When we are working, they ask us not to come near them. At tea canteens, they have separate tea tumblers and they make us clean them ourselves and make us put the dishes away ourselves. We cannot enter temples. We cannot use upper-caste water taps. We have to go one kilometer away to get water... When we ask for our rights from the government, the municipality officials threaten to fire us. So we dont say anything. This is what happens to people who demand their rights.
A Dalit manual scavenger, Ahmedabad district, Gujarat1
Thevars [caste Hindus] treat Sikkaliars [Dalits] as slaves so they can utilize them as they wish. They exploit them sexually and make them dig graveyards for high-caste peoples burials. They have to take the death message to Thevars. These are all unpaid services.
Manibharati, social activist, Madurai district, Tamil Nadu2
In the past, twenty to thirty years ago, [Dalits] enjoyed the practice of untouchability. In the past, women enjoyed being oppressed by men. They werent educated. They didnt know the world... They enjoy Thevar community men having them as concubines... They cannot afford to react, they are dependent on us for jobs and protection... She wants it from him. He permits it. If he has power, then she has more affection for the landlord.
A prominent Thevar political leader, Tamil Nadu3
More than one-sixth of India's population, some 160 million people, live a precarious existence, shunned by much of society because of their rank as untouchables or Dalitsliterally meaning broken people4at the bottom ofIndia's caste system. Dalits are discriminated against, denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and of higher-caste groups that enjoy the state's protection. In what has been called Indias hidden apartheid, entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. National legislation and constitutional protections serve only to mask the social realities of discrimination and violence faced by those living below the pollution line.
Despite the fact that untouchability was abolished under India's constitution in 1950,5 the practice of untouchabilitythe imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth in certain castes remains very much a part of rural India. Untouchables may not cross the line dividing their part of the village from that occupied by higher castes. They may not use the same wells, 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, and communities as a whole are made to perform degrading rituals in the name of caste. Most Dalits continue to live in extreme poverty, without land or opportunities for better employment or education. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from Indias policy of quotas in education and government jobs, Dalits are relegated to the most menial of tasks, as manual scavengers, removers of human waste and dead animals, leather workers, street sweepers, and cobblers. Dalit children make up the majority of those sold into bondage to pay off debts to upper-caste creditors. Dalit men, women, and children numbering in the tens of millions work as agricultural laborers for a few kilograms of rice or Rs. 15 to Rs. 35 (US$0.38 to $0.88) a day.6 Their upper-caste employers frequently use caste as a cover for exploitative economic arrangements: social sanction of their status as lesser beings allows their impoverishment to continue.
Dalit women face the triple burden of caste, class, and gender. Dalit girls have been forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests. Sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women are used by landlords and the police to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within the community. According to a Tamil Nadu state government official, the raping of Dalit women exposes the hypocrisy of the caste system as no one practices untouchability when it comes to sex.7 Like other Indian women whose relatives are sought by thepolice, Dalit women have also been arrested and tortured in custody as a means of punishing their male relatives who are hiding from the authorities.
The plight of India's untouchables elicits only sporadic attention within the country. Public outrage over large-scale incidents of violence or particularly egregious examples of discrimination fades quickly, and the state is under little pressure to undertake more meaningful reforms. Laws granting Dalits special consideration for government jobs and education reach only a small percentage of those they are meant to benefit. Laws designed to ensure that Dalits enjoy equal rights and protection have seldom been enforced. Instead, police refuse to register complaints about violations of the law and rarely prosecute those responsible for abuses that range from murder and rape to exploitative labor practices and forced displacement from Dalit lands and homes.
Political mobilization that has resulted in the emergence of powerful interest groups and political parties among middle- and low-caste groups throughout India since the mid-1980s has largely bypassed Dalits. Dalits are courted by all political parties but generally forgotten once elections are over. The expanding power base of low-caste political parties, the election of low-caste chief ministers to state governments, and even the appointment of a Dalit as president of India in July 1997 all signal the increasing prominence of Dalits in the political landscape but cumulatively have yet to yield any significant benefit for the majority of Dalits. Laws on land reform and protection for Dalits remain unimplemented in most Indian states.
