This April a range of events and ceremonies have been organised around the world to celebrate Dr Ambedkar’s 125th birthday. The Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in New York hosted a Special Event at the UN Headquarters on 16 April with the title ‘Combating Inequalities for the Achievement of SDGs’. UNDP Administrator and Chair of the United Nations Development Group, Ms. Helen Clarke, who is among the candidates for the post as the next UN Secretary General, delivered the key note speech wherein she commemorated the legacy of Dr. Ambedkar and stressed the relevance of his vision and ideals for the realization of the Sustainable Development Agenda, adopted by the UNGA last September. Please see the official press release from the Mission’s own webpage. The full event can be streamed from UNTV via the following link. On April 14th UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Ms. Rita Iszák-Ndiaye also made a speech to mark the event. See the full video statement and latest UN article on her groundbreaking report on “minorities and caste-based discrimination”. DSN-UK trustee and Vice Chair, Corinne Lennox, wrote a wonderful tribute celebrating Dr Ambedkar, called ‘Dr Ambedkar: a visionary for human rights’. There was also a range of celebratory events organised by India’s representations around the world, including in Geneva, Copenhagen, Beijing, Indonesia, Turkmenistan, Brunei and Guatemala. Dalit Solidarity Network UK, together with other activists advocating for Dalits rights, celebrated Dr Ambedkar’s 125 birthday at a dedicated event at the House of Lords on 14 April. Lord Harries of Pentregarth opened the event by requesting a minutes silence to honour Lord Avebury, a champion of Dalit Rights who sadly passed away on 14 February 2016. Dr Ambedkar’s work for Dalits and internationalisation of caste discrimination. Jens Lerche, reader in agrarian and labour studies at SOAS, noted that DR Ambedkar was fighting against inequality and poverty, and despite the high level of economic growth in India a large number of people in the country, especially Dalits and Adivasis, continue living in poverty, work in exploitative industries and perform least attractive jobs. He highlighted that Dalits and Adivasis experience historic discrimination and inequalities in power, and regardless of affirmative action in education system caste discrimination prevails in the sector. Murali Shanmugavelan, researcher at SOAS, stated that to achieve equality and non-discrimination caste hierarchy should be rejected without a compromise, including a rejection of Hindu social order. He also suggested that India should recognise caste as a primary lens to address discrimination and inequality in the country. Dr. Virander Paul, Deputy High Commissioner for India in London, gave a summary of events he attended on the day to celebrate Dr Ambedkar’s 125 birth anniversary and indicated that the discussion at this event, celebrating Dr Ambedkar and what he stood for, was most detailed. Baroness Flather added that discrimination based on caste can be forbidden under the British laws and urged an ongoing campaign for anti-caste discrimination legislation. Mr Ravi Kumar, general secretary of Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, ended the panel by reminding everyone that Dr Ambedkar stood for everyone, not just for Dalits. Lord Harries summarised the situation of anti-caste discrimination legislation in the UK. He highlighted some of the challenges, such as the government refusing to publish the findings of consultation on caste discrimination in the UK and the recent attempts to block the legislation. Some of the questions and comments from the audience included worries that caste legislation will reach the sunset clause deadline and the process will have to restart. Everyone was encouraged to ensure that their MPs, especially those with big Hindu communities, know where we stand. A question was raised on the use and purpose of Dr Ambedkar’s house in London, which was not decided on yet. And a final question asked why there is no treaty on caste discrimination, like there is one on apartheid. To this Dr Keane answered that not all pressing issues get an UN treaty, including Indigenous and Minorities, although there is a Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.
