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.
Women of lowly birth are also sometimes accused of witchcraft, and not only in Asia. Pillay said that in a country in Africa girls and women have been jailed, and officials say they cannot release them or they would be killed. Recently in India’s Jharkhand state, village women, apparently Muslims who were labeled witches by accusers, were beaten, stripped naked and forced to eat excrement, the BBC reported.
The Times of India described Nepal’s unanticipated decision to align with the campaign against caste discrimination as an “embarrassment” to India, saying that it contradicts India’s “stated aversion to the internationalization of the caste problem.” The newspaper noted that Sweden then piled on an endorsement from the European Union, “adding to India’s discomfiture.”
The influence of the Hindu caste system has seeped across other borders in South Asia, into Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, sometimes affecting even Muslims based on their birth or ancestry. Converts to Christianity or Buddhism who flee Hinduism to escape caste often remain branded for life nonetheless.
Dalits, regarded widely as unclean or polluted, can, and have, faced death at the hands of upper caste people for infractions such as taking water from a forbidden well or entering a Brahmin temple. There have been lynchings for intermarriage with higher castes. In some places, particularly in north India, Dalits vote at segregated polling stations. At roadside cafes they often get separate utensils, if they are served at all.
It need not be that way, Pillay, 68, notes from her own experience. Indians in South Africa, a minority in a suppressed black majority under apartheid, soon abandoned caste consciousness, she said. “I know that in the early days they did practice that, because my parents told us,” she said. “I think it would be my grandparents’ generation. But it broke down by force of social pressures.”
As high commissioner for human rights, Pillay takes a broad view of her responsibilities, and that applies to causes she is willing to take up as well as to her definition of human rights. She focuses not only on political or civil rights but also societal shortcomings and abuses. On caste, she said she looks for other forms of similar discrimination globally, anywhere people are held in forms of slavery based on birth, for example, or are relegated to second-class citizenship for other reasons.
“What alerted me to it is that a Bolivian woman minister who addressed the Durban review conference spoke about slavery in Bolivia and described the conditions. In Mauritania [there is] slavery as well.”
Pillay has also made three public speeches on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues and produced a video on the subject to encourage governments to frame a declaration on LGBT rights.
When we spoke, Pillay had just come from a UN panel where victims of human trafficking presented powerful testimonies. She was struck by a fact thrown out by the panel’s moderator: that there are more people being trafficked today than in the entire historical slave trade.
Caste and new forms of slavery are not unrelated, she argued in a recent op-ed article for the Huffington Post, where she wrote that landlessness, debt bondage and labor bondage, involving millions of young children, are the lot of the lowest castes.
“As high commissioner I promised to be evenhanded and raise all issues affecting all human beings,” Pillay said. “I can’t flow with the political concerns of anyone who doesn’t want one or another issue addressed because it embarrasses them or because they are dealing with it in their own way.”
Caste is now on notice: the UN has failed, she said, to educate people and change mindsets to combat the taint of caste. “How long is the cycle going to go on where those who can do something about it say, We can’t, because it’s the people, it’s their tradition; we have to go slowly.
“Slavery and apartheid could be removed, so now [caste] can be removed through an international expression of outrage.”