Lacking access to mainstream political organizations and increasingly frustrated with the pace of reforms, Dalits have begun to resist subjugation and discrimination in two ways: peaceful protest and armed struggle. Particularly since the early 1990s, Dalit organizations have sought to mobilize Dalits to protest peacefully against the human rights violations suffered by their community. These movements have quickly grown in membership and visibility and have provoked a backlash from the higher-caste groups most threatenedboth economically and politicallyby Dalit assertiveness. Police, many of whom belong to these higher-caste groups or who enjoy their patronage, have arrested Dalit activists, including social workers and lawyers, for activity that is legal and on charges that show the polices political motivation. Dalit activists are jailed under preventive detention statutes to prevent them from holding meetings and protest rallies, or charged as terrorists and threats to national security. Court cases drag on for years, costing impoverished people precious money and time.
Dalits who dare to challenge the social order have been subject to abuses by their higher-caste neighbors. Dalit villages are collectively penalized for individual transgressions through social boycotts, including loss of employment and accessto water, grazing lands, and ration shops. For most Dalits in rural India who earn less than a subsistence living as agricultural laborers, a social boycott may mean destitution and starvation.
In some states, notably Bihar, guerrilla organizations advocating the use of violence to achieve land redistribution have attracted Dalit support. Such groups, known as Naxalites,8 have carried out attacks on higher-caste groups, killing landlords, village officials and their families and seizing property. Such attacks on civilians constitute gross violations of international humanitarian law. Naxalite groups have also engaged in direct combat with police forces.
In response, police have targeted Dalit villagers believed to be sympathetic to Naxalites and have conducted raids in search of the guerrillas and their weapons. While there is no question that the Naxalites pose a serious security threat and that the police are obliged to counter that threat, the behavior of the police indicates that the purpose of the raids is often to terrorize Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of Naxalite organizations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and wantonly destroyed property.
Higher-caste landlords in Bihar have organized private militias to counter the Naxalite threat. These militias, or senas, also target Dalit villagers believed to be sympathetic to Naxalites. Senas are believed responsible for the murders of many hundreds of Dalits in Bihar since 1969. 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. In one of the largest of such massacres, on the night of December 1, 1997, the Ranvir Sena shot dead sixteen children, twenty-seven women, and eighteen men in the village of Laxmanpur-Bathe, Jehanabad district Bihar. Five teenage girls were raped and mutilated before being shot in the chest. The villagers were reportedly sympathetic to a Naxalite group that had been demanding more equitable land redistribution in the area. When Ramchela Paswan returned home from the fields, he found seven of his family members shot: I started beating my chest and screaming that no one is left....9 When asked whythe sena killed children and women, one sena member responded, We kill children because they will grow up to become Naxalites. We kill women because they will give birth to Naxalites.10
The senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them on raids and have stood by as they killed villagers and burned down their homes. On April 10, 1997, in the village of Ekwari, located in the Bhojpur district of Bihar, police stationed in the area to protect lower-caste villagers instead pried open the doors of their residences as members of the sena entered and killed eight residents. In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the senas. Sena leaders are rarely prosecuted for such killings, and the villagers are rarely or inadequately compensated for their losses. Even in cases where police are not hostile to Dalits, they are generally not accessible to call upon: most police camps are located in the upper-caste section of the village and Dalits are simply unable to approach them for protection.
In the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, clashes between Pallars (a community of Dalits) and Thevars (a marginally higher-caste non-Dalit community) have plagued rural areas since 1995. New wealth among the Pallars, who have sent male family members to work in Gulf states and elsewhere abroad, has triggered a backlash from the Thevars as the Pallars have increasingly been able to buy and farm their own lands or look elsewhere for employment. At the same time, a growing Dalit political movement has provided the Pallars with a platform for resisting the still-prevalent norms of untouchability. While some Dalits have joined militant groups in Tamil Nadu, such groups have generally engaged in public protests and other political activities rather than armed resistance. The Thevars have responded by assaulting, raping, and murdering Dalits to preserve the status quo.
