Thanks to India Abroad, March 16, 2001,


Delhi conference highlights 'hidden apartheid'

Dalits at a rally demanding an end to discrimination. A conference on 'Occupation and Descent-based Discrimination Against Dalits,' held in New Delhi recently, highlighted continuing caste-based discrimination in India, ahead of the 'World Conference Against Racism,' to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7.

NEW DELHI -- A judge in Uttar Pradesh orders his chamber to be thoroughly washed and "purified" with water from the holy Ganga river as the previous occupant happened to be a Dalit (former untouchable); a prosecutor, defending a policeman who had beaten a Dalit to death, claims in the Gujarat High Court that the law "differed from person to person" -- he is promoted, not penalized, after he makes this statement; in a village in southern India, a 10-year-old girl is refused entry to a temple and the priest throws away her offering because she belongs to a low caste. The spate of testimonials presented at a recently-concluded conference on the treatment of the Dalits underline that, till this day, such incidents recur with horrifying regularity in almost every part of the country. The global conference on 'Occupation and Descent-based Discrimination Against Dalits' in India, was held here from March 1 to 4, as a run-up to a United Nations 'World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance' -- more simply referred to as the 'World Conference Against Racism (WCAR)' -- to be held in Durban, South Africa, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7. The Delhi conference was part of similar regional meetings being held elsewhere in the world to identify communities which continue to experience discrimination based on occupation and descent, in order to draw international attention to their plight at the WCAR in Durban. The speakers at the New Delhi conference quoted testimonies and recent studies to show how discriminatory treatment on the basis of caste is an everyday reality for the 170 million Dalits in India -- despite the fact that the man who heads the nation, President K.R. Narayanan, is also a Dalit. They maintained that from the Dalit perspective, the WCAR was a rare opportunity to highlight India's "hidden apartheid" at the international level. The Delhi conference's organizers highlighted the fact that at the forthcoming U.N. meet, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government intends to maintain that there is no racial discrimination in this country. The government's case rests on a simple play of words -- that caste cannot be classified as race. The organizers said the U.N. has taken note of reports that Dalits (literally meaning "the oppressed") are often prevented from using public wells or from entering cafes or restaurants, and their children are sometimes separated from other children in schools. The children are often not allowed to play in non-Dalit localities. According to a study conducted by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, two Dalits are assaulted every hour and each day, three Dalit women and children are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and at least two Dalit houses are torched. A study by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) shows how, according to the Hindu religion, the caste system is often taken as an inevitable and irreversible state, leading to the social and physical isolation of Dalits, beginning from childhood. The participants at the Delhi Dalit conference said the increased visibility of what they termed India's "dirty secret," along with strong international commitment, would help intensify pressure on the Indian government to implement its anti-discrimination laws. They pointed out that it was unified global criticism that ultimately brought an end to apartheid in South Africa. According to NCDHR convener Martin Makwan, it is not important for the U.N. conference to decide whether caste is different from race, but whether caste-based discrimination is different from racial discrimination in terms of social, economic, political, religious and other rights. Makwan said it was important for signatories of the U.N. convention on the elimination of racial discrimination, who tended to exclude their country-specific problems, taking recourse to narrow definitions, to understand that racism has to be viewed in the larger perspective. The Delhi conference featured tales of oppression from Japan, Bulgaria, Nigeria and Senegal, where tribes such as Burakumin, Roma, Ozu and others, suffered discrimination similar to the Dalits in India. At least 120 delegates from the Asia-Pacific region, Africa, Europe and the Americas participated in the event. But the focus of the conference, held to streamline the agenda for the Durban conference, was on the oppression of Dalits in India, and examples abounded. Paul Diwakar, a member of a coordination committee for the Durban conference, referred to a study conducted in 1997 by the nongovernmental organization (NGO), Navsarjan, in Gujarat, which revealed that in several villages, Dalits were not allowed to vote or were subjected to pressure during elections. In many Indian villages, Dalit houses are almost always allowed only on the outskirts. Elected Dalit members in local bodies are not allowed to sit on chairs. Dalit children have to sit separately in a corner of the classroom, and there are separate cups for Dalits in hotels. In short, the Navsarjan study showed that "untouchability" continues to influence public life even in the new millennium. Many bright Dalit students have dropped out of school early, unable to bear the "apartheid." In one school, Dalit children were made to wash utensils after the mid-day meal, while their "upper caste" classmates were allowed to play. Another point that came up at the conference was that discrimination was not the result only of racist behavior, and that "it was subjective." As Maja Daruwalla, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, pointed out: A Brahmin from India would lose his upper caste status and could become a victim of racism in the United States or Europe. This year's U.N. conference against racism is expected to focus on the causes and consequences of various manifestations of racism, strengthening existing human rights mechanisms and U.N. conventions and developing practical, action-oriented measures and strategies to combat contemporary forms of racism and intolerance.


Each day young lives are scarred by social boycott

From News Dispatches Based on testimonials presented at the global conference on discrimination against Dalits, held in New Delhi from March 1-4:.

* On the day of a local festival, Jayashree, a bright 18-year-old high school student of Gujarat, made the unpardonable mistake of joining in the dancing in the main square of her village, along with her friends, most of them belonging to the upper caste community. Some young upper caste boys spotted her, and pulled her out of the dance. When Jayashree's mother protested, they slapped her. Humiliated and hurt, Jayashree forced her parents to file a complaint with the police against her assailants. Such "rebellion" was even more unforgivable, and Jayashree was made to pay for it. When the youth threatened to rape her and her mother for complaining to the police, Jayashree locked herself in her parents' house and immolated herself.

*Several Dalit students, despite showing keen academic aptitude, drop out of the education system early, often to escape the humiliation of being isolated by society, classmates, and even their teachers. The dropout ratio among Dalit children in primary schools is about 50 percent. For girls, it is higher. They have had no choice but to join their elders in some menial occupation to earn a very basic livelihood.

*Fourteen-year-old Sangeeta was one of the brightest performers in her school. She wanted to become a doctor. But she was penalized for daring to score good grades, and pushed to the backbenches of her class. Dejected, Sangeeta and her friends dropped out of school. They are now "manual scavengers," or persons employed by the government in the offensive occupation of cleaning human waste.

*A few months ago, in Salem district in Tamil Nadu, a Dalit girl, unable to answer a question properly, was beaten up so severely that she lost her sight.

*A boy who went to a shop to buy a slate, in a small town in Gujarat, suffered more emotional than physical trauma. The shopkeeper took his money and gave him a handwritten note asking him to collect the slate from another shop. At the second shop, they laughed at him and sent him off to a third shop after jotting some additions to the note. There too, the shopkeeper and his helpers jeered.

*Reduced to tears, the boy took the note to his sister, who read it for him, "Don't give him the slate, just push him around."

Thanks to, March 16, 2001