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Casting out Caste

By Chandana Mathur and Sujani Reddy

An Interview with Henri Tiphagne

This piece originally appeared in Samar 15
Summer, 2002

Henri Tiphagne is the executive director of People's Watch, Tamil Nadu; an organization that monitors human rights abuses in Tamil Nadu and promotes human rights education as a tool for their eradication. He was also central to the Dalit intervention at the World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa in September of 2001. Henri was in the US on a tour sponsored by the Ford Foundation in the Fall of 2001. SAMAR collective members Chandana Mathur and Sujani Reddy had a chance to talk to him while he was in New York City.

Chandana: Let us begin with a little background about Dalits in India. What is the meaning of the word "Dalit," and what are the dimensions of the situation that Dalits face?

Henri: "Dalit" is a word that has been acquired by the community of people who are known as untouchables in India, about one hundred and eighty million plus with the current census. What does this mean? Untouchability is a correlate of the caste system, and Dalits are outcasts; they are not within the caste system. Dalits are a community of people who are segregated, who are suffering from exclusion, and who are assigned certain occupations even today because of their status outside the caste hierarchy.

Sujani: Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of the caste system?

Henri: Definitely, the caste system has its origin in the Hindu religion -- that people know. But it would be wrong to say that it is something that is related only to the Hindu religion per se because today you have a caste system in Christianity. I would like to expand a little here because this is not known to people in a Christian country and people get a shock when they hear it. Untouchability is practiced in the Christian faith, whether you are from the Catholic or Protestant church. You have separate cemeteries in the churches for Dalits and for non-Dalits. This exists today; I'm not talking about a hundred years ago or fifty years ago. For many years you never had the Catholic Church drawing upon Dalit Catholic youth in their recruitment of priests and nuns in the seminaries. The Dalit's status as an "untouchable" continues whether he is in the Hindu religion or in Christianity. However, he has had access to education when he comes into Christianity, so he benefits from certain facilities that Christianity as a religion brought. However, because of this conversion from Hinduism to Christianity he has lost his position in terms of access to the benefits of affirmative action offered by the state. That is why today the Dalit community within the church is demanding access to the benefits of affirmative action, be it in terms of education, be it in terms of employment. And here the church supports them, because that is one expression of their solidarity with Dalits.

Chandana: How about the other religions of India, is there untouchability in Indian Islam, in Sikhism, in the rest?

Henri: We have also had conversions, to a lesser extent, from Hinduism to Islam. This has been more as a protest form. But you have had many people returning back to Hinduism again because in a different form it continues there. Your caste status will always continue, wherever you are. All that you find is that you happen to belong to a different faith. It's very unfortunate that those who convert do not have access to the benefits of being born a Dalit.

Sujani: Is untouchability limited to India? What about the other countries of South Asia?

Henri: The phenomenon of caste discrimination is not limited to India. It is very well prevalent in Nepal, if you want to grade it that way, also in Bangladesh, parts of Pakistan, and of course Sri Lanka. The estate workers who went from India to Sri Lanka were all Dalit, and they continue to be. In the Kandy area the estate workers are all Tamil Dalits, and this is an internal problem that Sri Lanka still today is not able to solve. That is in terms of South Asia. The parallel that we have been able to reach out to within Asia has been with the Burako community in Japan. This is a realization, a realization for the Dalit community within our country and the Burako community in Japan. Lately, there have been a lot of exchanges to see how caste practices are common, the methods of segregation and exclusion are similar, and the formal links that are now being built not only within the South Asian Dalit community but also with the Burako Liberation League in Japan. It is important to mention that we have also realized, through studies generated out of organizations here in the US, for example Human Rights Watch, that caste discrimination is not an Asian phenomenon alone. Caste discrimination is a phenomenon prevalent in Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania, and Somalia. You have a number of African countries with caste-based discrimination: the same problems of exclusion, the same problems of segregation, of employment in menial tasks, of being a servant to people who are in a caste-like structure in some places. In some of those countries they call it caste. We are now talking not about India; we are not talking about South Asia anymore. We are not talking about Asia anymore. We are talking about a world phenomenon.

Chandana: You are involved in a lot of human rights work around Dalit issues in India. Can you give us a little bit of a human rights picture of being Dalit in India today, in terms of what it looks like on the ground, in everyday life?

