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The Question Of Dalit Human Rights

By Goldy M. George

27 April, 2005

Human rights is one crucial aspects being prominently discussed these days. It is more critically conversed in the wake of growing atrocities against the historically deprived group. Dalit human rights has become an international issue and organisations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Minority Rights Group and Anti-Slavery International are making Dalit Human Rights a priority issue and are concerned to raise the issue internationally in UN bodies, governments and the public-at-large.

For the most part, the international community, particularly the general public residing outside of India, is unaware that untouchability and daily/routine forms of caste discrimination are still practised in India. However, in recent years an increasing number of human rights organisations and bodies are coming to recognise untouchability and caste discrimination as a gross human rights violation.

Since caste still operates as a defining condition in establishing marriages, social relations and access to employment, millions of Dalits and other former low-caste people remain behind in education, employment and access to wealth. Although untouchability and casteism is banned in India, discrimination is widely practiced, and statistics draws the logical conclusion that there is a broad correlation between one's economic state and one's position within the caste hierarchy.

The government may boast of economic progress and grand new development schemes, such as highways joining major cities or plans to interlink major rivers, but it has failed to address issues like education, caste and gender discrimination and the rural-urban gap. The result is continued upper-caste dominance in professions, business, and culture

Dalits continue to face the wrath of the caste lords and are denied of human dignity and their rights including a just share in the resources like land, water, mines, aqua resources, etc. The indigenous people continue to fight for their identity and dignity. Their right to a decent dignified life is under severe threat.

Dalit Human Rights and Atrocities

In a recent speech at the release of the National Human Rights Commission’s (NHRC) "Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes" authored by K.B. Saxena, Justice A.S. Anand the Chairperson of the NHRC called upon the government to adopt a rights based approach and not a welfare based one in addressing the condition of the people belonging to the Scheduled Castes (Dalits). Terming the continuation of discrimination and atrocities against Dalits as shameful, Justice Anand blamed mainly on the society’s "indifference" and "refusal to change its mindset".

Violence against Dalits has its distinctiveness of being embedded in the social structure of the dominated by the upper caste. It is the caste-based hierarchical structure that lays down the norm of conduct for human relationship between its more privileged groups and the subdued and subordinate ones. The report also says, "it is the caste relationship in Hindu society which is getting disturbed by forces of pressure both from above and below. The frequency and intensity of violence is an offshoot of desperate attempts by the upper caste groups to protect their entrenched status against the process of disengagement and upward mobility among lower castes resulting from affirmative action of State policy"

The ground has thus been made more fertile for tension and unrest to grow in many parts of the country. The situation has also turned ripe for communal and casteist forces to sow the seeds of division and discord and indulge in violence. Dalits, being the most vulnerable of the poor are the worst hit, with atrocities against them continuing in a number of states. The violence takes brutal forms and turns into acts of atrocities against the whole group of people, such as massacre, rape, burning of houses and through more subtle methods like social boycott, which intended to block their access to basic necessities and services.

Whenever such atrocities against Dalits involving loss of life and property are reported, human rights and Dalit activists complain that the police are generally reluctant to file cases under the stringent provisions of the Atrocities Act. They generally book cases either under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) or at best, under the Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act, 1955, much milder than the Atrocities Act. This often results in the culprits going scot-free. Leaving the culprits scot-free is in a way arming them which in fact gives them more confidence and courage to carryon such activities without any difficult in future.

The Atrocities Act was enacted mainly with the intention of giving more teeth to the earliest Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955 (amended and renamed as PCR Act), and for creating a deterrent against physical violence. The Act brought new types of offences under "atrocities" against Dalits by the non-Dalits and provided for more rigorous punishment for the guilty.

More importantly, the Act also covers policemen and enforcement authorities who fail to protect Dalits from atrocities. It empowers special courts to extern "political offenders" from scheduled areas and tribal areas and attaches the property of an offender, and prohibits the grant of anticipatory bail to the potential accused. It also provides for the payment of compensation to victims of their legal heirs.

Power is another major ground leading to mass scale atrocities against Dalits. Power particularly in terms of political power through reservation and other policies of compensation had resulted in drawing hatred from the upper caste segment. This has widespread in rural areas particularly with the awakening of Dalits at the panchayat level.

