Caste discrimination


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THE U.N. World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held in South Africa in September 2001 will be remembered for many things: controversy over references to Israel and the plight of Palestinians, a growing demand for reparations to modern-day victims of colonialism and slavery, and of course, the U.S. and Israel walkout. The conference will also be heralded, however, as a watershed for the dalit movement and for the rights of so-called low caste or outcaste populations throughout the world.

The dalit caucus at the non-governmental conference that preceded the U.N. meet was over 160 members strong. Led by India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, it was joined by lower caste activists from Nepal, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Senegal. As one of the largest and best organized caucuses, it enjoyed strong solidarity from other groups at the conference, including the Roma, Africans and African-Americans, anti-apartheid activists, and even South African Indians. They joined the many protests and processions that were lit up by campaign posters and led by a moving cultural drumming and performance team. Some even joined the hunger strike by dalit activists in the conference’s final days.

The campaign to include caste discrimination at world conference documents also drew strong support from international human rights organizations, numerous governments, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and even India’s own National Human Rights Commission that took a strong and principled stand against the position of its own government in stating that the conference was a singular opportunity to deal with the vexed problem of caste discrimination.

Dalit activists at the conference learned that while oppression can vary in geography, name and degree, the mechanisms to ensure the systematic exclusion of entire populations based on their race, ethnicity and caste are largely the same. The world learned about the endemic abuse meted out at the hands of higher caste populations, often with the complicity of local and state governments, and about the appalling and widespread practices of untouchability, manual scavenging, forced prostitution and other caste-based abuses in India.

The world also learned that despite the Indian government’s insistence that these are internal domestic matters, caste discrimination is both a global phenomenon and of global concern. It affects 240 million people in Asia and close to 260 million people worldwide, a population greater than that of the United States. To this day it continues to suffer under what is often a hidden apartheid of segregation, modern-day slavery, and other extreme forms of discrimination, exploitation and violence. Caste imposes enormous obstacles to their full attainment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

In the run up to the conference, journalists, anthropologists, political parties, and others in India joined an increasingly mainstream debate on caste discrimination as an issue of international concern. By mid-August, Indian papers were ablaze with articles on caste versus race, and conferences throughout the country debated the merits of the Indian government’s position – a position taken in the absence of consultation with Parliament, or the country’s national commissions on human rights, women, and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.



Indian officials erroneously and simplistically argued that this was a conference about race or racism, and not other forms of discrimination. The very title of the conference undercut this argument, as did conclusions drawn by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination that ‘the situation of dalits falls within the scope of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,’ and that the term ‘descent’ contained in Article 1 of the convention does not refer solely to race and encompasses the situation of dalits.

Many found it odd, to say the least, that the world’s largest democracy would try to stop discussion of a serious human rights abuse that its own constitution, laws and agencies are designed to address. The government also argued that efforts to raise the caste issue were part of an ‘external agenda’. Their position conveniently ignored the efforts of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights who, along with hundreds of Indian human rights groups, collectively submitted over 2.5 million signatures to the Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in December 1999 demanding the abolishment of untouchability and urging U.N. bodies to squarely address the issue of caste based abuse and discrimination.

Intense Indian political lobbying ensured that the situation of dalits stood alone as the only issue to have been systematically cut out of the governmental conference’s documents. The declaration produced by the parallel NGO conference, however, affirmed the conclusions of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the United Nations Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that untouchability, bonded labour, manual scavenging and other caste based abuses are repugnant and insidious forms of racial discrimination.

The conference was a movement builder and an organizing tool that connected grassroots NGOs with international actors. It also ensured that the governments of countries where caste discrimination continues to be practiced and condoned will no longer be able to escape scrutiny at home or abroad.

The remainder of this article highlights the common features of caste systems worldwide and concludes with an overview of the ways in which United Nations human rights bodies have addressed the issue of caste discrimination thus far – often only as a result of intense advocacy on the part of nongovernmental organizations within and outside of India.



Despite its constitutional abolition in 1950, the practice of ‘untouchability’ – the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of birth into a particular caste – remains very much a part of rural India. Representing over one-sixth of India’s population, or some 160 million people, dalits endure near complete social ostracization. ‘Untouchables’ may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, visit the same temples, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. Dalit children are frequently made to sit at the back of classrooms. Entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. Dalits are routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of upper castes that enjoy the state’s protection. Laws are openly flouted while state complicity in attacks on dalit communities continues to reflect a well-documented pattern.