Henri: Well the scenario is grim, on the one hand. But at the same time I would not like the scenario to be portrayed only as grim, so I will come to the hopeful signs at the end. But today caste discrimination, and particularly untouchability, is multiplying, not reducing. I'll give you a concrete example. In the teashops, in the interior-most villages, you have the two-tumbler system: there are tumblers that are made available to the so-called upper castes, and the aluminum tumbler that is made available only to Dalits. The Dalit does not have access to the tumbler that the upper castes will have access to. It has taken fifty-four years for governments to acknowledge that thousands of villages in their respective states suffer from the practice of untouchability exhibited through the two-tumbler system. Now you have the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu having acknowledged it. You have the present Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandra Baba Naidu (who respects Bill Gates perhaps much more than he respects the Prime Minister or President of the country), who acknowledges it. And he has started a whole campaign against the two-glass system. Now what is the remedy? The remedy is not that because the chief minister has recognized it, it has been done away with. The solution has been through the use of plastic tumblers, disposable tumblers. So the fact is not that both the communities are willing now to drink from the same glass. But since there is a lot of stigma to this practice we are solving it by bringing in disposable tumblers so that there is no chance of anybody drinking from the same glass that the Dalit drank from. This is happening in the twenty first century, we are not talking about earlier days. And this is something that I'm saying the state has acknowledged.

Chandana: The illustrations you give are certainly illuminating, and they speak to how far we still need to go in terms of Dalit rights in India. This might clash with the fact that a lot of Indians probably assume that the Dalit question is settled. Indeed, a very important part of postcolonial India and its sense of itself is the huge campaign against untouchability that was launched by Gandhi, and the fact that it found certain legal expression in the Constitution, as spearheaded by Ambedkar. What of this history? Is it really a finished question and just a matter of implementation at this stage?

Henri: Well, it is finished. For the government it is finished. Their tasks are over. On 26 of January 1950 it was over. What was over? With the Constitution in place we have Article 17 which abolishes untouchability. We are all happy about it. We have Article 15 which abolishes discrimination based on various forms, including caste. We have Article 16, which for the first time brings in a very positive affirmative action for employment in the government. These are all very serious directions that our Constitution indicated in the year 1950. We also have in place today a national commission for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes [The Indian constitution, basing its logic on British colonialist categorization, grouped certain castes, labeled "backward," under the term "Scheduled." Castes whose names appear in the "Schedule" were to be beneficiaries of an Indian version of affirmative action.] So, we have a commission in place. We also have, in the early nineties, the National Human Rights Commission, which concentrates on the violation of rights. None other than a former Chief Justice of India heads it. Good. We have a National Commission for Women in place, which could also be an avenue for taking up issues of Dalit women, and the very gender-specific violations that they are subject to. In 1956 we had the Protection of Civil Rights Act, to address the atrocities committed against Dalits, but its implementation was so poor that everyone felt the need for new legislation. So in 1989, we had the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act which is a very good piece of legislation. In terms of law, in terms of mechanisms, in terms of legal measures to be accessed, we have everything in place. But what we don't have is the will of the bureaucrat, particularly of the police administration as the investigative arm of the state and sometimes also the judiciary, to stand on the side of the law because of our caste-built society. It is not only that they don't implement the law; it is that they implement the law from the position of the caste that they belong to. Therefore, it is almost never in the interest of the Dalits. As a result, the benefits we could have gained in the last fifty-four years, we have not.

Sujani: What is your own your own personal background? How did you become politicized around these issues?

Henri: Well, I should reveal a little more of myself. Not many Indians would have the position that I have, which is unique. I happen to be an adopted child, and somebody who, luckily for my own sake, did not know my caste background. So we are six adopted children. My mother was French and she came as a missionary. The six of us do not know our caste, and none of us were willing to go through any exercise of trying to dig out what caste we belonged to. So here we are talking about a country where the caste system is prevalent and you have somebody from India who says, "I do not know my caste." This is quite rare; you don't have people who can have the luxury of saying so. I'm mentioning this because it provided me with the opportunity of looking at things from a whole different perspective; one that is not thrusted upon me.

So, with that being my background, my eyes were not opened until I finished school. It was only after I finished school and I was at the university, and I got into the university students' movement, that I had lots of exposure to what it means to be in rural India. This was through exposure programs that led me to make a commitment of working for three years in a part of Tamil Nadu organizing the poor. And it was by organizing the poor that we came to know that we were organizing Dalits. It was while we were in that process of engagement that we came to know what the practice of untouchability is because we were actually living in a Dalit village. It was a later part of my life, so this experience made a very strong impression on me and the decision to be an activist grew from there. That led me to law. And of course, that led me to take certain positions in terms of the law, the civil rights movement, and on to what we are doing today. So that was my route.

