For more on the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Washington D.C. last week, Worldfocus spoke with Ramaiah Avatthi, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Currently a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, Ramaiah contends that Manmohan Singh has largely ignored the issue of caste-based discrimination and atrocities.
The caste system is the traditional South Asian hierarchy that consigns people, based on their birth, to ranked social classes.
Worldfocus: Do you think Prime Minister Singh avoided certain issues during his U.S. visit?
Ramaiah Avatthi: Before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International urged Obama to persuade Singh to address the human rights concerns, particularly caste violence against Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables). This group, also known as Scheduled Castes, constitutes 166 million in India — and up to 250 million in South Asia.
The two leaders focused on Afghanistan/Pakistan, the fight against terrorism, global warming, economic development and nuclear proliferation. Thus the scope for discussion of caste was very limited.
Worldfocus: How would you assess casteism in India today?
Ramaiah Avatthi: The Dalits are subjected to inhuman torture and humiliation when they try to live with dignity like other citizens of India. Their assertiveness is often met with dire consequences.
There have been incidents in the recent past in which some Dalits were forced to consume human excreta and urine. Some were blinded by pushing needle into their eyes. Dalits have been raped and murdered and sometimes paraded naked.
Some non-Dalit families, particularly in states like Haryana, choose to kill their daughters for their “crime” of falling in love with Dalit boys. They are denied the minimum wage and forced work for generations as bonded labor. Most child labor also belongs to Dalit communities. This is not a thing of the past but is very much a part of day-to-day reality in most parts of rural India.
Worldfocus: What concrete policy changes should PM Singh implement?
Ramaiah Avatthi: There are a number of Constitutional safeguards to protect Dalits from injustice and exploitation. But we need more welfare measures to improve their educational and economic condition and to ensure representation in decision-making bodies.
Worldfocus: Has the international community taken note of the Dalit situation?
Ramaiah Avatthi: With the relentless efforts of Dalit activists and civil society organizations in the last 50 years, the issue of caste has come to center stage at the UN. Yet, violence against Dalits continues.
According to our National Crime Records Bureau, the number of crimes against Dalits increased from 26,887 in 2004 to 27,070 in 2006. Even brutal crimes such as rape and murder are on the increase. For instance, the number of Dalits reported to have been murdered by non-Dalits was 654 in 2004 and 674 in 2007.
Similarly, the number of reported cases of Dalit women being raped by the non-Dalit men was 1157 in 2004 and 1349 in 2007. Why do crimes against Dalits continue unabated, despite powerful laws against atrocities? Is the law ineffective — or the government?
It is interesting to note what Martin Luther King said in 1955: “You have never had real peace in Montgomery. You have had a sort of negative peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The tension we see in Montgomery today is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”
It is also interesting to note what the Indian Prime Minister said in his speech at the White House on November 23: “India and the U.S. are bound by democracy, rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms.” This was a response to President Obama’s declaration that the relationship “between the U.S. and India is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”
The crux of the matter is whether such statements will remain merely rhetoric — or will actually promote justice for oppressed communities in both countries.
- Watch the Worldfocus signature video: One woman fights for members of India’s lowest caste
- Watch the Worldfocus signature video: India’s “untouchables” trudge through the sewers
- Read more in Worldfocus Perspectives: Indian nationalism begins to challenge caste destiny
– Ben Piven