New Internationalist

The world is looking at caste discrimination, finally

Little girl in India [Related Image]
Every child in India, and the world, deserves to grow up with equal rights. Sumanth Garakarajula under a Creative Commons Licence

I remember writing a great deal about caste discrimination back in 2001. It was the lead-up to an anti-racism conference in Durban, and the debate hinged around whether discrimination based on caste should be included in the programme. The government of India, predictably, said ‘caste is definitely not race’. But the debate helped bring caste out of the shadows.

For me, it was a no-brainer. Casteism is infinitely worse than racism. It dominates every vestige of life in India for Dalits. The fact is that while American white supremacists may detest black people, they are definitely not allowed to go around killing or raping them with impunity. Therein lies the difference.

In India, Dalits are raped and murdered everyday, but it doesn’t make the news. And the dominant caste rapists and murderers are rarely prosecuted. In the 1991 Rodney King affair, American police were not allowed to get away with brutality. They were finally indicted and imprisoned for beating up King even though he was dismissed as an ex-prisoner and drug addict by the police. King became an iconic figure,  representing a historic moment in the United States. Justice for Dalits remains a pathetic joke in India. Indictment in Dalit or adivasi cases are the exception rather than the norm.

So it’s good news that external, international forces are working to prod an indifferent, at best, Indian government to take another look at the casteism still prevalent in India 66 years after our independence. The European Parliament adopted a strongly worded resolution on caste discrimination on 10 October in Strasbourg, meaning that caste-based discrimination is now recognised as a human rights violation.

The International Dalit Solidarity Network has campaigned long and hard for this. The resolution sends an important message of solidarity to Dalit organizations in South Asia, which have worked tirelessly over the years to place caste discrimination firmly on the international human rights agenda. It mentions numerous states where caste discrimination exists, including India and its neighbours in South Asia as well as countries in Africa. the Middle East and Europe, underlining that this is a global problem.

The newly passed resolution calls on EU institutions to recognize and address caste discrimination on par with other grounds such as ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexuality; to include the issue in EU legislation and human rights policies; and to raise it at the highest level with governments of caste-affected countries.

Some years ago, Jeremy Corbyn, a British Labour MP, read out excerpts from the New Internationalist May 2005 issue on Combatting Caste to the British parliament. It resulted in a policy change on government aid to India: the Department for International Development (DfID) was issued directions to ensure that aid money went directly to Dalits and adivasis, the most marginalized groups in India. It’s a good feeling when our words help in the struggle for change.

We wish the Dalits all success in their ongoing battle against caste discrimination. And we wait, impatiently, to see the outcome of this resolution. 

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  1. #1 Josette Kersters 12 Oct 13

    I firmly hope that the EU will pay attentkon to the resolution and help the Dalits and Adivasis obgtain their RIGHTS!
    Go on , Mari, dont't loose heart and continuie your good work in awakening the world to injustice.

  2. #2 ludwig pesch 12 Oct 13

    So good to have this background information. Societies can and will change. And so will India's even if in denial today incl. ’nicer’ people we otherwise respect. Much I'd have missed otherwise, thanks!

    You make me feel better about the European Parliament too - much neglected anyway due to lobbyists' clout and unjustified fear from national govt. leaders as regards power loss. Let's make this work and spread the word!

    One point is clear and often forgotten: the denial of proper renumeration for services rendered, and decent working conditions for the oppressed is akin to slavery (’bonded labour’ in Indian parlance, but often worse than historical versions as seen from this post). So empowering the (prospective) victims to claim financial compensation in tune with existing legislation and in coordination with ILO and other int. institutions/courts, and matching sanctions for non-compliance on govt. level will work best. After all, ideals will only make a difference if enforcable. As in fiscal legislation on gain from criminal activities and seizure of properties used for crimes, responses will follow on the level where such abuse is condoned, even encouraged. Money matters and if nothing else works, let it speak!

  3. #3 david cohen 12 Oct 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog on caste discrimination compels me to comment on two matters. Her blog deserves to be widely circulated.

    Both India and the United States resist international examination of their policies and practices that have the effect of stripping people of their dignity. Even if the policy is not violative of dignity the practice is.
    International tribunals, and policies of these tribunals and the standards they set, serve as a critical counter force to wha is hateful and unacceptable in a world that aspires to the Universal Declartation of Human Rights.

    My second points is that there is no substitute for money going directly to Dalits and Adivasis. I had the same experience wrking with abused migrant farm workers in the US. Government grants that went directly to Migrant Worker organizations gave them the organizational wherewithal to organize, protest, advocate and change their lives for the better.

    That's what government policies should be. So we gave those who need it and deserve it the proper lift.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC'
    October 12, 2013

  4. #4 Johnny Oommen 12 Oct 13

    Caste is a basic reality of life in India. Those who deny, disregard or refute this are usually blinded by their position on the upper end of the spectrum ; it is more comfortable to be caste-blind at that level. The Indian media is a fine example. Development planners who don't see this are fooling themselves.

    A recent discussion on national TV clearly demonstrated this social blindness. There was a talk show discussing discrimination faced by people in India who's skin is dark. The discussion was expectedly patronising but not one speaker asked the question why every single newsreader and talk show host in national media is extremely fair-skinned, the cosmetic touches making it even more so !

    We are racist, colourist and casteist !


  5. #5 Umakant 13 Oct 13

    Dear Mari
    Thanks a lot for writing this timely piece on such an important development at European Parliament. It is certainly a praiseworthy development that will have far reaching consequences as far as issues related to caste based discrimination and violation of Dalit human rights are concerned. This has also highlighted the need for putting caste and descent based discrimination issues in the global discourse on development and human rights.

    With Regards and In Solidarity
    Umakant, Ph.D
    Independent Researcher and Human Rights Advocate
    New Delhi, India

  6. #6 ludwig pesch 13 Oct 13

    It's heartening to read the responses to this timely blog post. It shows it's important and taken seriously.
    In this context I'd like to suggest two remarkable sources that deserve to be included in curricula, each on a different level, and discussed by activists:
    (1) Bernard Imhasly. Goodbye to Gandhi? Travels in the New India. Penguin India, 2007.
    (2) Monodeep Daniel. Faith on the Anvil of Justice: Dr. Ambedkar's Response to Religions in India. This is yet to be published (hopefully soon, so much in it that should be better known beyond the religious context); I obtained and read the remarkable PhD thesis version in Amsterdam. Here's the summary:
    (seearch for
    The thesis is about Dr Ambedkar, who was a contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi is widely recognised and admired for his stand for Indian independence, but less well-known for the political constraints he imposed on India’s ‘untouchable’ scheduled castes, the Dalits. [...]
    Dr Ambedkar wanted more freedom and respect for the scheduled castes, for them to be treated as human beings. He died in 1956, and the scheduled castes continue to be oppressed by doctrine and practices which are very deeply rooted in society, even in modern India. See also

  7. #7 Niral 14 Oct 13

    I agree that caste discrimination is a lot worse that racial discrimination. It will take a lot more effort than just words. Action is required to extend every possible help to those affected by the system, and more importantly what is required is a movement to eradicate the system.

  8. #8 candice 11 Feb 14

    trow caste discrimination from india

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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