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India’s Dalits take to the road to raise awareness of ‘hidden apartheid’

12 January 2004

Members of Dalit communities have taken to the roads, villages and towns of India to bring their issues directly to the Indian public and politicians, raising awareness of caste discrimination through a series of rallies, meetings and cultural events. The Dalit Swadhikar Rally, conceived and organized by groups including the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, is part of a wider advocacy and awareness raising campaign. The events seek to influence public opinion, empower Dalit organizations, and encourage those within India and the international community to condemn a form of discrimination widely considered to be a type of ‘hidden apartheid’.

The Rally was launched on 5 December in New Delhi at an event attended by former President of India, Sri. K.R. Narayanan, himself a Dalit. The Rally is simultaneously travelling on four routes covering 50,000 km and 18 states across the length and breadth of India. Nearly 750 organized events including public meetings, cultural events and poster exhibitions will take place over the course of the rally. Routes will converge at Mumbai on 14th January where delegates will participate in the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF will bring together civil society groups in a unique exchange of experiences, ideas and practical action to confront the negative effects of globalization and capital domination, and encourage a ‘society centred on the human person’. The rally is raising awareness of the effects of these issues upon Dalit communities which are often the victims of large scale development or economic projects that fail to consider their rights or the negative impacts upon them.

An important objective of the rally is to gather data and information on the extent and nature of caste discrimination as it exists in India today. Caste discrimination is most prevalent in the villages of rural India where it often goes unreported and the perpetrators go unpunished. Victims have historically had little practical recourse to law and may fear reprisals when bringing their cases to the police or the courts. Rally organizers have expressed the desire to fully document the experiences brought to light during the rally in order to strengthen their claims that caste discrimination remains widespread in India and to take forward the positive momentum generated by the rally.

Dalits, often called ‘untouchables’, may face discrimination and exclusion in all fields of life. They are often relegated to the worst, lowest paid jobs within society, many having to clean streets and public toilets or survive through manual scavenging. Dalits are vulnerable to numerous forms of ill-treatment and abuse by members of higher castes, including segregation, beatings and torture, and well documented cases of killings over issues such as land disputes. Women are also vulnerable to sexual violence or to sexual exploitation through the ‘Devadasi’ system, which condemns many young Dalit girls to a life of sexual servitude for higher caste Hindus. Anti-Dalit discrimination within the police system and wider society remains a major barrier to securing the rights and dignity of Dalits.

A growing number of organizations are engaged in the protection and promotion of Dalit human rights in India, and it is hoped that their combined experiences will help to forge a strong network of local, regional and national organizations. The rally is a testament to the organization, skill and innovation of Dalit organizations and committed individuals both within India and in the international arena. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has lobbied alongside Dalit organizations and fully supports action to address caste and caste-like discrimination in India and in numerous other countries in which it occurs. Recent recognition of the problem of caste discrimination at the international level has come in the form of a General Recommendation on caste related issue by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), and a decision in 2003 by the UN Sub-Commission to continue its study into caste and caste-like practices.

Notes for editors

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].