Local police, drawn predominantly from the Thevar community, have conducted raids on Dalit villages, ostensibly to search for militant activists. During the raids they have assaulted residents, particularly women, and detained Dalits under preventive detention laws. With the tolerance or connivance of local officials, police have also forcibly displaced thousands of Dalit villagers. During one such raid, Guruswamy Guruammal, a pregnant, twenty-six-year-old Dalit agricultural laborer, was stripped, brutally beaten, and dragged through the streets naked before being thrown in jail. She told Human Rights Watch, I begged the police officers at the jail to help me. I even told them I was pregnant. They mocked me for [having made] bold statements to the police the day before. I spenttwenty-five days in jail. I miscarried my baby after ten days. Nothing has happened to the officers who did this to me.11
Excessive use of force by the police is not limited to rural areas. Police abuse against the urban poor, slum dwellers, Dalits, and other minorities has included arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions and forced evictions. Although the acute social discrimination characteristic of rural areas is less pronounced in cities, Dalits in urban areas, who make up the majority of bonded laborers and street cleaners, do not escape it altogether. Many live in segregated colonies which have been targets of police raids. This report documents a particularly egregious incident in a Dalit colony in Bombay in July 1997, when police opened fire without warning on a crowd of Dalits protesting the desecration of a statue of Dalit cultural and political hero Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.12 The firing killed ten and injured twenty-six.
Dalits throughout the country also suffer in many instances from de facto disenfranchisement. During elections, those unpersuaded by typical electioneering are routinely threatened and beaten by political party strongmen in order to compel them to vote for certain candidates. Already under the thumb of local landlords and police officials, Dalit villagers who do not comply have been murdered, beaten, and harassed.
Police and upper-caste militias, operating at the behest of powerful political leaders in the state, have also punished Dalit voters. In February 1998, police raided a Dalit village in Tamil Nadu that had boycotted the national parliamentary elections. Women were kicked and beaten, their clothing was torn, and police forced sticks and iron pipes into their mouths. Kerosene was poured into stored food grains and grocery items and police reportedly urinated in cooking vessels. In Bihar, political candidates ensure their majority vote with the help of senas, whose members kill if necessary. The Ranvir Sena was responsible for killing more than fifty people during Bihars 1995 state election campaign. The sena was again used to intimidate voters in Ara district, Bihar, during the February 1998 national parliamentary elections.
Dalits who have contested 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 in order to get them to withdraw from the campaign. In the village of Melavalavu, Madurai district 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 told to Human Rights Watch by an eyewitness, the leader of the attack instructed the Thevars [caste Hindus] to kill all the Pariahs [Dalits]... They pulled all six out of the bus and stabbed them on the road... Five Thevars joined together, put Murugesan [the Dalit president] on the ground outside the bus, and chopped off his head, then threw it in a well half a kilometer away... Some grabbed his hands, others grabbed his head, and one cut his head... They deliberately took the head and poured the blood on other dead bodies.13 As of February 1999, the accusedwho had been voted out of their once-secure elected positionshad not been prosecuted. Those arrested were out on bail, while the person identified as the ringleader of the attack was still at large. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes14 (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, enacted in 1989, provides a means to address many of the problems Dalits face inIndia. The act is designed to prevent abuses and punish those responsible, establish special courts for the trial of such offenses, and provide for victim relief and rehabilitation. A look at the offenses made punishable by the act provides a glimpse into the retaliatory or customarily degrading treatment Dalits may receive. The offenses include forcing members of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe to drink or eat any inedible or obnoxious substance; dumping excreta, waste matter, carcasses or any other obnoxious substance in their premises or neighborhood; forcibly removing their clothes and parading them naked or with painted face or body; interfering with their rights to land; compelling a member of a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe into forms of forced or bonded labor; corrupting or fouling the water of any spring, reservoir or any other source ordinarily used by scheduled castes or scheduled tribes; denying right of passage to a place of public resort; and using a position of dominance to exploit a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe woman sexually.
