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Indian society : real structure, constitutional principles, perspectives.

Outcasts of society : the situation of the untouchables :

Indian society is characterised by its division into casts despite constitutional advances. This division is made according to a double organisation, both linear and classificatory : the Jati, name which covers the social species to which one belongs from birth and the Varna, the classification which refers to functions : Brahmin (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishya (tradesmen, salesmen and land-owners), Shudra, servants of the three former categories called the "twice born". Each Varna is thus divided into Jatis according to social standings.
On the margins of the cast system, we find the "outcast", the "pariahs", the "untouchables", those who's contact is deemed so unpure that they have to live in a place outside the village of the town they depend on. Their birth condemns them to the meanest tasks, those considered unpure by the Brahman ideology : cleaning clothes and public places, activities linked to cremation, working leather…
Whatever the Law might state, untouchability is deeply anchored in the mentalities and affects them greatly and this can be seen very concretely. Being despised by the society they live in, being slaves to a perpetual debt which runs from generation to generation (Thematic Report of the Mechanisms of the Human Rights Commission) (cf. Annex), the untouchables have given themselves a name : Dalits, which means "Oppressed".

The application of the 1950 Constitution :

The Dalits represent 18% of the Indian population, that is approximately 170 million individuals living without dignity. The Democratic Indian Constitution written by Ambedkar (one of the few Dalits having had access to education : see article) abolished untouchability (art.17 of the Constitution), forbade discrimination (art.15), set the goal for social justice and equal opportunity by introducing special measures (seat reserved in political representation, quotas in education and public service). But, 50 years later, these principles are still only rarely applied. Social pressure is still very much there, access to education and to formation in general, even if it is a constitutional right remains a luxury. Thus the quotas remain in the hands of a minority that is set on keeping things that way ; this includes the President of the Indian State Mr. Narayanan elected in 1997 who is the perfect example.

From alienation by birth to freedom by knowledge : democracy in action.

Problems of social inequity, poverty, the inadequacy between the Democratic Constitution and reality can sometimes find that the solution is the effective participation of the poorest in economic and social powers. The great majority of Dalits are illiterate, but that does not prevent them from being more and more interested in politics and from being ardent defenders of the Democratic Institutions. In the last 20 years, their electoral participation has grown which goes to show how much faith and hope they have in their vote. But today the Dalits are often hostage to populist political measures taken by other political parties, they are slaves to clienteles and vote for those who locally promise social programs whatever their political goals may be. As for Dalit parties, they are too fragmented and divided to represent the Dalit population effectively.
The goal is thus to make social promotion easier through education, enabling them to have access to jobs with a certain responsibility on the one hand, and on the other it is to make them understand that they have common interests on the long run. Only on these conditions can they build an autonomous and unified social identity enabling them to be accepted by the society in which they live.

UN System of Human Rights : 1999 Overview
Thematic Report of the Mechanisms of the Human Rights Commission

Racism and Racial Discrimination, a Report from the Special Commissioner (E/CN4/1999/15, par. 88-100)

91. The term "casts" underlines a "social" and a "class" distinction which is not based on race. This notion finds its origins in the functional division of Indian Society. Classification according to hierarchy is the primary characteristic of this social system which, from births, confers unto its members certain privileges or imposes unto them certain restrictions which are to be unaltered during the entire lifetime of the individual. Each cast depends, from a functional point of view, on the other casts and has a very precise role to play in a system based on the symbolic relation between people belonging to different casts. Racial hierarchy appears as an abhorrent subsidiary element of the fundamental structure of society, whereas the social system of casts, with its multiple segmentation and its complex classification, has been the central element in the functional organisation of Hindu Society. It has been amply shown that people belonging to different casts have the same racial characteristics.

93. The first enumeration of the "untouchable" communities was made during the 1931 census by British authorities. They used the definition used at the time for the census as well as reports established by several comities and commissions since independence, the general criteria retained so as to determine whether a certain community was a member of the said "enumerated" casts was extreme backwardness from a social, economic and educational point of view due to the traditional application of untouchability.

98. Organisations that represent the untouchables or Dalits recognise the progress which has been achieved since the Independence of India but insist on the fact that the situation of this group is still difficult. According to these organisations, if the average rate of literacy in India (for men and women respectively) was of 63.8% and 39.42% in 1992, the figures for Dalits were not over 29.7% and 18.05%. At this time, we can count approximately 115 million Dalit children that work, 20 million of which in dangerous conditions. What's more, in 199, over 1 200 Dalit children died of malnutrition in the State of Maharashtra. According to diverse sources, the Dalits are often victim of forced migration, arbitrary imprisonment and summery execution in India. According to the Dalit Liberation Education Trust, every hour 2 Dalits are attacked, every day 3 Dalit women are raped, 2 Dalits murdered and 2 Dalit houses burnt.

99. Untouchability is still very alive, especially in the countryside and can be seen in the segregation of housing, the Dalits having to live at least 1/4 of a mile from the other inhabitants and are forbidden the access to the well which is the common source of water. Moreover, segregation also exists in schools, services and public places (hairdressers, shops, transports ; in restaurants, the crockery is sometimes separated between that for Dalits and that for upper casts).

100. Taking into account the facts exposed above, and in reference to the disposition of the Constitution, particularly those that the government quotes in its communication of September 30th 1997, that is "according to article 366, the enumerated cats are defined as 'casts, races, tribes or parts or components of these casts, races or tribes, considered in article 341 as 'enumerated' casts" and taking into account that this comity for the elimination of racial discrimination, whilst making its final periodic reports declared that " the situation of ill-favoured casts or tribes is under the jurisdiction of the International Convention to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination" (CERD/C/304/Add.13, par. 14), the Special Commissioner deems that particular attention should be given to the situation of the Dalits in India and that, to this effect, a field mission could be envisaged with the agreement of the Indian Government.

Report by Mr. Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, Special Commissioner on the contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and the intolerance it creates in conformity with Resolution 1998/26 of the Human Rights Commission.