In much of South Asia, race has become coterminous with caste in the definition and exclusion of distinct population groups distinguished by their descent. Despite formal protections in law, discriminatory treatment remains endemic and discriminatory societal norms continue to be reinforced by government structures ranging from the police and the lower courts to state and municipal authorities.

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:

  • Ensure that caste-based and similar discrimination against marginalized populations in Asia be explicitly addressed in the agenda of the WCAR within the context of the definition of the term "racial discrimination." Dalits, Burakumin in Japan, and other populations in similar situations should be explicitly acknowledged as groups of people who have been subject to perennial and persistent forms of discrimination and abuse on the basis of their descent.
  • Encourage Asian governments to undertake regional and national preparations for the WCAR in close consultation with NGOs. In so doing, special attention should be given to caste-based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on descent, such as that suffered by Dalits and Burakumin.
  • Encourage the governments concerned to extend invitations to the Special Rapporteur on racism to investigate caste-based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on descent in their respective countries.
  • Review the existence and implementation of domestic measures to combat caste and descent-based discrimination in relevant countries.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network is an initiative that has emerged among national and international human rights organizations and development agencies in response to the struggle of Dalits in South Asia. Our goals are to raise consciousness on Dalit issues nationally and internationally, to advocate, separately and together, on Dalit human rights in international fora, and to operate in smaller "partnership groups" on agreed regional or interest-based areas of work. Organizations involved in the Network include, but are not limited to:

Human Rights Watch
International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
India's National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights
India's National Federation for Dalit Women
India Committee of the Netherlands
Voices of Dalits International
Dalit Solidarity Forum - United States
Dalit Solidarity Network - United Kingdom
Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace - Canada
Bread for the World - Germany
Dalit Liberation Education Trust - Tamil Nadu
International Dr. Ambedkar Centenary Movement - Tamil Nadu
Navsarjan Trust - Gujarat
Sakshi - Andhra Pradesh
Society of Depressed People for Social Justice - Rajasthan
People's Watch - Tamil Nadu
Dalit Media Network - Tamil Nadu

(1) Based on Census of India 1991 figures.
(2) Consideration of Report by India to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD/C/304/Add.13, September 17, 1996.

India Committee of the Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - February 5, 2001