India’s caste system is attracting international censure. Earlier this month, the European Parliament recognised caste discrimination as a human rights violation, calling it a “global evil” and urging EU institutions to tackle it.
Though the Indian government has not reacted, the words must have been a knife in the heart.
In the past, India has assiduously resisted anything that it perceives as an attempt by foreigners to embarrass the country over the Hindu caste system.
Last December, the European Parliament passed a similar resolution expressing alarm at the human rights abuses against India’s “untouchables” (or dalits) as they are known, not to mention the discrimination against dalits in the Indian diaspora.
In the UK, which has a large Asian community, the government decided that something needed to be done about the persistence of the caste system among British Asians. MPs amended the anti-discrimination Equality Act to include caste discrimination as a way of protecting British dalits.
It is time for India to understand that it cannot act as if the caste discrimination that affects the 165 million dalits in India is a purely domestic problem. If it does not learn this, the Indian government is likely to fall under more pressure to end this horror.
Though outlawed since 1950, the contempt expressed by the upper castes continues to singe dalit minds in a million different ways.
Every day, they are made to feel small. Every day they are degraded by being forced to do filthy work or by social exclusion.
Dalits can still be killed for “polluting” high caste wells by drinking from them.
In many villages, they are still forced to live apart from other villagers. From a very tender age, dalit children internalise feelings of inferiority and self-hatred.
Despite progress in many areas and rising economic wealth, the distinctions of caste continue to predominate in India.
It’s true that the politician Mayawati blazed a trail by becoming India’s first dalit chief minister of a state. In 1997, K R Narayanan was appointed as India’s first dalit president. Some dalits have succeeded as entrepreneurs and in some professions.
But these are exceptions to the rule. Virtually every Indian institution is dominated by the high castes.
India’s prickly defensiveness on the caste system was also evident in 2009 when the United Nations Human Rights Council declared that discrimination based on caste was a “human-rights abuse”. India fought vehemently to stop the resolution.
This reluctance to accept responsibility and to feel shame over the cruelty of the caste system is a feature not only of India’s conduct at international forums but also at home. It is deeply dismaying that, despite the abominations which the caste system has inflicted on dalits for thousands of years, no Hindu leader or organisation has ever thought of apologising for it.
Compare this to equivalent situations elsewhere in the world.
Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, apologised for the treatment of aborigines five years ago.
A year later, the US Senate formally apologised for the “fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery” of African-Americans. White South Africans were able to do some soul-searching when the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was set up in 1996 to help the wounds caused by apartheid to heal. And in 1998, the Vatican apologised for not speaking out against the holocaust.
But upper-caste Hindus? Not a word to indicate a stirring of the conscience or the feeling of any remorse for dehumanising dalits. It would do dalits good to hear an apology but even more, it would do upper-caste Hindus good to recognise the injustice that they and their ancestors committed.
Instead, they live in denial because the hatred of dalits is so deep and instinctive they are not even aware of it. Some cheerfully claim that caste has been abolished. Then the papers report how the authorities in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan plan to set up crematoriums for different castes. Or that a dalit bridegroom was thrashed senseless by upper caste thugs for the “temerity” of riding on a horse during his wedding procession, a privilege they deem to be fit only for an upper caste man.
If only India could accept international resolutions against caste and use them as a way of spurring itself to greater action to destroy the caste system. But it just isn’t big-hearted enough to do that.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi