wash herself because the old lady is from a lower caste and so it goes on through dozens of examples.

The casual observer of British politics might have thought that a voluble quangocrat, who is always willing to fill empty airtime with heart rending cries for greater equality, would have denounced caste prejudice with unembarrassed vigour. For once, however, Phillips is silent. A search of the Equality and Human Rights Commission records shows that it ignores caste discrimination in Britain.

When I phone its press office to ask why, its public relations officers fail to return my calls. Without hearing his side of the story, I can only guess that Phillips does not like admitting that ethnic minorities as well as white people are capable of prejudice. He may worry, too, that an honest stance would require him taking on religious lobbyists, such as Hindu Council UK, which questioned “the existence of caste discrimination in the UK” on Friday and claimed that the issue was being manipulated by Christians eager to convert Hindus from their faith.

In this instance, Phillips not only refuses to campaign for the disadvantaged, but is alleged to hinder those who do. Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said he had been “no help at all. Advances we have made have been despite him, not because of him”. The normally mild-mannered Lib Dem peer Lord Avebury said that “Phillips has played an ignoble part in suppressing this issue.”

From the leftish point of view there is no good ground for keeping Phillips in post. The liberal left ought to know that caste discrimination is a greater evil than class discrimination because, whatever an individual’s accomplishments, he or she can never escape from the hereditary curse. It ought also to feel a tinge of shame that when the victims of prejudice try to start a new life by coming to Britain, they find that the old prejudice follows them here – and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will do nothing about it.

From a Tory standpoint, the case against Phillips is as easy to make. When the government has had to raise taxes and cut spending, what purpose is served by carrying on spending taxpayers’ money on Phillips? With a bit of luck, left and right will soon agree that removing him from an office he is unfit to hold is a “fashionable cause” everyone can support.

The Observer| Nick Cohen | Sunday 26th June 2011

Phoolan Devi and Mala Sen

Sensationalising, exploiting and benefitting from the suffering of the wretched of the earth by progressive upper castes

Over 1.5 million webpages mention the icon Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, but her biographer is only remembered because of Phoolan Devi, the Dalit icon herself.

Mala Sen obituary

Activist and author of a book about Phoolan Devi, the Indian bandit turned MP

Ash Kotak

guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 June 2011 19.42 BST

Full story at


The obituary states that:

Mala was very adept at getting people to trust her and she was soon asked to research television documentaries. On one such job in India, Mala was moved and intrigued by press reports of Phoolan Devi, a lower-caste woman who had endured poverty, an abusive marriage at the age of 11, gang rape and kidnap by bandits. Devi became a bandit herself, delivering justice for rape victims and stealing from the rich to give to the poor. At 24, she was charged with 48 major offences, including the murder of 22 high-caste Thakur men, as revenge for them having murdered her lover and for her gang rape. Devi, who became an idol to the poor, negotiated her own surrender in 1983 and was incarcerated for 11 years without trial.

By befriending Devi's family, Mala gained the trust of the bandit herself. She visited her in jail and persuaded the young woman – who could neither read nor write – to dictate her story in Hindi to fellow prisoners and smuggle these diaries out to Mala. India's Bandit Queen, written from eight years' worth of research, was translated into 11 languages.

In 1994, the year of Devi's release, Kapur's film was produced, with backing from Channel 4. The film was based on the prison diaries, and credited Mala as screenwriter, but privately it angered her. It made Phoolan out to be "pathetic", she believed, and "its moral and political implications" she could never reconcile within herself. She had delivered a long script, which had been heavily edited, with graphic scenes added.

Encouraged by the writer Arundhati Roy, Devi took the film-makers – including Mala – to court, demanding the film be banned for invading her sexual privacy by showing the gang rape and for implicating her in a mass murder that she denied having committed.

Dalit OBC Students have merit

Dalit and Other Backwards Castes students prove their merit in India's toughest examinations

IIT results show success of quota

May 26, 2011, 03.59am IST


HYDERABAD: A new trend has surfaced in the IIT results this year. A large number of SC, ST and OBC students have made it to the open category list, securing some of the top ranks this year.

Karimnagar boy J Varun, for instance, who bagged the ninth rank in the open category, secured the first rank in the OBC category. He said he would take admission in IIT-Bombay in the open category as he has earned it. Another student Rama Krishna Banoth, who scored first rank in the ST category, has secured 133rd rank in the open category.

This year, the trend is not limited to a few, say IIT officials. "In JEE-2011 the performance of SC students is brilliant. This year, the SC seat list will be completely occupied, as against the previous years. And now many of the general category ranks are occupied by these students," said T S Natarajan, chairman, JEE South Zone Committee. IIT officials said that at least 10-15% of the students from the reservation categories have made it to the general category too.

IIT experts from the city said that, even in the previous years some students from SC and OBC categories made it to the general category, but the figures this year are mind-boggling, they said. "In reserved category list, the state has secured about 35 ranks. And most of the rank-holders have secured ranks ranging from 9 to 250 in general category. This would mean that more number of students from these communities are making their way into what was once reserved only for OC students," said Chukka Ramaiah, who has been training students from these communities for the last many years.

Welcoming the trend, P M Bhargava, former vice-chairman, National Knowledge Commission said that this indicates the success of the reservation policy adopted by the government. "The idea behind reservation is to make socially and economically backward communities get access to education and other facilities which were once monopolised by the privileged classes and castes. After generations of reservation benefiting people, now emerges a new generation of Dalits and BCs who do not need reservations as they have become very much a part of what is called the "merit" list," he said.

According to IIT officials, in the past five years, there has been a momentous growth in the number of students from these communities making it to IITs. "A new social change is under way and IITs welcome that," said Natarajan.