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May  2000
Cover Story



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 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” 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. 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. 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.

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 when 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 CERD 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.  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 respective  conventions. 

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. To that end, we call on the members of the Preparatory Committee for the World Conference against Racism to: 

Ø Ensure that caste–based and similar discrimination against marginalized populations in Asia be explicitly addressed in the agenda of the WCR within the context of the definition of the term “racial discrimination.” 

Ø Encourage Asian governments to undertake regional and national preparations for the WCR in close consultation with NGOs. And pay  special attention  to caste–based discrimination and other forms of discrimination based on descent. 

Ø 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. 

Ø 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. Organizations involved in the Network include, but are not limited to: Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International; Minority Rights Group,UK ; Dalit Solidarity Network, UK; International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR); Christian Aid, UK ; Voice of Dalits International, UK ; Anti–Slavery International ; Dalit Solidarity Forum, USA ; India Committee of the Netherlands; Lutheran World Federation; Dan Church Aid and the  National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights–India. 

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. 

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