But India is not the only country marred by caste abuses. Dalits in other South Asian countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan also suffer similar fates. The Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria’s Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal, Mauritania and Somalia toil under their own caste or caste like systems. Caste is also a prominent social and economic indicator for the widespread South Asian diaspora in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Malaysia and many other countries around the world.



These communities share many features in common; features that have allowed even the most appalling practices to escape international scrutiny. In many cases, caste systems coexist with otherwise democratic structures. In countries such as India and Nigeria, governments have also enacted progressive legislation to combat abuses against lower caste communities. Despite formal protections in law, however, discriminatory treatment remains endemic and discriminatory societal norms continue to be reinforced by government and private structures and practices, in some cases through violent means.

Under various caste systems throughout the world, caste divisions also dominate in housing, marriage, and general social interaction – divisions that are reinforced through the practice and threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and even physical violence. Often, rigid social norms of purity and pollution are socially enforced through strict prohibitions on marriage or other social interaction between castes. While economic and social indicators other than caste have gained in significance, allowing intermarriage among upper castes, in many countries strong social barriers remain in place against marriage between lower and higher castes.



Lower caste communities are almost invariably indistinguishable in physical appearance from higher caste communities. This is not, as some would say, a black and white issue. For most outsiders then, the visual cues that otherwise accompany race or ethnicity are often completely lacking. Stark economic disparities between low and high caste communities also get buried under a seemingly homogenous landscape of poverty. Poverty can be quite deceptive. It makes one conclude that all suffer from it equally.

A closer look reveals the discrimination inherent in the allocation of jobs, land, basic resources and amenities, and even physical security. A closer look at victims of violence, bonded labour, and other severe abuses also reveals disproportionate membership in the lowest ranking in the caste order. A perpetual state of economic dependency also allows for abuses to go unpunished, while a biased state machinery looks the other way, or worse, becomes complicit in the abuse.

The language used to describe low and high caste communities are striking in their similarity, despite the variation in geographic origin, with ideas of pollution and purity, and filth and cleanliness prevalent. In turn, these designations are used to justify the physical and social segregation of low caste communities from the rest of society, their exclusion from certain occupations, and their involuntary monopoly over ‘unclean’ occupations and tasks.

Allocation of labour on the basis of caste is one of the fundamental tenets of many caste systems, with lower castes typically restricted to tasks and occupations that are deemed too ‘filthy’ or ‘polluting’ for higher caste communities. High dropout and lower literacy rates among lower caste populations have rather simplistically been characterized as the natural consequences of poverty and underdevelopment. Though these rates are partly attributable to the need for low caste children to supplement their family wages through labour, more insidious and less well documented is the discriminatory and abusive treatment faced by low caste children who attempt to attend school at the hands of their teachers and fellow students.

Many low caste victims of abuse are landless labourers who form the backbone of nations’ agrarian economies. Land is the prime asset in rural areas that determines an individual’s standard of living and social status. Lack of access to land makes low caste populations economically vulnerable; their dependency is exploited by landlords and allows for many abuses to go unpunished.



The poor remuneration of manual scavenging, agricultural labour, and other forms of low caste employment often force families of lower castes or caste like groups into bondage. A lack of enforcement of relevant legislation prohibiting debt bondage in most of the countries concerned allows for the practice to continue unabated.

Lower caste women are singularly positioned at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies. Largely uneducated and consistently paid less than their male counterparts worldwide, they invariably bear the brunt of exploitation, discrimination and physical attacks. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are often used by landlords and the police to inflict political ‘lessons’ and crush dissent within the community. Lower caste women also suffer disproportionately in terms of access to health care, education, and subsistence wages as compared to women of higher castes.



Caste discrimination’s place in the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) was confirmed by numerous international bodies created by treaties and by the title of the conference itself. In the concluding observations of its forty-ninth session held in August/September 1996 (as it reviewed India’s tenth to fourteenth periodic reports under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, 1965 [ICERD]), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) affirmed that ‘the situation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of’ the convention.