The important factor, which has contributed to the Dalit situation vis-à-vis the panchayat system, is the nature of Indian society, which of course determines the nature of the state. The Indian society is known for its inequality, social hierarchy and the rich and poor divide. The social hierarchy is the result of the caste system, which is unique to India. Therefore caste and class are the two factors, which deserve attention in this context.

There has been a sharp increase in violent manifestations of casteism in local communities ever since the local government system got strengthened through the Constitution amendments. When the panchayati raj institutions have been seen by the upper castes as the tool for the lower castes to assert their right as individuals living in a democratic polity the latter have become targets of caste based discrimination and violence. This rising unrest at the local level has become a common phenomenon.

It is evident that the upper castes that have been controlling the affairs of the village and the community and the rural economy cannot tolerate the changes that are being brought about by the decentralized democratic institutions. Therefore, from the beginning of the implementation of the panchayat system, tensions, violence and killings have taken place in order to resist the transformation.

The elections to the local government bodies have been the first and foremost point of attack by the casteist groups. From the very first election under the new system, the rights of the lower castes to participate in the democratic process and hold positions were questioned by the upper castes. The classic case is that of a village in Madurai district of Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India. In Melavalavu, the dominant castes of the area murdered the panchayat president and the vice-president who both belonged to a Dalit community, merely because they dared to fight the panchayat elections. When Melavalavu was declared a panchayat reserved for the lower castes in the October 1996 local body elections, the dominant castes resented this and the polls could not be held. The second attempt to hold elections was also foiled by violence and booth capturing. Finally, when the elections were held on December 30, 1996, the upper castes boycotted it. Members of the lower caste were elected as president and vice-president amongst others despite stiff resistance from the upper castes, but they were never permitted by the dominant caste to enter the new panchayat office. Finally on June 30, 1997, the president and vice-president along with three others were murdered in broad daylight; their only crime was that they had been elected through the democratic process.

These kinds of violations continue unabated even today. The local body election in the same state the upper castes suppressed the rights of the lower castes to exercise their franchise. Similar incidents have occurred in most of the states. The northern states, which are prone to more caste conflicts, are witnessing human rights violations after the introduction of the new phase of panchayats. There are a number of instances indicating the presence of powerful caste elites that continue to thwart attempts for a constitutional resolution of social justice issues at the village level. The frequent reports on the killings of Dalit men, women and children are not only restricted to backward states, where the process of decentralization of power to the local level has not really taken off. Caste violence is part of the social reality.

In the last panchayat elections in Bihar, over 96 people including a magistrate and several candidates were killed during the polling and more than 40 candidates were murdered in different districts between notification of polling and filing of nominations. Studies have shown that most of these killings were the result of ‘caste war’

Even after duly getting elected, the Dalits are not getting the power and status they deserve. They are made to sit outside the panchayat offices, on the floor while the traditional village headmen occupy the chairs. Even when upper caste groups are committing atrocities against the Dalits, the latter do not have a supportive redress mechanism. It may also be mentioned that the police (law and order machinery) is not under the authority of panchayats. The people belonging to the lower castes are being subjected to unabated atrocities particularly through the connivance and collusion of the state administration and the local police. In many instances, cases are not even registered against the perpetrators (who are mainly the upper castes) by the police who are greatly influenced by the upper castes or majority of whom belong to the upper castes.

Another ploy to make caste hierarchy acceptable to all was the strategy of introducing an extensive system of 'graded inferiority', providing everyone with an inferior grade immediately beneath them. How could the Dalits leave the gods and goddesses of the upper caste and worship their own? Is it not against their caste rule? Such aspects are also supplementing to the list of atrocities.

Dalit Human Rights and Land Rights

The owners of the land are today landless; that is Dalits. Historically they are one of the long persecuted humanities betrayed of rights over land and any form of resources. In an age of globalisation and marketisation, the life values sustained through the community life and love are constantly diffusing and substituted with competition.

Land is a productive asset but people are more emotionally attached with the land in many ways. For many it is the symbol of their freedom. To some it is the image of their fight against the upper caste. It also represents the mark of reiterating the lost identity. To many it is the icon of self-determination, co-existence and community feeling. But to the corporate sector and agents of development it is a commodity to be consumed. The state also takes side with these so-called think tanks. Land can be purchased and sold for commercial purpose. Or even it could be acquired forcefully. Every time the common man sacrifices himself for the relish and enjoyment of the elite.

