As this report demonstrates, more than 160 million people in the world's largest democracy remain at risk of systematic human rights violations on the basis of the caste into which they are born. Despite the fact that India constitutionally abolished the practice of untouchability in 1950, the practice continues in the constitutions fiftieth year, and violence has become a defining characteristic of the abuse. In 1989 India enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to prevent and punish state and private actors for abuses against Dalits, to establish special courts for the trial of such offenses, and to provide for the rehabilitation and relief of the victims. However, without a serious and sustained commitment to implementing constitutional safeguards and other national and international legal protections, human rights abuses in their most degrading forms will continue against scheduled-caste community members.
As documented throughout this report, the response of state administrations to incidents of caste violence amounts to a failure to ensure equal protection under the law and exposes a pattern of complicity and collusion on behalf of police and local officials. Despite ambitious calls for action by central and state governments in the aftermath publicity of massacres and police raids, the Indian authorities have shown little commitment to resolving the root causes of caste conflicts. In Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and other states where massacres and large-scale police attacks on Dalits in rural and urban settings continue to take place, state administrations should act swiftly and without bias to bring offending state and private actors to justice. They must heed calls for protection from Dalit communities and work to address those issues of inequity that are at the heart of the class-caste conflict. To dismiss the violence as purely a law and order concern, or to depict it as the inevitable consequence of ancient feuds between caste Hindus and Dalits, or between the haves and the have-nots, is misleading and irresponsible. Such a characterization erroneously suggests that the state has no protective role to play, or that the state itself has not contributed to the abuse.
At the same time, other forms of human rights violations should not go unaddressed. The false arrests and detentions of social activists are insidious, as they punish those members of the population who attempt to peacefully and democratically claim their rights and protect the rights of others. The exploitation of agricultural laborers and the rigid assignment of demeaning occupations on the basis of caste keeps Dalits in a position of economic and physical vulnerability. The triple burden of caste, class, and gender effectively ensures that Dalit women are the furthest removed from legal protections. Only with the honest implementation of laws designed to protect agricultural laborers and abolishmanual scavenging and forced prostitution, and the systematic prosecution of those responsible for attacks on Dalit men and women, can the process of attaining economic and physical security begin.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act has the potential to bring about social change by sending the message that human rights violations against scheduled-caste members will not go unpunished. The implementation of the Atrocities Act and other legislation, however, depends largely on the ability and willingness of the police to follow proper procedure and overcome caste biases, economic hurdles, and other obstacles. More than twenty years ago, the Indian government set up the National Police Commission to examine the causes of police abuse and police negligence. The commissions 1980 eight-volume report, which followed a series of similar reports by state-level commissions, is a comprehensive account of police brutality and corruption, providing serious recommendations to address the problems. It documents deficiencies in training, salaries, and the de facto immunity from punishment that police continue to enjoy.
Civil rights activists and attorneys in India have argued that even partial implementation of the reports detailed recommendations would substantially curb police abuses and improve their overall performance. The importance of implementing the recommendations was reiterated in a recent Supreme Court judgment.130 Despite repeated calls for reform from former Home Minister Indrajit Gupta, the National Human Rights Commission, and civil rights activists, little action has been taken. Without an immediate and comprehensive commitment to police reform, abuses against the countries lowest castes, and indeed against all marginalized communities, will continue. Indias emerging human rights discourse, and the innovative work of the womens movement and the Dalit movement, are already helping to generate solutions to the problem of police corruption and caste issues generally. The Indian government should solicit the participation of these local groups and of the international community in tackling the problem.
The government of India has also consistently refused to allow relevant U.N. bodies, including working groups and special rapporteurs, to gain access to the country. Simultaneously, the difficulty of slotting caste-based abuses into standard categories of human rights violations, as well as the prevalence of constitutional and legislative protections at the national-level, have allowed for these abuses to escape international scrutiny. As a signatory to severalinternational human rights conventions, India is obligated to abide by their provisions.
The Indian government should enlist the support of the United Nations, multilateral financial institutions, Indias trading partners, and national and international nongovernmental organizations to eradicate the pervasive problem of caste-based abuse. It should also place a priority on strengthening institutional mechanisms aimed at addressing issues of violence and discrimination. In 1997 India celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of independence from British rule. In 1998 the world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Indian government should mark these occasions by dismantling a system that in practice relegates millions of people to a lifetime of violence, servitude, segregation, and discrimination, all on the basis of caste.