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Sixty years on and caste discrimination continues in India

12 October 2009

Letter to the editor

The Telegraph's recent coverage of international negotiations concerning caste discrimination (UN says caste system is a human rights abuse) divided public opinion. Some observers objected to the proposed UN involvement in the issue, stating that caste discrimination is an internal matter concerning the Indian government. Minority Rights Group International has worked for many years in support of the rights of Dalits in India and elsewhere. We cannot accept that serious human rights abuses affecting some 180 million people should remain an internal affair of India. Although the caste system was abolished by India's Constitution in 1947 and the government provides financial support to foster the increased social inclusion of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, prejudice against Dalits pervades Indian society. Human rights organisations have long been reporting how caste-motivated killings, rape, violence, segregation and discrimination are still endemic in many parts of India.

The scale of the problems faced by Dalits is enormous. On 6 March 2009, six male professors of a women's college were jailed for life for repeatedly gang-raping a Dalit girl studying at the college. This was a historic sentence. According to activists working with Dalits, Dalit girls are particularly at risk of being raped. The stigma of ‘untouchability' makes Dalit women especially vulnerable to becoming victims of all kinds of discrimination and physical abuse. Dalit women who have suffered rape may find it difficult to approach the authorities, and if they do, their cases will often not receive the attention they deserve. A climate of impunity hangs over attacks on Dalit women, since perpetrators believe that there is little chance that they will be caught or brought to trial. Thus, the sentence passed against the six professors was sadly an exception rather than the norm.

According to Human Rights Watch almost 58,000 cases of serious abuses against Dalits were registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act between 2001 and 2002, but the conviction rate is drastically low. After 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and state support, the problems faced by Dalits have not been resolved. The longstanding and serious nature of the situation means that this should indeed be a question for international fora. Thus, we welcome the attention the United Nations is paying the issue of caste discrimination through the Human Rights Council. The argument of human rights being an internal matter is all too often used by governments to evade international scrutiny.

Bernadett Sebály

Media Officer
Minority Rights Group Europe
T: +36 1 327 7032
M: +36 70 217 2601

[email protected]