In most part of the country Dalits are either small or marginal farmers or landless. Analysing it from the historical viewpoint they are the first plebeian community of the country. Due to the obvious paucity of land or resources or employment the largest number of migrants from one state to another is Dalits. Sizeable numbers among them are bonded labourers too. Their life condition is wretched and extremely inhuman. Women and children are subjected to atrocious harassment and torture, particularly in the migrated workplace.

Looking back at the land struggles in the past, the participation of Dalits in land movement quite is sizeable in various parts of the country, particularly in the armed movements. In fact the character of the ruling class towards the Dalits was the same in almost every part of the country. One of the principal reasons of the post Naxalbari march, by hundreds of rustic poor and landless peasants taking up arms in their hands, was the growing unrest among the Dalits against the upper caste Hindus in West Bengal.

However non-of these movements emerge into a Dalit land rights movement with a perspective of social change in the basic knitting of the structure. One prime factor of the failure of the Indian working class movement was that upper caste bourgeoisie who never wanted to change the basic social frame mostly led it. Therefore the realisation of change in the brahminical social order could not be internalised.

At present a strategic method of further seizure of their land and property is lucid and visible. In many places the land occupied by them is deliberately targeted under different guise such as rural development programs, building schools, road construction, etc. Another method is through the intervention of middleman, who provides them with loans during the occasion of marriage, death, birth, festivals and celebrations, and in return mortgage the land. Many such cases have come into light.

Hence the whole question of land rights of Dalits has gone into oblivion. The implementation of land reforms has been subverted by the absence of political will and bureaucratic commitment, loopholes in the law, tremendous manipulative power of the landed class, lack of organisation among the poor and excessive interference of courts. Therefore the intended benefits to the poor in general and particularly the Dalits failed to materialise. From various studies and reports yet another reason for the failure of land reforms is the failure to update land records in all states. In addition to this tardy implementation of legal and legislative initiatives, judicial delay in setting up disputes, inadequacy of the laws and so on had contributed a lot in affirmation of Dalit land rights in India.

Dalit Human Rights and Globalisation

As we are in an age of globalisation, it has become very difficult for the common man to survive. One of the major conflict in this area is the claims vis-à-vis the facts. The state claims something, which is exactly the opposite. "Development" of poor and poverty "eradication" has become the buzzword in the market. Everyone - the government, multinationals, industrialists, etc. - claims that they strive for development. In fact development and eradication are diametrically opposite to each other. Today development is one of the most hatred terms among the common man.

The winds of privatisation under the Economic Reforms have already shaken the very foundations of the Reservations. The Reforms clearly envisage the minimalist government. Wherever the Reforms patterned on the Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank were carried out, denationalisation of the public sector and privatisation have come in a big way. Being the late starter, India has not reached the scales achieved by others, say, the Latin American countries. However, is not unimpressive. Almost all sectors of economy stand opened up for private investment. Initially the disinvestment of public sector companies began with 49 per cent by the policy. The public stake being more than 50 per cent, the public sector as such was not dismantled in policy. However, the reform package has already crossed all boundaries by disinvesting PSUs like BALCO by 51%. Now all PSUs are open for disinvestments by 51% or more. Even the case of the transformation of telecommunication department to BSNL is the same story. Hence reservations had been wiped off through these politics.

The Reforms have already resulted in freezing the grants to many institutions and in stagnating, if not lowering, the expenditure on education. The free market ethos has entered the educational sphere in a big way. Commercialisation of education is no more a mere rhetoric; it is now the established fact. Commercial institutions offering specialised education signifying the essential input from utilitarian viewpoint have come up in a big way from cities to small towns. Their product-prices are not only based on the demand-supply consideration in their market segment but also are manipulated by their promotional strategies.

In a true spirit of globalisation, many foreign universities are invading the educational spheres through hitherto unfamiliar strategic alliances with non-descript commercial agencies, of course at hefty dollar equivalent prices. Many elite institutions like IIMs, IITs, and suddenly facing fund crunch had to raise their fee structure and other prices many fold. They were already beyond the reach of Dalits. When they eventually turn self-financing, their prices would be benchmarked against their international counterparts, which any way would be affordable to the same top market segment that constitutes the focus of all the Reform-talk. As the job markets become acutely competitive, owing to a sharp decline in job opportunities, the polarisation between the elite and commoner has sharpened. Various kinds of price barriers would be erected to thwart the entry of downtrodden.

