TO THE FIRST PREPARATORY COMMITTEE FOR THE WORLD CONFERENCE AGAINST RACISM, RACIAL DISCRIMINATION, XENOPHOBIA AND RELATED INTOLERANCE
CASTE AND DESCENT-BASED DISCRIMINATION
In India alone, close to 160 million1 so-called "untouchables" or Dalits (known in legal parlance as scheduled castes) are routinely discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused, even killed, at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection. In what has been called India's "hidden apartheid", entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste.
Despite the fact that "untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution 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. "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, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Dalit women are frequent victims of sexual abuse.
Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India's policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors.
Though national legislation and constitutional provisions suggest that the Indian government has successfully tackled caste-related violations, much of the legislation, including the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, remains unimplemented. The enactment of the Atrocities Act itself was based on the government's recognition that earlier legislation and constitutional protections had failed to prevent or prosecute caste-based discrimination and abuse. Over 2.5 million people in India and around the world have joined a signature campaign demanding basic human rights for Dalits and the implementation of this important legislation.
India's own constitutional and statutory bodies, including the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, have repeatedly confirmed the existence of abuses outlined in this statement. For Dalits throughout South Asia, caste remains a determinative factor for the attainment of social, political, civil, and economic rights.
Because caste-based abuse is not regularly on the agenda of the Commission on Human Rights, it is important to recognize attempts by some U.N. treaty bodies to bring caste into the purview of their mandates, and equally important to place the issue prominently on the agenda of the World Conference Against Racism. 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 Discrimination, 1965), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination affirmed that "the situation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes falls within the scope of" the Convention.2
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. 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 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 recent reviews of India's periodic reports under the children's rights and women's rights conventions.
We are pleased to note that the agenda-related recommendations of the Bellagio Consultation, as contained in A/CONF. 189/PC.1/10, include references to caste systems and discrimination against Dalits and Burakamin within the context of descent-based discrimination. The World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance can and should provide an opportunity for redressing the relative lack of attention given to this subject in international human rights discourse to date. It is our hope that the Conference will help develop an international program of action to make caste-based segregation, violence and other abuses as intolerable as apartheid. To that end, we call on the members of the Preparatory Committee for the World Conference Against Racism to:
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch