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You are here: Home Archive 2008 Ethics in Action Vol. 2 No. 1 - February 2008 Can human rights work bring change: The story of one Dalit movement

Can human rights work bring change: The story of one Dalit movement

Bijo Francis, Asian Human Rights Commission

 

Caste-based discrimination is one of the severest human rights concerns in India, prompting over a thousand human rights groups, locally and abroad, to address the issue. Caste is the ultimate denominator deciding human conduct and status in the country. While this centuries old practice has its roots deeply imbedded in India, its branches have spread across the region, influencing human conduct even in some East Asian countries. Royal ceremonies in Thailand for instance, continue to incorporate Brahmins. 

Although members of the upper caste, such as the Brahmins, are a relative minority compared to the populous lower castes, they have historically enjoyed positions of power and privilege. Their association with the ruling elite has been used to exploit the lower caste.

12DalithouseIndia continues to practice brutal forms of caste-based discrimination, despite it being specifically prohibited under article 15 of the country’s constitution. In fact, caste is even the yardstick for receiving benefits through government sponsored welfare programmes. This makes a mockery of article 17 of the constitution which prohibits untouchability; article 19, which guarantees freedom of speech; article 23, which prohibits bonded labour; and article 46, which requires the government to promote educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other vulnerable groups. Under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, special courts and investigative and prosecutorial functions are outlined for dealing with crimes committed against members of scheduled castes or tribes. Nevertheless, individuals belonging to these communities continue to face severe discrimination throughout the country.

 

Hunger and starvation 

Over the past 10 years, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)’s work on caste-based discrimination has brought it in contact with several local and international human rights groups engaged in commendable work. Since 2006, the AHRC started receiving cases of starvation and malnutrition from Uttar Pradesh, through the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). The PVCHR, a local human rights group, became acquainted with the AHRC's work after one of their staff attended a meeting jointly held by the AHRC. The PVCHR subsequently began to send cases to be issued through the AHRC’s Urgent Appeals system.

 

13MukeshEach time an appeal was issued, the PVCHR made a conscious attempt to publicize the case through its own network and encouraged the local media to report about the case, remarking that “the Hong Kong based human rights group is concerned about…”. For each case taken up, the PVCHR wrote letters calling for action from the state and central governments, underlining both groups’ commitment. The Urgent Appeals documentation also enabled the PVCHR to register the cases at the National Human Rights Commission, and have them reported through local and international media. 

Meanwhile, the AHRC began digging deeper to find the root cause for starvation and malnutrition in Uttar Pradesh: India, as a country rich in food supply and with a well drafted public food distribution system, should not have citizens facing starvation or malnutrition. Moreover, the country’s Supreme Court had already appointed 'right to food commissioners' to report on the compliance of the Court's 2001 order directing the government to guarantee the right to food as part of the right to life, guaranteed under article 21 of the Constitution.

 

14Mukesh08In fact, it was established that it is the lower caste—known as Dalits—who suffer from starvation and malnutrition within Uttar Pradesh, due to systemic discrimination. Although the state administration initially denied this, the number of reported cases forced it to intervene, albeit in a limited manner. The government finally admitted that its citizens’ right to food needs to be realized, and provided interim relief to some victims.

The cases of hunger also exposed the corrupt and criminal behavior of local feudal chiefs and landlords, and their close connections with government officials. International pressure built up, resulting in direct intervention by the United Nations Special Procedure mechanisms. In one case, three United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to the Indian government expressing concern regarding cases reported from Uttar Pradesh. The local administration, which had previously supported the status quo, now backed off, leaving the feudal chiefs to fight on their own.  

The pressure faced by the local chiefs led to threats and intimidation against the PVCHR. A local human rights group did not have the muscle power of the feudal lords. What it did have however, was the power of communication. After the threats were widely reported through the Urgent Appeals system, local police were forced to register criminal cases against the feudal chiefs. This was a great success for the Dalits, who had thus far been afraid to even step on these persons’ shadows.

 

Government action

15hospitalThe attention given to the individual cases also meant awareness for wider issues. The Dalit village of Belwa, which had no road for the past 60 years, saw a road built. A school was also built, which had been denied to the village for more than 20 years due to the absence of proper land—the land was acquired by the government from the upper caste village head, who had been illegally occupying it. Male members of Dalit families who were forced to work as bonded laborers were released and cases registered against their employers. Individuals and organizations started offering help in cash and kind for development work to be carried out in the villages by the PVCHR. Despite all this, starvation continued in the villages, because the people did not have any land to cultivate.

 

16hospitalafterThe issue of hunger, which had until now remained within the walls of a Dalit hut, took the shape of a statewide political debate. After the case of three-year-old Mukesh, a Dalit child with severe malnutrition, was issued as an Urgent Appeal, Mr Rahul Gandhi, national secretary of the youth wing of the Indian National Congress, India’s largest political party and currently the largest stakeholder in the ruling coalition, intervened. Mukesh was taken to New Delhi and treated at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a hospital where even India's wealthiest cannot get admission without months of waiting. This was seen as a challenge by the Uttar Pradesh state administration, which began intervening in each case of hunger, leaving no opportunity for action by the central administration.

 

Hospitals where there were no beds and medicines faced surprise inspections by none less than the state Chief Minister. An order was issued that any case of starvation, malnutrition or discrimination practiced in providing treatment to Dalits would lead to a suspension of the District Magistrate. A live debate on these issues between the Chief Minister and PVCHR staff was telecast nationwide. This provoked the thus far ignorant electronic media to air special investigative reports on cases of bonded labour, caste based discrimination and starvation.

 

 

Folk schools 

17RaupvillagerTo continue support and solidarity with the ordinary people, the AHRC and the PVCHR started conducting regular folk school sessions in Dalit villages. The folk schools were a forum for the Dalits to meet, where they were treated equally and where they could freely voice their problems and concerns.

The first such session was held in the village of Belwa in January 2007. The news regarding the folk school spread, and soon residents of other villages also began attending. Many participants returned home to try the same concept in their own villages. Even senior government officers attended the folk school sessions; on one occasion, the District Commissioner participated, while on another, a member of the State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes participated.  

As of today, there are at least a few thousand people associated with the PVCHR and AHRC's work in Uttar Pradesh. The struggle has just begun and there is a long way to go. What has been done however, has broken the veil of silence and fear. With or without other support, villagers themselves can now push for further redress with the state administration as well as against the feudal chiefs. What the AHRC and the PVCHR has started off is a movement—a mass movement against centuries of injustice practiced against large sections of society by a minority upper caste, and supported by a corrupt administration. What the ordinary Indian has learned in this short but intense process is to speak, without fear and without the threat of humiliation.

 

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