Let us look at how World Bank and IMF act in this manner. World Bank one of the key innovators of globalisation along with International Monitory Fund (IMF) had invented concrete steps of marginalisation of nation and its people. Former Chief Economist of World Bank Joseph Stinglitz says that there are four steps the IMF adopts towards damnation. Step one is "privatisation". This is the luminous idea to sell off state industries and nations other industrial assets. In most of the nations privatisation is parallel to briberisation, where everything could be easily through simple commissions. The second step is "capital market liberalisation". In theory capital market deregulation allows investment capital to flow in and out. Unfortunately as in many cases the money simply flowed out and out. Stiglitz calls this the "hot money" cycle. Cash comes in for speculation in real estate and currency, and then flees at the first whiff of trouble. A nation’s reserves can drain in days, hours.

At this point the IMF drags the gasping nation to step three: "market based pricing", a fancing term for raising prices on food, water and cooking gas. This leads, predictably to step three-and-a-half: what Stiglitz calls, "the IMF riot". The IMF rioting is painfully predictable. When a nation is "down and out, the IMF takes advantage and squeezes the last pound of blood out of them. They turn up the heat until, finally, the whole cauldron blows up". One would almost get the impression that such riots are written in plan and yes! it is. For example the "Interim Country Assistance Strategy" for Ecuador in it the Bank several times states – with cold accuracy – that they expected their plans to spark, " social unrest", to use their bureaucratic term for a nation in flames. This IMF riots cause new panicked flights of capital and government bankruptcies.

Step four is "poverty reduction strategy": free trade. This is free trade by the rules of World Trade Organisation and World Bank. This is all about opening market to outsiders. Today the World Bank can order a financial blockade just as effective – and sometimes just as deadly. Particularly the intellectual property rights treaty has "condemned people to death". "They don’t care", says Stiglitz, "if people live or die".

From the above analysis it is clear that all aspects of resources are drawn away from the people living in poor nations. Decolonisation of erstwhile colonies invariably saw the elite take control of political power. Naturally they were inclined to capitalism preferring to inherit the colonial state – its laws, structure and character – rather than to transform it fundamentally in ways to respond to the most urgent needs of the oppressed sections. The development process initiated by the organs of the ‘state’ built on the edifice of the colonial structure, while evolving into a full blown neocolony, had to content with political threats of fundamental nature. The political compulsions, when confronted by the state and ruling classes, evoked invariably responses to manage and control the threats themselves. These took the form of co-option, diversion, fragmentation, outright suppression or combination of these, depending on the extent that these challenges posed.

The state provided a semblance of mitigating problems without actually having to resolve them in fundamental ways. In effect globalisation is fueling the whole program of neocolonialisation. Globalisation is nothing but the spreading of capitalistic regimes all over the world controlled by a few. This will end-up the remaining space of Dalits within the existing system. Now the question is where does the whole question of human rights fit? Dalits already the recipient of all flaws and defects of the social fabric, will there be any space for them in the course of globalisation? Whether the four-step principles of IMF-World Bank-WTO trio going to leave Dalits out of its grip? The plain answer to all these quests and quires will be a big NO!


Discrimination, deprivation, exclusion and exploitation are endemic to every society, which leads to frustration, anger and aggression. Those who are subjected to injustice and oppression tend to rebel and revolt. These reactions culminate in assertion which give rise to people’s movements. But social movements are not an everyday phenomenon. Discrimination and deprivation always do not lead to protest and aggression. Only when people become conscious of these inequalities and injustices and mobilise and organise themselves to struggles against those who subject them to servitude and bondage, people’s movements takes place. Moreover when the disadvantaged and the downtrodden see that another alternative is both possible and viable they try to overthrow the existing social order.

The question of Dalit Human Right is not just a matter of addressing the atrocities, but at large it corroborates to the affirmation of land rights of Dalits, resisting the forces of globalisation, communalism, casteism, patriarchy and so on. This paves the way for collective action. Collective action leading to people’s movements results in social change. This is the ethical course of addressing Dalit human rights.











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