Transnational efforts in fighting the world oldest surviving discrimination
Published in Issue II, July 2013
The recent incident of British Parliament’s willingness to enact the law against Caste based discrimination is a pioneering step in the history of battle against caste discrimination. To outlaw the discrimination from the society apart from India; among its diaspora. When the news flashed about British Government’s willingness to pass the Equality Act outlawing Caste discrimination, all the anti-caste International lobbying agencies and Dalit activism took a centre stage. Academics, media, activists and political agents started to intervene with the vulnerable issue of caste as one of the heinous crimes that has been in existence not only in India but has travelled overseas among the diaspora. The politics surrounding the caste discrimination is not new to the Indian and as well as the British parliamentary and monarchy. In British Parliament, the House tabled, debated and amended the Bill for three times in a month’s time span. Initially, in March the bill was favoured by the Lords by a majority of 103 to include caste as a factor in the Equality Act. Later in the month of April, the bill was re-introduced by the Lord Harries of Pentregarth, who debated on the issue. The motion was agreed and disagreed, resulting in the denial of the house to consider caste discrimination under the Equality Act by 304 to 243. Immediately, in the following week, there was another reconsideration on the issue of caste discrimination, and the House of Lords had to vote twice on the same bill for protecting UK Dalits under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill Amendment 37 pertaining to the Equality Act, 2010 Sec 9 (1) “(d)” to add caste as a factor of discrimination. Finally, on 23rd April, 2013 the House re-tabled this bill and UK Parliament passed the Act without voting on it, since there was a cross-party consensus. The shift in the turn of politics in a month’s time, and the re-meeting of Lords in a week’s time, gives a chance to look into the high level of diplomacy and lobbying by the civil societies, and action groups working internationally. This issue becomes important because the Hon. Parliament of UK has sought to seek referendum on the issue that was until yesterday considered simply a matter of Indian concern. However, this article does not seek to understand the political lobbying of activists and civil societies in UK but to overall look into the history of International lobbying of caste as a matter of discrimination on various International platforms. This piece will provide a general overview of the International lobbying of Dalit issues.
Historically, the first lobbying against caste discrimination on the International plane took place during the British colonial rule. Academics in India are obsessed with the colonial subjugation of making a colonised history; however, some authors like Fredrick Cooper draw a line between the development of state and colonialism. The era of colonialism, for the present day third world countries is an important factor to see itself on the international scenario. Hence, the colonial era of India captures the attention of modern historians to work on the line of socio-political development of the country. Therefore, the era of colonial administration will be considered as a first step of International lobbying against Caste practices in India. The first lobbying was recorded during late nineteenth century when the Duke and Duchess of Connaught visited India on 02nd March, 1888. Jotirao Phule, a social activists from the gardener caste and his associate friend Hari Raoji Chiplunkar arranged a banquet in the Honour of the Duke of Connaught, who was also the grandson of Queen Victoria. Phule dressed as a peasant with rags and torn clothes, appeared in front of the Royalty. This was a mere shock to the organisers and the elites that were present in the diamond carved dress. Jotirao pleaded the reality of the region and warned the gathering that the representation of the riches is a mere farce and far away from the reality. He requested the Prince, if he was really interested in finding out the actual condition of the Indian subjects of Her Majesty Queen of England, then he should pay a visit to the areas in cities and villages occupied by the untouchables. The first demonstration against caste discrimination on International plane was pioneered by Jotirao Phule. Prior to that, Jotirao Phule in the year 1882 presented a memorandum to the Chairman of the Education Commission, Sir William Hunter which addressed the issues of primary education to the women, and children following suggestions for the education of children coming from deprived community.
Taking on from the literary history, there was another figure who was inspired by the activism of Phule, which helped him to manage the theoretical bonds of international activism. Dr Ambedkar, a western educated scholar, during his study at Columbia University in 1916, read his paper titled Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development in a seminar conducted by the anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser1. This paper examines the genesis of caste and complexity of the subject. Referring to the previous works on caste, Dr. Ambedkar analysed the development of caste system in modern India providing peculiar observations. This act of him can be considered as the second International lobbying on caste issues.
