India’s Untouchables to Get U.N. Boost

The United Nations is set to declare caste systems a human rights violation at the current meeting of its Human Rights Council in Geneva, in a bid to recognize centuries-old institutionalized discrimination against the world’s estimated 200 million Dalits, or untouchables.

Draft principles being considered by the Council call for the “elimination of discrimination based on work and descent.” Dalits and similar groups face discrimination under existing caste systems in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Japan and Somalia.

While Nepal came out in support of the move, India has objected to the use of the word “caste” in the draft principles and guidelines.

India is home to an estimated 65 million Dalits who have traditionally lived and worked under particularly severe conditions. They have historically been relegated to “impure” or dirty labors — such as cleaning latrines, removing dead animals, street sweeping and butchering. Most are bonded laborers and work under slave-like conditions. Violence against Dalits is endemic, with tens of thousands of incidents registered every year. They routinely face discrimination in gaining access to housing, medical care and education.

“Caste rules hold that Dalits pollute higher caste people with their presence. If higher caste Hindus touch an untouchable or even come within a Dalit’s shadow, they must undergo rigorous series of cleansing rituals,” the Dalit Freedom Network says of the existing Indian system.

Indian authorities have legislated protections against discrimination. But while the position of Dalits has improved slightly in urban India, the meager gains have not translated to India’s vast rural areas. The issue is politically sensitive as, in recent years, Dalit and other low-caste politicians have begun to wield significant political power in some Indian states.