Linking trade to human rights
Many human rights organisations hold that diversity trade audits can be used to eliminate Dalit discrimination
When the European Union-India summit concluded at the Hague last week, Dr Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands both described the event as "very successful, and politically and economically significant". There was one group, however, that was hoping for a more meaningful outcome - human rights activists who had suggested that the summit could link trade negotiations and geo-political issues, for the first time ever, to the elimination of discrimination against the oppressed sections of society.
Economic sanctions have been used before as a means of urging nation states to improve human rights situations - by the US against Cuba and Iraq, for instance, and by the world community against South Africa (to press for the removal of apartheid) but human rights groups are now pointing out that the situation of Dalits in India (who at 170 million form a group larger than the combined populations of several countries of Europe) is equally an issue of denial of basic rights. Linking talks on trade and aid could be one way of insisting on state action for upholding human rights, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) believes.
Under Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, untouchability was "abolished" and its practice made punishable under the law, 57 long years ago. Nonetheless, even today reports of Dalits being tortured - for drawing water from a public tap, or for entering a temple to offer prayers - continue to make the news with painful regularity. Mid-day meal schemes for school children run into problems because ‘high caste’ parents object to their children eating alongside children from low castes.
Of the 200 million persons living in absolute poverty in India, 170 million are Dalits, and despite the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989, over 30,000 cases of crimes against Dalits are recorded annually, of which one third are from UP, the state that has given the largest number of Prime Ministers to the nation.
Where legislation has not delivered, pressures via international and bilateral dealings could help in urging nations to address the issue of the denial of basic rights to the oppressed, says Gerard Oonk, spokesperson for the Dalit Network of the Netherlands (DNN).
Apart from trade, the summit covered a number of issues like counter-terrorism, research and development, environment, and space exploration. So why not use the strategic event to focus on the need to improve human rights in the sub-continent, DNN argued, even while conceding that given the sensitive nature of the issue, both sides might be reluctant to discuss the persistence of untouchability. Two years ago, Denmark raised caste discrimination as an issue at the EU-India summit, and the talks collapsed. Raising the Dalit issue at the earlier world summit on racism too had caused heated controversies.
Netherlands is now chairing the EU, and prominent members of the EU and Dutch parliament are reportedly not opposed to using trade negotiations to improve the situation of Dalits, which is why the India Committee of the Netherlands, along with DNN, Justicia et Pax and other bodies monitoring human rights issues worldwide, raised the question of Dalits’ rights in the run-up to the summit.
Parallel with apartheid
The Guardian weekly, reporting last month on the perpetuation of caste-based discrimination in India, drew a parallel between South African apartheid and India’s untouchability - both assume an entire ethnic group’s incompetence. India opposed apartheid, and Nelson Mandela drew inspiration from us in his struggle against discrimination. So why is our polity unheedful of the persistence of pervasive discrimination in our own midst, ask global Dalit solidarity networks.
The answer is clear - because our elections are fought, manipulated and won to this day, on the basis of strong caste factors. Politicians responsible for overseeing the implementation of existing legislations on social equity are clearly not up to the task of mustering the necessary political will to translate laws and Constitutional guarantees into ground realities for the oppressed masses. As in other areas of globalisation, once again commerce overrides social equity and civil rights.
DNN is suggesting that European companies operating in countries affected by caste discrimination should have an active anti-discrimination policy in recruitment and sub-contracting, and use ‘diversity audits’ for affirmative action.
However, as in the case of child labour (which has been made an issue by European importers of carpets and other goods from India) the solution to human rights violations on the basis of caste will call for political will in terms of implementation on a wider canvas, because with sanctions alone, it is the outcasts who will suffer more, if employment opportunities dry up.