India and the Dalits

Feb 17, 2011 | Uncategorized

2.18 pm: March 5th 2010 Second Reading Debate on Bill to create an Anti-Slavery Day.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I add my voice to those supporting the terms of my noble and learned friend’s Bill to inaugurate an anti-slavery day. I commend my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey for the way in which she has moved the Second Reading debate today. Like others, I should also like to pay tribute to Mr Anthony Steen MP, and to the all-party group for its tireless efforts on this issue. At one time Mr Steen and I were neighbours as Members of Parliament in Liverpool before he became the Member of Parliament for Totnes, and we remain friends to this day. My noble friend kindly mentioned the Jubilee Campaign during the course of her remarks, an organisation that I helped to found some years ago. I am grateful to her for that.
In 2007, which was the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, I ran a series of Roscoe lectures on behalf Liverpool John Moores University, where I hold a chair, commemorating the passage of William Wilberforce’s Bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and highlighting the nature of contemporary forms of slavery. For those who may not have read it, William Hague’s magnificent biography of Wilberforce simply cannot be bettered.
Liverpool was at the epicentre of the trade. Even so, brave men such as William Roscoe would not countenance support for slavery, and he voted with Wilberforce. In his epic poem, The Wrongs of Africa, which was published in 1787, Roscoe wrote of the iron hand crushing the people of Africa. He devoted the proceeds of the poem to the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He wrote:
“Blush ye not
To boast your equal laws, your just restraints,
Your rights defined, your liberties secured,
Whilst with an iron hand ye crush to earth
The helpless African; and bid him drink
That cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed,
Indignant, from oppression’s fainting grasp”.
With great strength and clarity, the final stanza of part 1 of this 35-page poem warns its readers:
“Forget not, Britain, higher still than thee
Sits the Judge of Nations, who can weigh
The wrong and can repay”.
Hansard records that, on 23 February 1807, Roscoe told the House of Commons that the slave trade had “disgraced the land”, and he condemned what he called an “inhuman traffic”. After his vote and on return to Liverpool, Roscoe was assailed by the mob and was never returned again to Parliament. It is important that stories like his are not forgotten. The courage and determination of men such as Roscoe and Wilberforce and others who have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend, should remain an inspiration to future generations.
The stories matter because many of the same battles remain to be fought in our own generation. A week ago I was in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. At several events I spoke about the plight of India’s untouchables, the Dalits, and the forms of exploitation and slavery which stem from the caste system. Dalit is a term which derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “broken” or “crushed”. Dalits form about a quarter of India’s population; one in 40 of the world’s population is a Dalit living in India.
I recalled in my remarks there that, on 22 June 1813, Wilberforce made a major speech in the House of Commons about India. In his remarks he said that the caste system,
“must surely appear to every heart of true British temper to be a system at war with truth and nature; a detestable expedient for keeping the lower orders of the community bowed down in an abject state of hopelessness and irremediable vassalage. It is justly, Sir, the glory of this country, that no member of our free community is naturally precluded from rising into the highest classes in society”.
Two centuries later, India’s President Dr Manmohan Singh has trenchantly argued that,
“untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity”.
Yet, in 2010, while India is a rising world power and is rightly gaining a reputation for innovation and excellence in many fields, this “blot on humanity” disfigures India’s reputation and has become one of the world’s greatest human rights challenges. Hundreds of millions of people remain imprisoned by the bondage of what Wilberforce called “the cruel shackles” of the caste system. Those shackles inevitably lock their prisoners into the most menial forms of labour, trap them in servitude and leave them susceptible to innumerable forms of exploitation.
In fairness to the Indian Government, growing social mobility and a series of remedial measures introduced since independence have provided some amelioration. Some individual dalits have reached high positions in Indian society, not least Justice K G Balakrishnan, the senior judge of India’s Supreme Court, and Ms Meira Kumar, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower House of India’s Parliament. Yet, as I heard first hand, even where dalit people are securing some kind of elementary education, the same opportunities for educational progress later and employment opportunities have been blocked to them.
