Applying Global Pressure to Domestic Justice Issues: India’s National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights

Dr Luis Cabrera

Yesterday I wrote about field research I had conducted among unauthorized immigrants in the US and Europe, as well as with immigration authorities and activists. I thought it could be appropriate to follow that up with a brief discussion of some current field research which intersects in some significant ways with the concerns of the Saving Humans initiative.

This work has involved interviews and site visits with Dalit-rights activists throughout India and in the UK. Dalits (former untouchables) make up about 16 percent of the Indian population and are among the most historically oppressed groups in that society, and perhaps worldwide. Dalits traditionally have been barred from all but the dirtiest and most dangerous trades – disposing of human waste by hand, collecting animal carcasses from roads, cleaning, doing outside manual labor. Though situated within Hindu culture, they have customarily been barred from worshipping inside Hindu temples, and even now are most often forced to live on fringes of most villages, working for higher-caste Hindus but rarely mixing in communal life.

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IMAGE: Fish seller in a slum neighbourhood of Chennai whose residents are mostly Dalit persons.

The Indian constitution of 1950 formally bars caste discrimination, and further anti-discrimination measures have been passed since, including some mandating affirmative action in education and the public sector for Dalits and ‘other backward castes’, in the official parlance. Still, discrimination remains widespread, and Dalit activists say that actual protections are all too often weakly implemented.

I became interested in researching the Dalit struggle for an ongoing book project focused on individual rights, diversity and democracy. Specifically, I wanted to learn more about the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. This campaign joined Dalit activist groups around India in an effort to reach out to the global community through the United Nations human rights regime. They sought to bring global pressure on the Indian government to do more toward eradicating caste discrimination.

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IMAGE: NCDHR staff member Sanjeev Kumar in the Baljeet Nagar neighbourhood of Delhi. The area is home to Dalit families who do not hold title to their land and have been forcibly removed by the city and subsequently rebuilt. Kumar is part of a legal campaign seeking to help them stay.

The struggle is of keen interest to me as a student of cosmopolitan or trans-state democracy. In the account I have been developing, I adopt a primarily instrumental approach to democracy. This means that the basic justification for a system where the majority’s representatives set the rules, as opposed to the dictator, the wise few, etc., is that it promotes important individual rights protections.  Democracy, meaning not only voting rights but also rights to speech, assembly, protest, provides important tools for chastening leaders. After all, they have to get elected to lead, and re-elected to keep leading.

Such an approach naturally also places a good deal of emphasis on constitutionalized rights – corresponding to those human interests that are so vital that they simply do deserve protection, whatever a given majority might think. This corresponds to individuals being able to challenge leaders and democratic majorities in courts and court-like bodies. It provides a crucial complement to the chastening function of electoral processes and transparent governing processes.

The argument is naturally sympathetic to cosmopolitan democracy, or the expansion of democratic rule across state borders. If protection of rights is the key, that is, then the primary aim is to ensure that the rights of as many individuals as possible are protected. There is no natural presumption that democratic rule should be limited to a pre-existing ‘democratic people’. In fact, it turns out to be very difficult to show that there is some strong reason in democratic theory or rights-based approaches to limit shared rule to existing borders.

Enter the National Campaign. Here was a coalition whose members had concluded, from long struggle, that they could not achieve the equal rights protections they sought at the domestic level. India is often held up as a democratic exemplar – a country with extensive poverty that still has managed to maintain liberal-democratic institutions and robust participation. Yet, Dalit leaders with whom I have spoken around the country tell much the same difficult story: the rights are on the books, but when it comes to a Dalit person seeking police aid after a caste-motivated attack, or seeking justice in the courts, or responsive and fair governance from elected leaders, actual rights fulfilment remains out of reach.

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IMAGE: Two tutors who help Dalit children with their homework each afternoon discuss their work at a community center in the city of Madurai in southern India.

So, National Campaign members sought to reach beyond India. After being rebuffed by some prominent rights NGOs, they were able to ally with Human Rights Watch. That group allied with Dalit groups to conduct a major study of ongoing caste discrimination in India, published as Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables,” in 1999. The book generated a great deal of attention globally, and it set the stage for National Campaign representatives to reach out more personally.

In 2001, the National Campaign took some 200 Dalit activists to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, sponsored by the United Nations Economic Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Durban, South Africa. In interviews, numerous NCDHR leaders have cited the Durban conference as a key moment for raising international awareness of caste discrimination in India. By 2005, the then-UN Human Commission on Human Rights (from 2006 the UN Human Rights Council) had appointed two special rapporteurs on caste-based discrimination. The National Campaign’s efforts also were central in the European Parliament’s resolutions criticizing the treatment of Dalits in 2007 and 2012.

Yet, all such efforts to see caste discrimination formally recognized in international law have been vigorously resisted by the Indian government.  Consider that, as early as 1996, the government rejected a UN committee’s decision to include caste discrimination in the category of ‘descent based’ discrimination covered by the UN’s major discrimination treaty. In interviews, numerous NCDHR activists have noted that at the Durban conference a number of countries’ delegates were at first willing to support them openly. After being taken aside individually by India’s representatives, however, all withdrew their support. Trade access, activists believe, trumps a human rights stand every time.

The Indian government’s position has been that it is taking all needed steps to address caste discrimination, and generally that outsiders shouldn’t interfere. At present, the struggle could be described as at an impasse, where a few other countries and some UN representatives are willing to offer criticism, but the Indian government has given little indication that its position could change.

In the National Campaign, there is ongoing discussion about emphases moving ahead. Some, such as NCDHR Convenor Paul Divakar, who regularly travels to Geneva and other international sites to press the Dalit rights case, are firm that international outreach should continue. Some others believe more can be accomplished through intensifying the local and national struggles.

Whatever the ultimate shape of the resistance, the National Campaign’s efforts stand as a crucial case for the study of democracy, including democracy beyond the state. As one NCDHR leader told me, if they had been able to take their grievances to a Global Court of Human Rights, that’s precisely what they would have done. Proposals to create such a court date at least to the development of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a court to interpret and implement the rights proclaimed for all persons. There is little momentum for such a court today, but the NCDHR case should give us strong reason to think that any advocacy of extending democratic rule beyond the state should include advocacy of extending human rights courts as well.

Luis Cabrera is Reader in Political Theory, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.

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