[On May 16th, a Dalit youth was brutally assaulted and killed allegedly over his mobile ringtone, which was of a song on Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. The victim of the vicious attack Sagar Shejwal was visiting his hometown Shirdi to attend a wedding, when he visited a local beer shop with his cousins and was attacked by eight youths when his phone rang. In a police statement, the cousin has described the song as ‘Tumhi kara re kitihi halla / Mazbut Bhimacha quilla’ [Shout all you want / Bhim’s fortress is strong], and an altercation ensued. Sagar was hit with a beer bottle, kicked and punched by the youths before being dragged out to a nearby forest and trampled brutally under a bike. His body was found in a naked state by his family members (there was no response from the police despite being alerted), and he succumbed to his multiple fractures the next day. Four of the accused have been arrested, while the other four are still absconding. The incident also took place a stone’s throw from the Shirdi police station.
In light of an act of gruesome violence like this against the Dalit community, age-old questions need to be raised again - to be addressed this time, for a change. Why is it that the pertinent issues of Dalit rights are being raised in an international forum, yet continue to be ignored locally, where they are most commonplace? We take a look at the first Global Conference on Defending Dalit Rights which took place recently, and the role that India played in it.]
The extravagant and highly publicised visit of Barack Obama to India in January left a somewhat bitter taste in the Indian government’s mouth when the President chose to address the need for religious tolerance in his last speech in India. This was followed by a reference in another speech in the US while Indians collectively condemned the accusations saying any ‘aberrations’ wouldn’t alter the country’s history of tolerance. The Indian government seemed to have adopted the stance of silence to this criticism by the US President, but seems to have gone aggressively after foreign-funded NGOs such as Greenpeace whom they accused of working in favour of foreign interests and maligning India’s image.
We wonder, then, what their impression of the first Global Conference on Defending Dalit Rights in the US might be?
International Commission for Dalit Rights is a US-registered NGO founded in 2006 after an International Consultation on Caste-based Discrimination, with the participation of United Nations, in Kathmandu in 2004. ICDR seeks to fight and establish contemporary Dalit Rights throughout the world, and they are engaged in continuous efforts in drawing international attention towards the discrimination against the community, and the poor conditions its members reside in around the world.
ICDR and Global Conference Organizing Committee organised the first Global Conference on Defending Dalit Rights at Trinity Washington University from March 19th-21st 2015, with an objective to strengthen links among U.S. and international organizations fighting to end caste and gender-based discrimination, violence and inequality. They also aim to to strategise means through which the caste-affected countries could respond and mitigate caste-based discrimination, while lobbying for passing of resolutions and support in the US Congress and the United Nations.
The gathering was an attempt to highlight the suffering of an estimated 260-million caste affected individuals around the world including Dalits in India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Similar caste-based discrimination also exists in countries like Japan, Yemen, Nigeria, Senegal, Mauritania and Somalia. But with 200 million Dalits, India lies right at the centre of the issue and thus, should also be leading the pack in advocating a feasible solution to the problem; yet, it remains conspicuous by the lack of overwhelming participation or discussion it is involved in, a movement that Nepal-based ICDR is leading at the moment.
Dalit Rights Activist Thenmozhi Soundararjan told Hindu about the significance of the conference, “The movement is poised for a tremendous growth. At no other point in history have Dalits been so unified towards ending this violence in our lifetime. With our leadership and the support of civic and intergovernmental allies, we feel now that our only obstacle is the obstruction of the Indian government itself in implementing the constitutional protections and laws that were written to ensure human rights for all. Until this happens, we will in Dr. Ambedkar’s words, ‘Educate, Agitate, and Organize’ until caste and caste discrimination is annihilated.”
But if you were under the illusion that this was simply an international conference with a march protest, think again.
The conference was attended by scholar and activist Cornell West and Congresswoman Eleanor Norton, with the latter going the extra mile in advocating the cause. She introduced a resolution in the US House Of Representatives to condemn the discrimination faced by Dalits all over the world. The resolution noted ‘that discrimination against the Dalits, or “untouchables”, has existed for more than 2,000 years in India alone and has included educational discrimination, economic disenfranchisement, discrimination in medical care, and increased vulnerability to poverty, hunger, violence, rape, and humiliation.’
Norton cited many reports of rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch and other surveys, which argued that Dalits were among the poorest of the poor, living on less than $1.25 per day. She mentioned how most of India’s bonded labourers were Dalits, and that a large proportion of India’s Dalit Children were undernourished, severely underweight, and faced relatively higher rates of child mortality.
While the three-day-long conference was able to put forth many steps and ideas with an assertion by various groups of Dalit leaders towards progress on common goals by 2020 with a Dalit Rights Global Declaration, along with a ‘Human Chain Demonstration for Dalit Rights & Dignity’ protest outside the White House - it seems the biggest stakeholder nation in the conversation seems to be missing.
The events and the protest which were attended by thousands from different countries in the world and representatives of the United Nations, coupled with a resolution which is pending in a US Congress Committee, represents a final attempt of a community which has been repressed for centuries to get India and others to recognise their rights and work towards their betterment. A recent survey found that one in four Indians admitted to practising untouchability.
This further puts the onus on the present-day government to discourage such discrimination and inequality but so far, with moves such as the most recent beef ban, all the present administrative regime in the country seems to have done is further encroach upon the rightsof the Dalit community.
Words: Devang Pathak