Moving further, Dr Ambedkar during his stay in UK and elsewhere in Europe intended to march the issue of caste with social approaches if not via his Academic thesis. Dr Ambedkar later is considered as the pioneering torch for International lobbying in the newly formed League of Nations, which later came to be known as the United Nations Organisations. W.E.B. DuBois the first Harvard Black Doctorate Scholar of America was petitioning the issue of Blacks (the Negroes) in the UNO through his organisation National Negro of Congress against Race discrimination. Dr Ambedkar sought to address the issue of Caste as a matter of serious discrimination when the ‘Race’ factor was being raised for the first time in the UN. The lobbying of the latter on the international foray was such a success that it remains a matter of high concern in present day politics. There are evidences of communication between Dr. Ambedkar and DuBois, Dr. Ambedkar wrote to DuBois somewhere during the 1945,
“Dear Prof. Dubois,
Although I have not met you personally, I know you by name as everyone does who is working in the cause [sic] of securing liberty to the oppressed people. I belong to the Untouchables of India and perhaps you might have heard my name. I have been a student of the Negro problem and have read your writings throughout. There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.
I was very much interested to read that the Negroes of America have filed a petition to the U.N.O. The Untouchables of India are also thinking of following suit. Will you be so good as to secure for me two or three copies of this representation by the Negroes and send them to my address. I need hardly say how very grateful I shall be for your troubles in this behalf.”
In reply to this, Du Bois replied to Ambedkar expressing his sympathy towards the fellow Untouchables of India and assured the presentation of the Untouchable’s rights by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People
Du Bois’s response, dated 31 July 1946:
“My dear Mr. Ambedkar,
I have your letter concerning the case of the Negroes of America and the Untouchables in India before the United Nations. As you say a small organization of American Negroes, the National Negro Congress has already made a statement which I am enclosing. I think, however, that a much more comprehensive statement well documented will eventually be laid before the United Nations by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. If this is done I shall be glad to send you a copy.
I have often heard of your name and work and of course have every sympathy with the Untouchables of India. I shall be glad to be of any service I can render if possible in the future.”
The struggle of Negroes and Untouchables was directed by two human rights campaigners of North and Southern part of the world. However, furthermore another celebrated intellectual C. Vann Woodward wrote on the oppression of blacks in America through his book The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1957). In his autobiographical accounts, Woodward claims, there were two main motivations for him to write that book, the first was burgeoning civil rights movement and second was Ambedkar. In his biography, he explained the experiences with Ambedkar when he visited New Delhi where Ambedkar hosted him, and explained the caste system drawing a parallel line with Black Americans and Untouchable Indians2. George S. Schuyler, another important figure in the black intellectual history underscored the situation of Untouchables in India. He drew the analogy between blacks and the Indian untouchables, “who were, like blacks, segregated, denied access to education and transportation, turned away from religious temples, and economically oppressed3.” These incidents refer to the International lobbying of caste by foreign actors during the post-independence era.
Back in India, Dr Ambedkar presented the issues of caste in front of the British Delegation, Simon Commission, Round Table Conference and to the Parliamentary authorities in Britain (to Winston Churchill). After Dr. Ambedkar another prominent name comes into limelight, which grew up under the shadow of Ambedkarism, the parliamentarian from Deccan, B. Shyam Sunder. A Dalit himself, he represented the delegation of Nizam of Hyderbad to the United Nations Security Council in the year 1948. He was the first post-independent leader who presented the real picture of Dalits of India. His further trip to the Europe advocating caste issues was cancelled after the Government of India’s Operation Polo in the year 1948 which forced him to return back to India.
Apart from the native struggle against Caste oppression in India, the Indian diaspora in USA and UK lobbied consistently on the issue of caste discrimination. Existence of Ambedkarite organisations in UK played a significant role in raising the issues of caste. First Ambedkarite organisation in UK was founded in 1969 which was called, Bheem Association, who congregated to celebrate the thoughts and ideas of Ambedkar and other contemporaries that fought against the caste practices in India. This organisation was formed by the Dalits diaspora from Bedford in UK. To align its interests with fellow contemporaries and connect with other mainstream Ambedkarite movements, it was renamed to Dr Ambedkar Mission, Society Bedford. This organisation hosted anti-caste activists from India. Mr Bhagwan Das, one of the scholar-activists, was hosted by Bedford group who came to brief the 36th Session of the United Nations Commission on Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities held at Geneva in August 1983. After presenting his views to the conference, he was later ostracised by the fellow Hindu, Muslim, Sikh representatives on his stand against caste discrimination. It went to an extent that he was excluded from attending the event of World Conference of Religion and Peace in Nairobi. High Commissioner of India to Kenya invited every Indian delegation to his residence for dinner but excluded Bhagwan Das. This moment, invited foreign civil societies attention and since then Mr. Bhagwan Das was invited to discuss on various forums about caste discrimination. Bhagwan Das also co-founded World Conference of Religion and Peace in Kyoto, Japan in 1970 which provided a platform to him and other Ambedkarite organisations in North America to fight against Caste discrimination.