Minorities and caste-based discrimination side event on a new report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues
DSN-UK Director, Meena Varma, was invited by the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to be one of the panellists for a side event with Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur (SR) on Minority Issues following her report on caste-based discrimination. The event took place on 16 March 2016 and focussed on the global nature of caste discrimination including in Mauritania, Yemen and UK. The SR’s report on caste-based discrimination as presented below provided the perfect opportunity to widen the discussion beyond South Asia. Alongside Meena and Rita the event featured Ms. Mohna Ansari, Member of the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal, Ms. Rania El Rajji, Middle East Programme Coordinator, Minorities Right Group International and Ms. Salimata Lam, National Coordinator SOS-Esclaves, Mauritania. When asked by the Moderator, Mr. Antti Korkeakivi, Chief, Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights what were the good practice examples of the next steps to address this issue, Rita replied that this was the $1 million question as it was a matter of changing mindsets. Mohna said that the National Human Rights Institute in Nepal sets a very good example at both policy and practice levels. The challenge remains in inter-caste marriage, which many find unacceptable. But there is legislation in the new Constitution to address the issue of ‘untouchability’ with compensation built in. Salimata informed us of the situation in Mauritania – ‘In the eyes of the law, we are all equal, but societally other norms hold sway. Even a destitute will invoke his noble status and the taboos remain because there are no laws to overturn the caste system itself.’ Rania apologised that there was no representative from the affected community in Yemen. This is due to the ongoing violence and the current ‘no-exit’ policy. The Al Akhdam (translated as Slaves) now call themselves Muhamasheen (marginalised ones). Their occupational roles include garbage collection, street sweeping and cleaning toilets and drains. They suffer from social stigma and discrimination, which exacerbate their socio-economic exclusion and poverty. Rania stressed the need to raise awareness to the affected community of their own rights – so that they could begin to demand them. Meena stressed the role of the ‘rule of law’. We may not be able to change mindsets (certainly not in a generation) BUT we can change behaviours where the rule of law holds sway and legislation is implemented effectively. That is why the UK legislation has such a role to play as it will send a clear message to those countries where there is no political or judicial will to address caste-based discrimination and better the lives of millions. Rita reiterated the commitment of the mandate to addressing caste-based discrimination which had begun under the tenure of the first SR on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall. Despite the challenges she will continue to keep the issue high on the UN agenda! Earlier that day a delegation from the International Dalit Solidarity Network met the new Deputy High Commissioner, Kate Gilmore. She received detailed updates from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the current position in the UK and the lack of implementation of the legislation to protect potential victims in the diaspora communities of caste-affected countries.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network working with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues to combat caste-based discrimination. On 15 March 2016 the SR on Minority Issues, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, presented her annual report to the Human Rights Council, which focused on caste-based discrimination. She encouraged all caste-affected states to take progressive and instrumental steps to protect caste-affected communities. The report highlighted that individuals and groups ascribed to the lowest strata by their caste status share minority-like characteristics, such as marginalised position, stigma and the use of minority protection mechanisms by self-identifying as minority groups. The SR indicated that 250 million people worldwide suffer from caste-based discrimination, with the highest numbers in South Asia but also present in Africa, the Middle East and the Pacific. Dalits and similar communities from the lower-caste strata face various human rights violations: use of violence, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence to oppress them; obstacles in accessing justice systems; political marginalisation; restriction in accessing religious sites; hindered labour mobility; slavery, including trafficking and sexual slavery; forced and bonded labour; restricted access to adequate housing, water and sanitation; limited access to health services and education; and unequal access to humanitarian assistance in disaster and recovery situations. This was the first milestone report at the United Nations level on caste-based discrimination and states had different reactions to it. At an interactive dialogue session with the SR the representative of India questioned the SR’s on Minority Issues mandate and stated that she was in breach of it to include caste-based discrimination. Nepal concentrated on its positive efforts to address caste-based discrimination and “untouchability” practices. Sri Lanka highlighted its invitation to the SR and stated that the report is ‘inaccurate’ and ‘misleading’. Mauritania outlined that slavery has been abolished and there is no marginalisation or caste-based discrimination of any group in the country. Bangladesh also emphasised its efforts to protect ethnic and religious minorities, but suggested that ‘not all disadvantaged groups are minorities, such as homeless’, therefore there has been some ‘confusion with the concept of minorities, diverting attention from where it should be’. Many states spoke in support of the report expressing their concern at the extent of caste-based discrimination and recognised it as a major cause of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. In a strongly worded statement, Switzerland said that caste discrimination was unacceptable in 2016. Norway called on states to implement legislation effectively. We were disappointed to note that the US took the opportunity to raise the question of Tibet with China and that the United Kingdom did not respond or raise any questions during the Interactive Dialogue regarding the issue of caste discrimination in the UK. Minority Rights Group International, Human Rights Watch and International Dalit Solidarity Network issued a combined statement welcoming the report on a ‘long neglected issue of systematic discrimination’. The SR replied to the comments emphasising that minorities definition is ‘a liquid and changing definition’ based on self-identification of the groups. She noted that she was disappointed that the Sustainable Development Goals failed to include minorities but was hopeful that more efforts and attention will be paid to caste-based discrimination following her report.
