III. Scope of the Report

This report focuses solely on the issue of caste discrimination in India in response to its conspicuous absence in the Government of India’s combined report to CERD. The practice of “untouchability”—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth in certain castes—discriminates against more than one-sixth of India’s population.1 Dalits, or so-called untouchables (known in Indian legal parlance as scheduled castes), are 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 often enjoy the state’s protection.2 In what has been called India’s “hidden apartheid,” entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste. In focusing on caste discrimination in India, this report acknowledges, but does not explore, the other pervasive practices of discrimination in India, including those that target religious minorities. In particular, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented human rights violations against India’s Christian3 and Muslim community, including the state-sponsored massacre of over 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002.4 

While the Government of India’s periodic report cites specifically to Constitutional provisions prohibiting discrimination by the State—including on grounds of a person’s caste—and generally to the existence of legislation enacting these provisions,5 this elaboration of its de jure prohibition on caste discrimination does not reflect the daily reality of the continued practice of “untouchability” and persecution of Dalits in India. Dalits are systematically discriminated against and abused by public authorities and private actors, who act without any fear of punishment as they rarely face sanctions for their violations of Dalits’ fundamental rights. 

The Committee itself has recognized that India is in breach of its international human rights obligations in its failure to bring an end to caste discrimination. In its Concluding Observations to India’s tenth to fourteenth periodic reports,6 the Committee asserted that:

although constitutional provisions and legal texts exist to abolish untouchability and to protect the members of the scheduled castes and tribes, and although social and educational policies have been adopted to improve the situation of members of scheduled castes and tribes and to protect them from abuses, widespread discrimination against them and the relative impunity of those who abuse them point to the limited effect of these measures.7

While tribal peoples in India, adivasis, face similar forms of discrimination, this report limits itself to caste-based discrimination based against Dalits or so-called untouchables.

Sources Used in this Report

This report draws on extensive investigations on the issue of caste discrimination conducted by Human Rights Watch in India; on information made publicly available by the Government of India through inter alia, a 2004 report by the NHRC on the “Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes;”8 reports by the National Commission on Scheduled Tribes and Schedules Castes, the National Commission on Women, and the Annual Reports to the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955,9 and the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989; 10 and on Indian media and NGO reports, among other sources.11 Where relevant the report also draws attention to information from UN special procedures and treaty bodies that have noted with concern the prevalence of caste discrimination in India.

Availability of Information from the Government of India

The Indian government does not provide prompt and sufficient information on the situation of Dalits. Governmental agencies in India and the Indian Parliament itself have failed to make statistics available to the public in a timely fashion. In general, there are routine delays of between two to four years in the writing and tabling of reports from various national commissions. For example, at this writing, the most recent statistics available from the National Commission on Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes date from 2001-02 and were only made publicly available in 2004. 

UN treaty bodies have repeatedly exhorted the Indian government to conduct periodic surveys on the reality of descent-based discrimination and provide both qualitative and quantitative data disaggregated by caste and gender in its reports to the committees, so far to no avail. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) has pointed to the Indian government’s tendency to provide “very old” information.12 The State Party’s failure to collect and record information on the enjoyment of human rights by Dalits is in itself suggestive of the government’s inattention to the issue of caste discrimination.

1 Human Rights Watch, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables” (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), pp. 1-2. [hereinafter Broken People]. According to the 2001 census, the scheduled caste population comprises 16.2 percent of the India’s total population. India’s Combined second and third periodic reports to CEDAW, October 19, 2005, CEDAW/C/IND/2-3, para. 92.

2 Human Rights Watch, Broken People, p. 2.

3 Human Rights Watch, Politics by Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India, Vol. 11, No. 6, September 1999.  

4 Human Rights Watch, We Have No Orders To Save You: State Participation and Complicity in Communal Violence in Gujarat, Vol. 14, No. 3(C), April 2002.

5Government of India, Nineteenth Periodic Reports of States Parties due in 2006, CERD/C/IND/19, March 29, 2006, paras. 45-50.

6 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Consideration of Reports Submitted by State parties under Article 9 of the Convention, Fourteenth Periodic Report of State parties due in 1996, India,” CERD/C/299/Add.3, April 26, 1996, (accessed February 7, 2007).

7 Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Fifty-first session, A/51/18, 1996,$FILE/N9625738.pdf (accessed February 7, 2007), para. 361. 

8 National Human Rights Commission, “Report on Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes,” 2004, [hereinafter “NHRC Report”].

9 Annual Report on The Protection Of Civil Rights Act, 1955 For The Year 2002 (Twenty Second Report) Government Of India,  Ministry Of Social Justice And Empowerment, New Delhi, (accessed February 7, 2007).

10 Annual Report on The Scheduled Castes And The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act, 1989 For The Year 2002 (Nineteenth Report) Government Of India, Ministry Of Social Justice And Empowerment, New Delhi, (accessed February 7, 2007). 

11 This report also relies on sources provided by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), a network of Indian NGOs that has worked on caste discrimination issues for the past eight years. The report draws in particular from the case papers submitted in the National Public Hearings held by NCDHR in 2000 and the NCDHR’s “Response to the Special Rapporteur’s Questionnaire on Work and Descent Based Discrimination” [hereinafter “NCDHR Response to the Special Rapporteur’s Questionnaire”]. This report further draws information from a study published in 2006 on the forms and prevalence of “untouchability” in rural India, which is based on an extensive survey of 565 villages in 11 Indian states. See generally, Ghanshyam Shah et al., Untouchability in Rural India, (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2006). The report was co-authored by Ghanshyam Shah (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Wassenaar), Harsh Mander (Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi), Sukhadeo Thorat (University Grants Commission, Delhi), Satish Deshpande (Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi), and Amita Baviskar. The report is based on investigations conducted in 2001-2002 and was published by Action Aid India in 2006.

12 The statistics to which the Government cites in its October 2005 report to CEDAW are very dated, with 1971 to 1991 figures for Dalit women’s literacy level and figures from 1999 to 2000 for the incidence of poverty among Dalits. India’s Combined second and third periodic reports to CEDAW, October 19, 2005, CEDAW/C/IND/2-3 para.110 (“The female literacy level amongst SC [Scheduled Caste] women has improved markedly from 6.44 percent in the year 1971 to 23.76 in the year 1991”) and Ibid., para. 211 (“Disparity on the basis of caste shows that in 1991 as against an overall literacy rate of 52.2 percent that for the SCs…was 37.4 percent”). See also Ibid., at para. 111 (“[T]he incidence of poverty amongst SCs still continues to be very high with 36.25 percent in rural areas and 38.47 percent in urban areas, when compared to 27.09 and 23.62 percent respectively, in respect of total population in 1999-2000”).