The Indian government has failed to prevent widespread violence and discrimination against more than 160 million people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today. The report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables," calls on the Indian government to disband private militias and implement national legislation to prevent and prosecute caste-based attacks.
Untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950. Yet entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste, in what has been called "hidden apartheid." Untouchables, or Dalits -- the name literally means "broken" people -- may not enter the higher-caste sections of villages, may not use the same wells, wear shoes in the presence of upper castes, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms. Dalit villagers have been the victims of many brutal massacres in recent years.
"'Untouchability' is not an ancient cultural artifact, it is human rights abuse on a vast scale," said Smita Narula, researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The tools for change are in place -- what is lacking is the political will for their implementation." Human Rights Watch is an international human rights monitoring organization based in New York.
Since the early 1990s, violence against Dalits has escalated dramatically in response to growing Dalit rights movements. The release of the 291-page report today is timed to coincide with the birthday of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian constitution and revered Dalit leader who died in 1956. The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, the first of its kind in history, will be marking the occasion with rallies in ten states.
The report includes more than forty specific recommendations to the Indian government at the central and state level, many of them focused on implementing a 1989 law banning atrocities against Dalits. According to that law, it is illegal to force Dalits into bonded labor, deny them access to public places, foul their drinking water, force them to eat "obnoxious substances," or "parade them naked or with painted face or body." The recommendations also call for the establishment of special courts and atrocities units to prosecute crimes against Dalits, and more women police personnel to register complaints by Dalit women.
"The violence will only grow without these measures," said Narula. "It is a crisis that calls out for national and international attention."
At the international level, the report calls on India's donors and trading partners to build anti-discrimination measures into all aid projects where problems of caste violence are particularly severe. All of the recommendations were formulated in consultation with Indian activists involved in the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, founded in 1998.
Upper-caste employers frequently use caste as a cover for exploitative economic arrangements. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India's policy of reservations (affirmative action), Dalits are relegated to the most menial tasks.
An estimated forty million people in India, among them fifteen million children, are bonded laborers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts. The majority of them are Dalits. At least one million Dalits work as manual scavengers, clearing feces from latrines and disposing of dead animals with their bare hands. Dalits also comprise the majority of agricultural laborers who work for a few kilograms of rice, or 15-35 rupees (less than US$1) a day.
In India's southern states, thousands of Dalit girls are forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests before reaching the age of puberty. Landlords and the police use sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community. Dalit women have been arrested and tortured in custody to punish their male relatives who are hiding from the authorities.
The report documents violence in the eastern state of Bihar and the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, high-caste landlords have organized private militias, or senas, which have killed Dalit villagers with impunity. Extremist guerrilla groups have retaliated by killing high-caste villagers, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. Such attacks on civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch has called for independent investigations into the killings and for the disarming of the militias.
One of the most prominent militias, the Ranvir Sena, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. Within a span of three weeks in January and February 1999, sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks. On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Centre, a guerrilla organization with low-caste supporters, beheaded 33 upper-caste villagers in retaliation for the sena killings. Both sides have threatened more "revenge killings" in the weeks to come.
The senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them during their attacks and have stood by as they killed villagers in their homes. In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the senas. The purpose of the raids is often to terrorize Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of guerilla organizations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and destroyed property. Sena leaders and police officials have never been prosecuted for such killings and abuses.
Dalits throughout the country also suffer from de facto disenfranchisement. During elections, Dalits are routinely threatened and beaten by political party strongmen in order to compel them to vote for certain candidates. Dalits who run for political office in village councils and municipalities (through seats that have been constitutionally "reserved" for them) have been threatened with physical abuse and even death to get them to withdraw from the campaign.
In the village of Melavalavu, Tamil Nadu, following the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency, members of a higher-caste group murdered six Dalits in June 1997, including the elected council president, whom they beheaded. As of February 1999, the accused murderers -- who had been voted out of their once-secure elected positions -- had not been prosecuted.
In cases investigated for this report, with the exception of a few transfers and suspensions, no action has been taken against police officers involved in violent raids or summary executions, or against those accused of colluding with private actors to carry out attacks on Dalits. In many instances, Dalits have repeatedly called for police protection and been ignored. Even national government agencies concur that impunity is rampant.
"Talking about the problem is not enough," said Narula. "The Indian government must act now to demonstrate its stated commitment to ensuring equal rights for Dalits."