Putting Caste on Notice
Navi Pillay, the South African judge who became the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last year, is moving to the forefront of a campaign to free more than 250 million people from the indignities and horrors of caste discrimination. No previous commissioner has dared to openly take on this pernicious system, the majority of whose miserable victims live in India.
“This is the year 2009, and people have been talking about caste oppression for more than a hundred years,” Pillay says. “It’s time to move on this issue.”
For Pillay, who is of Indian descent, the subject of caste has been hidden too long by obfuscation on the part of governments, not only in India, that have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing international conventions against human rights abuses do not apply. Caste did not figure in the official conclusions of a conference on racism and other forms of intolerance in Durban in 2001, after intense lobbying by India, and remained on the periphery of a review of that conference earlier this year.
That being the case, Pillay said in an interview in her New York office on a visit from her headquarters in Geneva, there may well have to be a new international convention written to apply directly to caste.
The campaign is gathering momentum among a wide range of global nongovernmental organizations, religious groups and, lately, a few governments working from a draft document on eliminating discrimination based on work or descent–in other words, being born into predestined deprivation, assigned to the most menial of jobs and segregated socially from the better born.
Pillay would like to see this draft endorsed by the member nations of the Human Rights Council and by all governments, many of which are in denial over the harmful effects of the caste system.
She relayed a story about a group of women who came to her in Geneva recently with a brick from a latrine they had torn down in protest against being forced to carry away human excrement in their bare hands. They wanted to make the point that despite India’s frequent assertions that “untouchables,” who call themselves Dalits (“broken people”), were no longer condemned by birth to do this job, there were still tens of thousands of such latrines in the country, and the filthy, soul-destroying work continues.
“They have good laws in India, and they have media; they have well developed civil society organizations,” Pillay said. “So how come there is no implementation of these good laws, these good intentions?” Discrimination by caste is unconstitutional in India, which also has affirmative action programs for Dalits and others at the bottom of society. Dalits have risen to high office through politics, though even democracy has not helped most of them.
It was, ironically, Nepal that broke ranks with India in September and publicly joined the campaign against caste discrimination. Nepal, a majority Hindu nation like India, is home to 4.5 million Dalits, according to the Feminist Dalit Organization of Nepal. Women among the Dalits everywhere are especially vulnerable to victimization of all kinds, most often sexual abuse.