Sujani: Can you talk a little bit more about the work that has come out of these life experiences and People's Watch, the organization that you currently work for?

Henri: I must begin with a little bit of history of the civil liberties movement within India. This movement came out of the Emergency, during the regime of Indira Gandhi. The Emergency was a shutdown of civil liberties on the pretext that there was a national emergency. Out of this grew the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), for claiming civil liberties and democratic rights. In the early eighties, I was part of it. I was part of it, I grew out of it, I learned from it, and I contributed towards it. However, this was a movement of people, not an organization that has resources at its base to set it going. It was a spontaneous voluntary organization that we all belonged to. And the state was very happy with it, because the state knew that the maximum we could do was make a little noise. The state knew that our capacity to make noise was a very short-lived one -- of one week, ten days, maximum. They knew that we were functioning from our own offices, from our own resources. And they knew we could not make an impact on this criminal administration system that doesn't work. So they were extremely happy about the type of work we were doing. They knew we were only noisemakers and it was only in 1993, at the Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, that I was able to see how in different countries you have a whole different professional approach to human rights. As long as you don't take recourse to such a professional approach to holding the state responsible for its violations, the state enjoys you. But the moment you are able to put some pressure on the state, monitor the state and hold it accountable, then that is painful for the government. This was my learning in the World Conference in Vienna, and it was this learning that brought me back home saying that the PUCL is good, but the PUCL is not enough. I need to be of more use professionally, put my expertise to better use to make the state accountable to it citizens, and particularly the victims who suffer from violations. So that led me, in short, to People's Watch. People's Watch Tamil Nadu is an organization that concentrates in the state of Tamil Nadu. We concentrate in a particular state because we want to make that state accountable. If I were working throughout the country, every state would be extremely happy because, again, I wouldn't possess the skills and capacities to be able to make a state accountable. So this geographical limitation is something that we have imposed upon ourselves to make sure that our effectiveness multiplies. This doesn't mean that we don't believe in networking, it only means that we are concentrating here while we learn from experiences outside. Our focus area is monitoring a variety human rights violations in the state. So that is one area which leads from monitoring, through fact finding missions, to intervention, using courts and commissions within the country and now also trying to use UN mechanisms. The second major area is the whole area of human rights education.

Chandana: Can you talk about the Dalit interventions in Durban?

Henri: Well, the Dalit intervention in Durban must start from New York. In 1997 Human Rights Watch, a well-known organization within the US, had wanted to study the problem of caste discrimination in India. They came out with a report that was undertaken by a researcher of Indian origin, Smita Narula, and came later to be known as Broken People. This was research which was undertaken with a number of people who were acknowledged in the book but who decided, within India, to say, "Fine, Human Rights Watch, but we would like to contribute to the recommendations that come out of this research." For the first time you had an international human rights organization recognize that recommendations have to be drawn with the victim community. And that did take place. You had the research done. You had the researcher come back to India. You had the researcher sit down -- and I'm purposefully mentioning the methodology because it was a participatory process resulting in the very good recommendations which the book has. Further than that, it resulted in people there saying -- it was July 25th, 1998 at that time -- "Fine, thank you, Human Rights Watch, but we feel we have a task ahead. We are in 1998, which is 50 years of our Independence. And we are also into the 50th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Here are two historic movements, one of the constitution making within the country, the other of the UDHR, both of which have not meant anything to the Dalit community within the country." This was the context that was set up through this research. And we said it's high time we learn from the women's movement. Let's be honest about it. It took women throughout the world to come together in 1993 for one year and assert that women's rights are human rights to finally getting the acceptance of the Second World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and leading later to Beijing. So we have to now assert that Dalit rights are human rights. Here was the birth of what later came to be known as the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights within India, with the slogan: "Dalit Rights Are Human Rights. Let Us Cast Out Caste." This led to people coming together from throughout the country, not for fighting at the grassroots because this is what we have been doing a lot, but trying to say we need now to make this popular, using the visibility that the 50 years of Indian independence and the 50 years of the UDHR would provide us. We thought that after a year we would get back to our normal work, but the national campaign continued. While doing so there were responses from other countries, of people saying, "We also want to stand in solidarity with Dalits. Why don't you allow us to participate in this signature campaign?" We said, "Of course." You then had the origin of the Dalit Solidarity Forum in the US, in the Netherlands, in Denmark, Germany, the UK, France, and in Japan where the Buraku took up the issue. In March 2000 we had the formation of the International Dalit Solidarity Network in London. So while the national campaign grew, there was this international solidarity which also grew.

The United Nations processes, its World Conferences, its Commission on Human Rights, Sub-commission on Human Rights, in all its 54 years of its existence had not recognized caste discrimination. Since 1996 the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination committee, a body of the UN, had opened the doors and said that caste falls within racial discrimination. It was logical for us to conclude that since caste falls within the ambit of racial discrimination, caste should form part of the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in Durban in 2001. This was a very logical conclusion for us, and we said, "Let's use this opportunity." That is how we were drawn to the WCAR. We were not formed for the WCAR, as people would like us to be. That's not the truth but that's what the government says. The truth is that we started at the closure of 50 years of our Constitution's existence, at the closure of 50 years of the UDHR, shouting loud, "Dalit Rights Are Human Rights." Then we saw this conference in its preparatory stage and we jumped onto the bandwagon.

Sujani: Can you tell us a little about the controversy between Dalit NGOs and the Indian government concerning the mobilization for Durban?

Henri: Yes, the Indian government's position from the beginning until the end was that they were committed to doing away with racial discrimination. And their understanding of doing away with racial discrimination was that they did not want to dilute the agenda of the conference. I'm speaking in their terms, in their language, to make it clear. They gave expression to this by saying that by including issues of caste discrimination we were diluting the agenda of the conference. They said they were particularly concerned for the Indian diaspora in many countries, including the US, whose interests they want to represent in terms of racial discrimination. You bring caste here, and you are working against our own people who are being discriminated against because of color and Asian/South Asian origin in different countries. This was their argument. Whereas we were saying, well, we agree with you in terms of the concerns of the South Asian diaspora.

The Indian government had constituted a National Committee against Racism towards the WCAR, thinking that all of their nominated members would be the government's mouthpieces. To our happiness, five members of the committee ultimately resigned because of the government's position. This was a national committee appointed by the government with the foreign minister as the chair of the committee -- five of them resigned saying that they believed that caste discrimination had to be discussed in Durban. This was a victory that we scored within the country. I'm not talking about Durban; I'm talking about New Delhi. Another success was (and this is because of the pressure that the Durban conference created within the country) that political parties started recognizing that caste should be discussed in Durban. Both the Communist parties, and to a certain extent the Congress party, took a position. There were parliamentary debates on the question, which for us within the country is much more important than a small paragraph that we were fighting to get in to the resolutions at Durban. There was a movement of people who were asserting their rights and who were supported by people of different castes and from different backgrounds in the country. I think that matters. That was a success.

What was the failure? According to the government the failure is that we got nothing out of the conference. Yes, we got no paragraphs, we got no lines, and there is no reference to caste. But what did we get? We got visibility. We have a huge task ahead in terms of enhancing this visibility and concretizing the visibility that we have got into specific mechanisms within the UN. But we have made progress. And this is not the success of the Indian group. This is the success of a variety of peoples -- from different continents, from different color backgrounds, from different racial backgrounds, beyond these national territories that we belong to or are said to belong to -- who are committing themselves to the 260 million people throughout the world who suffer from caste discrimination. I think that is important.

Chandana: That was a very inspiring vision for all of humankind, can you tell us what the post-Durban scene looks like from India in terms of building upon these gains?

Henri: There was a lot of scope within India to pursue the agenda. What has post-Durban meant? In concrete terms, post-Durban has meant, and I would like to mention them because these political actions matter, that Chandra Baba Naidu has recognized caste discrimination. Chandra Baba Naidu is well known perhaps in US more than India. He comes in quite frequently to US for fundraising, okay. He is the chief minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, which is the Silicon Valley of India; we have a number of IT companies based there. He has recognized that caste discrimination is something that he has to acknowledge and work to abolish, and he has made several efforts. Here is a commitment of a particular state against caste discrimination that never happened before Durban. In January, on the 13th and the 14th, the Madhya Pradesh state government debated the Dalit agenda for the 21st century. You could never, never dream of a state government doing this. The chief minister was personally present two days. Two hundred and fifty delegates from throughout the country were there to look critically at the state government's agenda for the 21st century. This is something that you don't see. These are very positive indications. Of course post-Durban, there were hundreds and hundreds of meetings throughout the country. All of this now has to translate into much sharper vigilance and documentation of the violations of human rights against Dalits. That is our commitment for the future. Our commitment is not for the internationalization of the issue alone. That is five percent of our work. Ninety-five percent of our work has to be, and will continue to be, the mobilization of Dalits, empowerment of Dalit leadership, and of course, broadening the solidarity of Dalits, minorities, and the Other Backwards Castes in our country.