We all have our own personal and professional memories of the much beloved Lord Eric Avebury. The pictures below indicate a time of triumph and celebration, with Eric at its heart and centre. It was 23 April 2013, St George’s Day – the day that commemorates the time when one man took on the mighty dragon. And so too in 2013, when the little known Dalit campaign to address caste discrimination in the UK took its protest to the streets and Parliament Square. We took on the might of the Her Majesty’s Government who had steadfastly refused to activate a clause in the Equality Act that would provide legal protection for victims of caste discrimination – in the same way that it did for race, religion, gender, transgender and other protected characteristics. Members of CasteWatch UK, Dalit Solidarity Network UK, Voice of Dalit International, Federation of Ambedkarite Buddhist Organisations UK, Central Valmik Sabha UK, Indian Christian Concern and Dr Ambedkar Memorial Committee GB, as well as scores of regional and community organisations met at the rally on Tuesday 23 April. The date will now live in all our memories forever. The carnival atmosphere was evident as we heard at 2.30pm that the UK Government had laid down their amendment to use the Ministerial power to trigger the legislation in the Equality Act 2010 to outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste, providing much needed legal protection to victims of caste discrimination in the UK. Amendments tabled by the then Business Secretary Vince Cable in the House of Commons stated that the Equality Act will “provide for caste to be an aspect of race”. The government had conceded on the principle and tabled an amendment, which requires the Secretary of State to bring forward regulations to include Caste as an aspect of Race (under Section 9(5) of the Equality Act) within two months of enactment of the Enterprise Regulatory and Reform Bill. The Bill was enacted 2 days after the protest on 25 April 2013. Lord Avebury had joined the ‘protesters’ in Parliament Square before the news had filtered through. The protest then became a time to celebrate. Lord Avebury said’ This is all the more terrific for being totally unexpected!’ Eric and other members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits were so key to this victory. Without their unerring support and commitment we would never have seen this day. Sadly our regret is that Eric passed away before the current Government had addressed many of Eric’s own Parliamentary Questions on the implementation of the caste legislation – which was agreed by Parliament and across all parties now shockingly nearly 3 years ago. We will keep fighting for the will of Parliament not to be ignored and for the caste legislation to be implemented. Eric would expect nothing less. We will miss him greatly. Meena Varma Director Dalit Solidarity Network UK
Lord Eric Avebury campaigned for many unpopular causes. He was a true champion of the fight for Dalit rights in the UK and campaigned tirelessly for Clause 9(5)(a) to be implemented in the Equality Act. At the time of his death he was Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits. Dalit Solidarity Network UK, its members and supporters salute you Eric. You will always be remembered. A lasting and wonderful tribute can be read on Eric’s blog.
DSN-UK and READ share their first-hand experience and knowledge of debt bondage in India with a Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequence
The International Labour Organisation’s report ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour 2012 estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour. In 2009 annual report SR on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences stated that bonded labour is a form of slavery and one of ‘the most traditional and widespread forms of forced labour’. Article 1 of the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery defines debt bondage or bonded labour as ‘the status or condition arising from a pledge by a debtor of his personal services or those of a person under his control as security for a debt, if the value of those services as reasonably assessed is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or the length and nature of those services are not respectively limited and defined’. Information gathered on bonded labour by the SR in 2009 indicates that the practice occurs when ‘a person offers his/her labour services in exchange for the repayment of a debt’ and gets coerced into working in exploitative conditions with long working hours, low wages, no days off, etc. SR identified a number of root causes: first, poverty plays a crucial role because people have no other way of subsisting; second, isolations, lack of guidance, and lack of contract with institutions and authorities create extremely vulnerable situation, which facilitates exploitation and forced labour; third, low levels of education of the concerned population puts them in a vulnerable situation where they are not able to understand the nature of their debts, control them in any way or understand their rights as workers, not able to negotiate minimum wages, maximum daily work hours, holidays, frequency of pay and methods of payment; fourth, bonded labourers are from most socially excluded groups who suffer additionally from discrimination and political disenfranchisement; and fifth, populations that have limited access to land for their traditional income-generating activities are more likely to become bonded labourers. ILO research also indicated a clear link between long-standing patterns of discrimination and forced labour, especially in India where the overwhelming majority of bonded labour victims are