Later organisation like Federation of Buddhist and Ambedkarite Organisations UK in 1988 organised a collaborative group of like-minded anti-caste groups to mark the centenary celebrations of Ambedkar, marketing Ambedkar in UK and USA. The events at the Royal Commonwealth Society and the House of Commons attracted International attention. During the same year under the direction of Bhagwan Das, International Ambedkar Institute, UK was formed to take Ambedkar’s thoughts in the premier Institutes in UK and encourage some related research on the topic of caste issues. Kenneth Griffiths was elected Chairman who later made documentary films on Dr. Ambedkar.
In the year 1991 in North America, a group of diaspora united to form the first anti-caste Ambedkarite group intended to lobby the United Nations and international agencies on the issues of caste violence in India. Ambedkar Centre for Justice and Peace lead by dedicated activists participated in various conferences and seminars organised by the United Nations and its organs. This organisation claims to have pioneered the study on the caste system, untouchability and descent based discrimination in the United Nations in the year 1999. They have been participating in various United Nation Conferences and Committees like World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, 1993, World Summit on Social Development at Copenhagen, 1995, Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), 1996, Committee on Human Rights, 1997, Working Group of Indigenous population, Committee on Children Rights, and World Conference on Racism.
Later in the year 1992, Bhagwan Das started partnering with other International lobbying organisations like World Council of Churches and the Ambedkarite organisations in UK. He formed Dalit Solidarity Programme in 1992 whose one of the primary objectives was to internationalise the Dalit issue for total liberation of the marginalized sections across the world. On the auspices of this programme, Bhagwan Das presented the situation of caste atrocities in India. He participated in various events in UK, most notably the lecture on caste discrimination organised by the University of Edinburgh. Following the years of lobbying, Bhagwan Das and the fellow activists in UK and USA carried the baton against caste discrimination on various International events. In 1998 he and other activists led to the formation of International Dalit Convention which aimed to bring Dalit leaders from all over the world to fight against caste imperatives. Important event that strike the United Nations history against caste discrimination is in 2001 at the Durban Conference against Racism. Anti-caste activists around the world participated in this historic event to present their testimony and lobbied heavily on India’s position to exclude caste as a matter of race. Indian government’s unwillingness which was run by the Congress Party sent a delegation headed by Ms. Meera Kumari, now speaker of the House, a Dalit herself testified the existing of strong laws to protect Dalits and the Constitutional provisions against caste discrimination. At the end, this event united all the like-minded organisations in one thread to oppose against caste discrimination.
In the modern era, Dalit Solidarity Networks spread all over the Europe, headquartered in Denmark, lobbied on the issue of caste discrimination at the UN’s recently formed Human Rights Council in 2006. Ambedkarite organisations that emerged with the past experiences started identifying the modern issues of caste affecting the Diasporas. And in the year 2003, the activities of discrimination by fellow Hindu and Sikh communities was raised by the Dalit communities, this led to the formation of an alliance to cast out caste discrimination. The outcome of lobbying in the early years of twenty-first century provided vital grounds for emerging anti-caste groups in UK, Europe and USA to partner with other international lobbying agencies. Minority rights group, Human Rights Watch, Asian Commission for Human Rights, Lutheran World Federation, Anti-slavery International, Asian Centre for Human Rights, FORUM-ASIA, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, provided important support to raise the voice against caste discrimination but had limited stay on the caste as their main agenda. Continuing with the foreign alliance, diaspora lobbying groups situated in the overseas gathered the information of like minded groups and the NGOs like Liberation, a UK based human rights group chaired by Jeremy Corbyn, MP and various forums of Asian Human Rights partnered with other home based groups such as NACDOR, NCDHR. These internationally acclaimed groups offered their platform to raise the issue of caste on various agendas, sometimes on the discussion panel on Violence against Women, or Minority Rights, or Indigenous people’s rights or against Racism. But there was no continuous UN Watch like lobbying on the important stage of UN Human Rights Council which has loosened the grip of international lobbying. Mentioning of UN Watch, a NGO based in Geneva, is important, since this organisation works to lobby pro-Israel issues on every UN mandated agendas, discussion and expert’s report concerning Israel and the Middle East. It has demonstrated itself to attract the media attention and other international agencies attention within 20 short years of its operations in the UN.
