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Dalit rights: Casting “untouchables” into discourse of Apartheid

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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed an urgent need to end
caste-based discrimination. In an interview with The Nation on 26
October 2009, Navi Pillay, a former judge in South Africa, mentioned the need to
create a new international convention that includes the explicit recognition of
caste-based discrimination as a human rights violation. 

and apartheid could be removed, so now [caste] can be removed through an
international expression of outrage", she said in the interview. Human
Rights Watch (HRW), the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), and the
National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) have all backed Pillay's

Rights Watch (HRW), the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), and the
National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) have all backed Pillay's

Recently, Pillay was visited by a group of women who gave her a brick from a
latrine where Dalits are forced to clean toilets with their bare hands. There
are approximately 260 million "untouchables" or "Dalits"
("broken people") throughout the world today, many of whom continue
to deal with discrimination. The issue of caste has been discussed for over one
hundred years, and Pillay says action is well overdue. 

the most disturbing aspect of the entire movement is that many laws do exist to
criminalise caste-based discrimination in theory, protecting Dalits from
violence and exploitation. Affirmative action programs exist to guarantee
Dalits a presence in the government and access to education. However, strong
discrimination continues to be practiced. This paradox is perhaps illustrated
best in India,
where the vast majority of Dalits live. 

Dalits have faced death from
upper caste individuals for entering a Brahmin temple, or lynching for
inter-caste marriage. In some parts of Northern India Dalits must vote in
segregated polling stations. "India's ban on caste-based discrimination
will not be effective unless the government makes it a priority to enforce
it," said Paul Divakar, general secretary of the NCDHR in India.
"Violence and other human rights abuses against Dalits are still committed
with impunity.  The government should work with the international community
to address this problem". 

The concept of caste continues to centre a heated debate in international
circles. For Pillay, caste issues have been distorted by governments such as
India who have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing policies,
conventions, and treaties against human rights abuses do not apply.  

In general, lower-caste individuals are confined to menial, low-income
employment while deprived of land and credit. Many are doomed to indebtedness
and labour bondage, which is a form of slavery that continues generation after
generation. Dalit rights tend to fall under the purview of the UN's Guidelines
for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent in
various intergovernmental discussions on caste.  

Pillay advocates that the Human Rights Council adopt the 2009 Draft Principles
for the Guidelines. The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination does list descent as a form of racial discrimination. The Durban
Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Racism
in 2001, also recognized descent-based discrimination. However, Durban made no
explicit recognition of caste. 

Due to the obfuscation of governments and the interpretive flux of
intergovernmental bodies, Pillay suggests creating a new international
convention explicitly recognising caste-based discrimination as a human rights
violation. Through such recognition, Pillay hopes to incite the type of
international pressure used against apartheid.  

In a positive step, the government of Nepal, a predominantly Hindu nation and
home to 4.5 million Dalits, has expressed support for the UN to adopt
principles and guidelines on caste discrimination. Approximately 200 million
victims of caste discrimination live in India. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri
Lanka also have sizeable Dalit populations. 

Also related:
International Dalit Solidaryty Network, 3 November UN Special Rapporteur urges States to "rally around" caste guidelines
National Council of Dalit Christians, 18 November Rally demanding the Constitution scheduled caste order 1950