Published on: Yahoo! News, March 24, 2004      

Indian activists hail Dutch NGO's call to UN on caste, riots

Rahul Verma
OneWorld South Asia

NEW DELHI, Mar 24 (OneWorld) - Indian activists are supporting a demand by eight Dutch non governmental organizations (NGOs) to raise the issue of human rights violations in India at the ongoing session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

In a letter to the Dutch foreign minister, the NGOs have stressed the need to highlight at the 60th session of the commission, on in Geneva till April 23, caste discrimination and the status of Muslims in Gujarat, a western Indian state that witnessed widespread anti-Muslim violence in 2002.

"We request you to take the initiative or support a resolution in the UN Commission on Human Rights in India, in particular on the situation in Gujarat," the NGOs have said in a letter to the Dutch foreign minister, B.R. Bot. "We request you to make all possible efforts in the European Union context to promote a resolution by the UN Commission on Human Rights on caste discrimination and similar forms of discrimination on the basis of work and descent," the letter says.

Indian activists working on Dalit issues and race relations believe the move will help put international focus on the two issues.

"The international community needs to take these matters up," says Shabnam Hashmi of the New Delhi-based ANHAD, an NGO that has been working for communal harmony in Gujarat. "It is important that they do so, for the Indian government has been trying to sweep the issues under the carpet," she says.

The letter dated February 19, written by NGOs including Justitia et Pax, ChurchinAction, Cordaid and Hivos, was issued earlier this week by India Committee of the Netherlands, an NGO advocating the rights of Dalits, a group once referred to as the "untouchables" in India.

Dalits still face severe discrimination on social and economic fronts in India. Every year, 13,000 to 15,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits are registered - though Dalit experts believe the figures are just a fraction of the total number of such cases that occur in India.

"These forms of discrimination, oppression and exclusion affect approximately 250 million inhabitants of South Asia and an unknown number of people in Japan and various African countries," the letter says in its reference to caste. It also points out that the Dutch government tried to focus on caste discrimination at the World Racism Conference in Durban in 2001.

"At that point in time, due to resistance from India, no official progress was made," the letter says. "However, the presence of several hundred Dalits did result in a lot of attention being paid to the issue of caste discrimination."

The problem, says Dalit academic S.K. Thorat, director of the Institute of Dalit studies, a New Delhi-based organization affiliated to India's National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, is the fact that caste is not mentioned in the United Nations human rights charter.

"The Indian government does recognize caste as an issue, but it becomes a question of interpretation and legality since the word does not find place in the UN," he says.

One of India's biggest Dalit bodies, the million-strong All India Confederation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, stresses that the NGOs' move may help raise international consciousness on the problems of Dalits.

"External pressures certainly help," says confederation chairman Udit Raj. "The Indian government does succumb to the pressures of western powers," he says.

But to make a significant difference to the status of Dalits in India, moves on international fora have to be propped up by movements inside India. "This move will be almost meaningless if we don't have a strong movement within the country," says Raj.

ANHAD, however, believes that international pressures on the Indian government may force New Delhi to punish the guilty in the Gujarat riots in which at least 2,000 people were killed. "And if nothing else, it may shame the United States, which has been silent on Gujarat, to take the issue up with the Indian government," says Hashmi.

In recent times, several global human rights bodies - such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - as well as the People's Union for Civil Liberties and other Indian rights groups have raised the issues of attacks on minorities and Dalits.

The letter to the Dutch foreign minister points out that the European Parliament has also, on several occasions "explicitly advocated" more active EU and UN policies against caste discrimination.

The NGOs also refer to the situation in Gujarat, which, it stresses, "has hardly improved with regard to the impunity of the perpetrators, the lack of rehabilitation of the victims and/or their next of kin and the discrimination and exclusion of Muslims."


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