The committee has clearly stated that the term ‘descent’ contained in Article 1 of the convention does not refer solely to race, and encompasses the situation of scheduled castes and tribes. In March 2001, CERD’s ‘concluding observations’ on Japan’s report noted that discrimination based on descent constitutes racial discrimination, and that ‘the term "descent" contained in Art. 1 of ICERD has its own meaning and is not to be confused with race or ethnic or national origin.’ In the same month, while reviewing Bangladesh’s report, the committee reaffirmed that ‘the term "descent" does not solely refer to race or ethnic or national origin and [that it] is of the view that the situation of castes falls within the scope of the convention.’

Similar conclusions were drawn by the U.N. special rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in his January 1999 report. In 1997, the Human Rights Committee noted that members of scheduled castes endured ‘severe social discrimination,’ and suffered ‘disproportionately from many violations of their rights under the [ICCPR].’ In reviewing Nepal’s report in August 2000, CERD ‘remain[ed] concerned at the existence of caste based discrimination, and the denial which this system imposes on some segments of the population of the enjoyment of the rights enshrined in the convention.’ In January and February 2000, serious concerns over the treatment of dalit children and dalit women in India were also expressed by the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in their reviews of India’s periodic reports under the children’s rights and women’s rights conventions.



In August 2000 the U.N. Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights passed resolution 2000/4 on discrimination based on work and descent. The resolution, aimed at addressing the issue of caste, reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent is prohibited under international human rights law. The subcommission also decided to further identify affected communities, examine existing constitutional, legislative, and administrative measures for the abolition of such discrimination, and make concrete recommendations for the effective elimination of such practices.

In August 2001, subcommission expert R.K.W. Goonesekere presented his working paper on work and descent-based discrimination to the subcommission’s fifty-third session. The paper was submitted pursuant to subcommission resolution 2000/4. Because of time and other constraints, Goonesekere limited the paper’s focus to the Asian countries of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Japan but stated that further study of African countries in particular was warranted. The presentation of the paper, and the ensuing debate among subcommission experts that followed, marked the first time that caste discrimination was discussed as a major source of human rights violations worldwide by a U.N. human rights body. The subcommission also determined by consensus to extend the study to other regions of the world where work and descent based discrimination continues to be experienced.

This important resolution under-scored the notion that caste systems are inherently economic and social in their consequences and that the exclusion of lower caste communities extends to the economic and social realms of wages, jobs, education, and land.

Despite blockage of discussion of the issue of caste in the major intergovernmental fora of the WCAR process, several preparatory meetings for WCAR highlighted the need to address caste based discrimination. These include the Asia-Pacific experts seminar in Bangkok, the European NGO meeting in Strasbourg, the African experts seminar in Addis Ababa, the NGO forum in Tehran, the Asia-Pacific NGO meeting in Kathmandu, the global conference against racism and caste based discrimination in New Delhi, and various satellite conferences, including the Bellagio consultation.



India wasn’t alone in coming to the world conference with an anti-agenda. Many governments, including the United States, used all the economic and political influence at their disposal to ensure that racial injustices in their own nations would not be addressed at the conference, or that they would not be bound by remedies outlined in the conference’s programme of action. The conference’s failures are well documented but its successes are not, successes that are largely a result of the work of NGOs from around the world who came together at numerous preparatory meetings and at the conference itself to speak in a united, singular voice as victims of longstanding oppression.



Ultimately, however, success will be measured by the extent to which governments live up to commitments they make to their own citizens. India actively supported the anti-apartheid struggle, has ratified all major human rights conventions, and has enacted progressive legislation to tackle caste related problems of bonded labour, manual scavenging, untouchability, and other atrocities against dalit community members. What is lacking is enforcement.

Only with the honest implementation of the ICERD and of domestic laws designed to abolish the vestiges of the caste system and to protect the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of all, can the process of attaining economic and physical security and human dignity begin.

Concerted international attention and the commitment of resources to assist national governments in this important work are also long overdue. For at least a quarter-billion people worldwide, the end of apartheid in South Africa did not signal the end of segregation and servitude in their own lives. This important conference was the start of a historic process and should bring us closer to this important global goal.


* This article draws on two reports: Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s ‘Untouchables’, and Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern by Smita Narula. For more information go to