Bigotry beyond borders

Caste-based discrimination continues to follow Dalits even to first world countries

Recently, a Nepali student from a Dalit community studying for his PhD in Sydney University in Australia reported that a fellow Nepali had rejected him for a housemate based on his Dalit identity as a ‘lower’ caste. This is not an isolated phenomenon. A large number of South Asians of all backgrounds, including Dalits, have migrated to developed countries like Australia and the United States for study or work. Many of them share apartments but it seems none do so happily with a Dalit.
Such anecdotes may be of less appeal to human intellect these days. Some might argue that societies have advanced enough to respect individual rights to private space. However, to defend incidents such as the one illustrated above on the petition of individual rights is to debase the whole notion of private space. Discriminately ostracising those from the Dalit community has its roots in legally established and power-promoted institutionalised traditions of the centuries-old South Asian caste system and private space cannot be its justification.
It is, however, true that the Dalit diaspora in countries such as Australia and the US endure relatively less severe forms of discrimination. Like everyone else, they, too, are free to pursue the ‘inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The subtle forms of human rights violations that the Dalit endure beyond South Asian borders might not claim their lives. Moreover, the Dalit diaspora has the choice to pretend not to care about their compatriots, as there is a universe of more civilised people out there with whom to begin family and friendship relations.
Discrimination exists
The pursuit of their social alleviation might have been achieved at this point, should they not receive regular news about relatives or friends being murdered or raped to remind them of why they ran away from the problem in the first place. In 2011, some people from the so-called ‘higher’ caste in Nepal stabbed Sete Damai, a man from the Dalit community, to death because his son and their daughter had married for love. In the same year, a group of ‘higher’ caste youth murdered another Dalit because he entered a hotel in the village of Kalikot. In 2013, a woman in India belonging to the Dalit caste was gang raped by some members of the ‘higher’ caste.
These incidents are only a few representative cases that were severe enough to provoke the anger of Dalits and thus, managed to receive the attention of the media. Generally, Dalits are either powerless to put pressure on law enforcement agencies to enforce existing laws or laws recognising caste-based discrimination as a violation of human rights do not exist to guarantee justice for them, such as in the examples of Australia and the US. While the community of Dalits has failed to benefit from domestic laws in their own countries, the Dalit diaspora is unable to seek legal recourse in developed countries for facing discrimination on the basis of their caste, since such specific laws do not exist there. But knowing that there is a guarantee of human rights for all, except Dalits, because there is no law prohibiting caste-based discrimination in their land discounts the relevance of universal human rights.
The community of Dalits is made up of 260 million people, 10 million of whom reportedly live in highly developed countries. And they continue to face caste-based discrimination worldwide. The caste system, once confined to South Asia, has now spread to countries such as the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Canada and can involve the violation of human rights in severe forms, including murder and rape. Originally, the most humiliating violation of Dalit human rights was the exercise of untouchability, which means not accepting water and food from Dalits and exists pervasively in their countries of origins. At a time when the world superficially celebrates the victory of liberal democracy and universal human rights, the penetration of the inhumane practice of caste-based discrimination into the societies of developed countries demands global intervention.
Gandhi’s failure
The United Nations has passed a large number of international treaties that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age. As Dalit advocacy to their governments to raise the issue at the United Nations General Assembly remains unheard of, there is no international legal instrument to protect their rights. Introducing this issue in international forums through the government channel has been denied since Mohandas Gandhi blocked BR Ambedkar, a Dalit who ended up chairing the Indian Constitution Drafting Committee, from raising the issue at a roundtable meeting with the British in the 1930s. Gandhi denied constitutional recognition for Dalits in India, undermined Ambedkar’s political approach to fight caste-based discrimination and barred international communities from collaborating with Dalits. Instead, he advocated their upliftment through education and spiritual means. Gandhi might have wished to alleviate Dalits but his approach did not only turn out as anti-Dalit, but as his legacy continues to sustain in South Asia, securing Dalits’ rights in national and international legal and political instruments has remained unfulfilled in substance.
As a result, the Dalits endure the same level of discrimination, almost a century after Gandhi argued that educating society could eliminate that discrimination. The self-proclaimed pundits of the Dalit cause from Gandhi’s clan in South Asia have not stopped arguing that education can absolve them of their victimisation. But their naive focus on education has blocked Dalits’ pursuit for rights through legal and political means.
A global appeal
In the global arena, Dalits and the Dalit diaspora appealed to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERCD) in order to protect their human rights. However, ICERCD does not have any special provision in reference to caste-based discrimination. Thus, Dalits will not be able to defend their rights in any international court if they are legally challenged. The role of such international treaties has been confined to an advocacy tool for the protection of human rights on moral grounds, like that of Gandhi’s atonement through education.
The Dalit can now only appeal to global communities, especially developed countries, which have declared themselves the protectors of universal human rights, to reinforce their collaboration with South Asian Dalit societies and their allies to combat the centuries-old socially hierarchical and discriminatory caste system. India, which is emerging as a South Asian leader and hosts a large number of Dalits, has demonstrated a historical lack of institutional capacity and political will to combat caste-based discrimination.
However, the United Kingdom has become the first in the West to host a law against caste-based discrimination. This individual effort, however commendable, remains unfortunately insufficient. It does not involve other developing and developed countries or put pressure on India to protect the human rights of Dalits. Hence, it is an emerging responsibility of developed countries to join South Asian Dalits and pro-Dalit communities to combat caste-based discrimination and make it part of the immediate agenda at the UN, the European Union and South Asian institutions.
(Subhash Nepali is a Fulbright scholar studying International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington DC, US
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