from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In 2013 Dalit Solidarity Network UK funded by TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and Development) started working in partnership with Rights Education and Development Centre (READ) to End the Sumangali Scheme in South India, where textile and garment products are made for big brands and retailers by girls and young women from low caste backgrounds under exploitative conditions. Girls and young women are recruited by brokers to join the so-called ‘Sumangali Thittam’ or ‘Marriage Scheme’, promised they would receive a considerable amount of money at the end of three to five years of employment. This exploitative scheme is tantamount to bonded labour because employers withhold part of the workers’ wages until the end of the ‘contract’. Workers are severely restricted in their freedom of movement and privacy. The majority of the workers are Dalit (outcaste) girls younger than 18, from poor families who are lured in with the promises of a decent wage and the lump sum payment upon completion of the contract that may be used for their dowry. This January DSN-UK and READ completed the Special Rapporteur’s questionnaire on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences questionnaire on bonded labour, sharing their first-hand experience and knowledge of the Sumangali Scheme. The submission will be published on the website of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences and included in the thematic report on debt bondage. DSN-UK will also publish the completed questionnaire on our website once it has been made public by the Special Rapporteur.
DSN-UK submission to the International Development Select Committee inquiry on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights the absence of attention to caste-based discrimination
World leaders, including UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in September 2015 pledged a commitment to achieving them. Following this, the International Development Committee launched an inquiry into how SDGs should be implemented in the UK and invited written submissions from interested organisations and individuals. DSN-UK made a joint submission with Asia Dalit Rights Forum, highlighting that although the SDGs are formulated to ensure that ‘no one is left behind’, caste-based discrimination was excluded from the final draft. The framework needs to take into consideration the world’s most vulnerable people, including Dalits, who are disproportionally affected by intergenerational poverty and hierarchical exclusion, preventing them from accessing justice and development programmes. The submission made recommendations to include caste-based exclusion to goals 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 15, 16 and 17, and use disaggregated data, including caste, in the SDGs follow-up and monitoring process. The Chair of the International Development Select Committee, Stephen Twigg MP, emphasised during the 5th session, some of the challenges that Dalits and other repressed groups like LGBT people in Uganda face, and asked the Secretary of State for International Development ‘None of this is easy. Where it can be particularly difficult is when there is a strong social norm against a minority….How do you best take that forward in the context of development and humanitarian assistance, where there is a set of universal rights to which countries are signed up and yet, in some of the countries that we are rightly supporting, there are strong social norms against religious or sexual minorities in those countries’. Justine Greening MP stated that Department for International Development (DFID) works at grassroots level until there is some momentum. She also highlighted the need for disaggregated data to better understand what the DFID programmes are delivering. However, the Government has no plans to introduce a national action plan or set a taskforce to implement the SDGs but rather will include some of the relevant goals into the existing priorities. Sadly this might result not only in a missed opportunity to address caste-based discrimination in the UK but also in the DFID programmes overseas. The joint DSN-UK and the ADRF submission is also available in a pdf format here.
We would like to thank Mrs Wilson for her generous donation to DSN-UK. It is the first donation received this year! It will make an enormous difference to our work.
Just before India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the UK in November this year Rob Marris MP wrote to the UK Prime Minister Mr David Cameron, highlighting some of the human rights concerns in India, including the treatment of Dalits. The letter can be accessed here. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office replied stating that Prime Minister David Cameron did discuss human rights with Prime Minister Modi during his visit and the FCO will ‘continue to work collaboratively with the Indian government on a range of important issues, including the promotion and protection of human rights’. A full reply can be found here.
Members of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dalits continue to raise the issue of caste discrimination to Her Majesty’s Government
Following the Lord Harries of Pentregarth Parliamentary question on the assessment of human rights situation in India the House of Lords debated the situation on 7 December 2015. The debate highlighted issues of access to justice for Dalits, violence against women and treatment of minorities. The full transcript of the debate is available here. To read all Parliamentary questions and answers submitted in relation to caste discrimination both in the UK and overseas in this parliamentary session please click here.