On the other hand, organisations dealing with the caste issues elsewhere have very less control on such type of activism on international stage. It is surprising to notice that International Ambedkarites and other anti-caste groups in the modern era have never tabled an idea of having a lobbying group in the UN and other important organs. If ever they tried to emphasise the role of civil society in building a joint efforts at the UN, then it was certainly not surrealistic. Efforts should be channelized and vision should be determined, then only the result of international activism will discover its positive results. The event of UK’s acceptance of caste as a factor of discrimination has given an opportunity to lobby the issues of caste on the UN’s platform. British Parliament’s acknowledgement is an evidence for the international law makers to punish the culprit on the caste issue. Also the High Commissioner of the UN Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay, herself has acknowledged the growing discrimination of caste; brushing aside India’s domination on the caste issue, calling it a matter of International concern. Concerning UK, various rights groups emerged to centralise caste issue as their modus operandi. Caste Watch UK, formed in 2003, was organised to counter the question of caste discrimination which led to a movement against caste discrimination in UK that has resulted in passing the legislation in 2013. Along with it, partnering the cause in UK as well as in India, Voice of Dalit International (VODI), an International group based in UK has led to many development projects in India which is tapping the resources from various donor agencies, especially UK Foreign aid agency for poverty alleviation and education in India. Considerably, VODI traces the mentioning of caste as a matter of poverty in India published by UK Dept. of International Development (DID). Dalit Solidarity Networks has indeed contributed in successful lobbying of anti-caste baton through its wide spread network with parent International Dalit Solidarity Organisation. The joint efforts of anti-caste groups in the alliance of Anti-Caste Discrimination Association (ACDA) has successfully lobbied the cause of caste discrimination and provided a hope for potential activities in other parts of the Global North and South. Presence of Dalit diaspora in the western and other parts of the world is an additional benefactor to the international activism. Brining consciousness and bridging the gaps of intellectual scholarship can lead to a vigorous movement.
The above mentioned pioneering efforts of activists in bringing down the horror of barbarism are commendable. It is a result of fore vision and dedication. They did their best, but much needs to be done. As Nelson Mandela in his biography writes, “…after climbing one mountain, I realised there are many other mountains to be climbed.” Taking from the experiences, a strong audacious movement by the young, dynamic and visionary diaspora’s should be lead with more concrete goals. UN Watch type lobbying and continuous pressure on Indian Government will shun India’s effort to market itself as a vibrant democracy. When it is trying hard to have a strong hold in the UN, seeking for the Permanent seat in the Security Council will undermine any potential interference in the India’s human rights situation, as it happens in present day China. India will cross the nexus of barbarianism ruled by fundamentalist who will go unchecked without International interference. The hope for Indian diaspora is international lobbying and let it not go unattended. Raising money for events and establishing international centres will definitely augment the anti-caste ideology but the actual paradigms of fighting caste discrimination on international stage is political intervention, and this can only happen with continuous presence of Dalit sponsored lobbying groups in the UN accounting India for every atrocities. Life of Dalits in India, is no value, at least Dalits themselves should bring value.
The author acknowledges the effort of all the mentioned organisations but partly apologises if any International lobbying agency has been missed that works on the similar lines. Australian groups are not mentioned due to their absence on International database of caste groups.
- Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 1. Bombay: Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, 1979, pp. 3-22, full length article can be found on http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00ambedkar/txt_ambedkar_castes.html
- C. Vann Woodward, Thinking Back: Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986), 87–88.
- D Immerwahr, ‘On B. R. Ambedkar and Black–Dalit Connections’http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/daniel-immerwahr/Ambedkar.pdfaccesed 30th March 2013
Mr. Suraj Yengde is a Ph. D. student at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg with the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa. He has worked with various human rights international government and non governmental bodies. He is trained as a lawyer and has interests in international laws, rights, and caste issues.