Lack of Enforcement, Not Laws
Enforcement of laws designed to protect Dalits is lax if not non-existent in many regions of India. The practice of untouchability is strongest in rural areas, where 80 percent of the country's population resides. There, the underlying religious principles of Hinduism dominate.
Hindus believe a person is born into one of four castes based on karma and "purity"how he or she lived their past lives. Those born as Brahmans are priests and teachers; Kshatriyas are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are merchants and traders; and Sudras are laborers. Within the four castes, there are thousands of sub-castes, defined by profession, region, dialect, and other factors.
Untouchables are literally outcastes; a fifth group that is so unworthy it doesn't fall within the caste system.
Although based on religious principles practiced for some 1,500 years, the system persists today for economic as much as religious reasons.
Because they are considered impure from birth, Untouchables perform jobs that are traditionally considered "unclean" or exceedingly menial, and for very little pay. One million Dalits work as manual scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. Millions more are agricultural workers trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.
Although illegal, 40 million people in India, most of them Dalits, are bonded workers, many working to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published in 1999. These people, 15 million of whom are children, work under slave-like conditions hauling rocks, or working in fields or factories for less than U.S. $1 day.
Crimes Against Women
Dalit women are particularly hard hit. They are frequently raped or beaten as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance. They are also subject to arrest if they have male relatives hiding from the authorities.
A case reported in 1999 illustrates the toxic mix of gender and caste.
A 42-year-old Dalit woman was gang-raped and then burnt alive after she, her husband, and two sons had been held in captivity and tortured for eight days. Her crime? Another son had eloped with the daughter of the higher-caste family doing the torturing. The local police knew the Dalit family was being held, but did nothing because of the higher-caste family's local influence.
There is very little recourse available to victims.
A report released by Amnesty International in 2001 found an "extremely high" number of sexual assaults on Dalit women, frequently perpetrated by landlords, upper-caste villagers, and police officers. The study estimates that only about 5 percent of attacks are registered, and that police officers dismissed at least 30 percent of rape complaints as false.
The study also found that the police routinely demand bribes, intimidate witnesses, cover up evidence, and beat up the women's husbands. Little or nothing is done to prevent attacks on rape victims by gangs of upper-caste villagers seeking to prevent a case from being pursued. Sometimes the policemen even join in, the study suggests. Rape victims have also been murdered. Such crimes often go unpunished.
Thousands of pre-teen Dalit girls are forced into prostitution under cover of a religious practice known as devadasis, which means "female servant of god." The girls are dedicated or "married" to a deity or a temple. Once dedicated, they are unable to marry, forced to have sex with upper-caste community members, and eventually sold to an urban brothel.
Resistance and Progress
Within India, grassroots efforts to change are emerging, despite retaliation and intimidation by local officials and upper-caste villagers. In some states, caste conflict has escalated to caste warfare, and militia-like vigilante groups have conducted raids on villages, burning homes, raping, and massacring the people. These raids are sometimes conducted with the tacit approval of the police.
In the province Bihar, local Dalits are retaliating, committing atrocities also. Non-aligned Dalits are frequently caught in the middle, victims of both groups.
"There is a growing grassroots movement of activists, trade unions, and other NGOs that are organizing to democratically and peacefully demand their rights, higher wages, and more equitable land distribution," said Narula. "There has been progress in terms of building a human rights movement within India, and in drawing international attention to the issue."
In August 2002, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD) approved a resolution condemning caste or descent-based discrimination.
"But at the national level, very little is being done to implement or enforce the laws," said Narula.
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