The potential of the law to bring about social change has been hampered by police corruption and caste bias, with the result that many allegations are not entered in police books. Ignorance of procedures and a lack of knowledge of the act have also affected its implementation. Even when cases are registered, the absence of special courts to try them can delay prosecutions for up to three to four years. Some state governments dominated by higher castes have even attempted to repeal the legislation altogether.
Between 1994 and 1996, a total of 98,349 cases were registered with the police nationwide as crimes and atrocities against scheduled castes. Of these, 38,483 were registered under the Atrocities Act for the sorts of offenses enumerated above. A further 1,660 were for murder, 2,814 for rape, and 13,671 for hurt.15 Given that Dalits are both reluctant and unable (for lack of police cooperation) to report crimes against themselves, the actual number of abuses is presumably much higher. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has reported that these cases typically fall into one of three categories: cases relating to the practice of untouchability and attempts to defy the social order; cases relating to land disputes and demands for minimum wages; and cases of atrocities by police and forest officials.
Although this report focuses primarily on abuse against Dalit communities that have begun to assert themselves economically or organize themselvespolitically, it also examines the weakest sectors of the population: those with no political representation, living in the poorest of conditions, and made to perform the most degrading of tasks with little or no remuneration. To eke out a subsistence living, Dalits throughout the country, numbering in the tens of millions, are driven to bonded labor, manual scavenging, and forced prostitution under conditions that violate national law and their basic human rights.
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 a debt. A majority of them are Dalits. According to government statistics, an estimated one million Dalits are manual scavengers who clear feces from public and private latrines and dispose of dead animals; unofficial estimates are much higher. An activist working with scavengers in the state of Andhra Pradesh claimed, In one toilet there can be as many as 400 seats which all have to be manually cleaned. This is the lowest occupation in the world, and it is done by the community that occupies the lowest status in the caste system.16 In Indias southern states, thousands of girls are forced into prostitution before reaching the age of puberty. Devadasis, literally meaning female servant of god, usually belong to the Dalit community. Once dedicated, the girl is unable to marry, forced to become a prostitute for upper-caste community members, and eventually auctioned off to an urban brothel.
This report is about caste, but it is also about class, gender, poverty, labor, and land. For those at the bottom of its hierarchy, caste is a determinative factor for the attainment of social, political, civil, and economic rights. Most of the conflicts documented in this report take place within very narrow segments of the caste hierarchy, between the poor and the not-so-poor, the landless laborer and the small landowner. The differences lie in the considerable amount of leverage that the higher-caste Hindus or non-Dalits are able to wield over local police, district administrations, and even the state government.
Investigations by Indias National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the National Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, and numerous local nongovernmental organizations all concur that impunity is rampant. 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 Dalit communities. Moreover, in many instances, repeated calls for protection by threatened Dalit communities have been ignored by police and district officials.
The National Agenda for Governance, the election manifesto for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which came to power in the February 1998 elections, outlines a program of action for the upliftment of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. It promises to take steps to establish a civilised, humane and just civil order... which does not discriminate on the grounds of caste, religion, class, colour, race or sex; ensures the economic and educational development of the minorities; safeguards the interests of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and backward classes by appropriate legal, executive and societal efforts and by large scale education and empowerment; provides legal protection to existing percentages of reservation in educational institutions at the State level; and removes the last vestiges of untouchability. However, to date, the Indian government has done little to fulfill its promises to Dalits.
A national campaign to highlight abuses against Dalits spearheaded by human rights groups in eight states began to focus national and international attention to the issue in 1998. The recommendations for this report were drafted in consultation with more than forty activists who have been working closely on the campaign. In publishing this report now, Human Rights Watch adds its voice to theirs in calling upon the Indian government to implement the recommendations outlined in this report, to fulfill the commitments made regarding scheduled castes in the National Agenda for Governance, and to take immediate steps to prevent and eliminate caste-based violence and discrimination. We further urge the international community to press the Indian government to bring its practices into compliance with national and international law.