Few would disagree that the caste system, with all the social prejudices and hierarchies which it entails, continues to enforce and compound servitude and exploitation. The perpetuation of humiliating descent-based occupations is the natural and inevitable consequence of the caste system. The rationale for caste was the division of labour, but—to paraphrase Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution and hero of the dalits—caste came to enforce a division of labourers.
I illustrate this point with reference to one of the most appalling and disgraceful forms of labour anywhere in the world, known euphemistically as manual scavenging. It involves cleaning human excrement from dry latrines and is uniquely performed by dalits as a consequence of their caste. The number engaged in this occupation is not known for certain, but it may be as high as, or higher than, the equivalent of the population of Birmingham.
Tens of millions of India’s citizens are subject to many forms of highly exploitative forms of labour and modern-day slavery. This often plays into the problem of debt bondage and bonded labour, which affects tens of millions. It perpetuates a cycle of despair and hopelessness, as generations are bonded to the family debt, unable to be educated and unable to escape. Tragically, the debt is often the result of a loan taken out for something as simple and essential as a medical bill.
The caste system also plays into people trafficking, another form of slavery which affects millions in India and which has been spoken about eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne. According to a report on CNN Asia last year, India’s Home Secretary, Madhukar Gupta,
“remarked that at least 100 million people were involved in human trafficking in India”,
whether for sex or for labour. The head of the Central Bureau of Investigation said that India occupied a unique position as a source, transit and destination country for trafficking, and that it has more than 3 million prostitutes, of whom an estimated 40 per cent are children. These statistics are hugely significant: the situation in India simply must be at the heart of the fight globally against trafficking. The Dalit Solidarity Network UK, which has been calling for an end to manual scavenging before this year’s Commonwealth Games, also highlights devadasi—a system of ritual prostitution of almost exclusively young dalit girls.
During their time in India, the British failed to heed Wilberforce and resisted the calls to abolish caste. Although untouchability was barred by the constitution when India secured independence, the system was not dismantled. Most of the worst forms of exploitation are proscribed by statute, but all too often the laws are simply not implemented and the police further entrench, rather than protect against, caste prejudice. This point was made repeatedly in the concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in May 2007.
A damning verdict was reached also by a recent, in-depth report by the Robert F Kennedy Centre, entitled Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 Villages. It describes,
“the Government of India’s continued ignorance about the depth of the problem and inadequacy in addressing untouchability and meeting its legal obligations in regard to the abolition of untouchability”.
Caste discrimination is usually associated with India but, in parenthesis, I might add that there are also an estimated 3.5 million to 5.5 million dalits living in Bangladesh, which is 2.5 to 4 per cent of the total population. The majority are landless and live in chronic poverty in rural areas or urban slums. They are deprived of or actively excluded from adequate housing, healthcare, education, employment and participation in public life. Approximately 96 per cent are illiterate.
I commend the attempt of my noble friend to remember and highlight the campaign against modern-day forms of slavery. In my study at home in Lancashire, I have a small terracotta pot given to me by Dr Joseph D’Souza, president of the International Dalit Freedom Network. Such pots must be broken once a dalit has drunk out of them so as not to pollute or contaminate other castes. This is the 21st century. It is not the pots which need to be broken, not the people, but the system which ensnares them. Dr D’Souza rightly says:
“If we are not intentional about bringing change and transformation in lives and society it will not happen. To love people is to act on behalf of them”.
My learned and noble friend’s Bill will be a stimulus to act on behalf of people such as the dalits and I readily support it.
December 2009…
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench)
My Lords, not for the first time, the House owes a considerable debt to my noble friend Lady Cox, both for facilitating this debate and for her powerful report on recent events in Orissa. She is often called a voice for the voiceless, which is an epithet that she has more than justified again today.
At times, Britain and India have had a turbulent relationship; but what is often called “the idea of India” is one that continues to captivate and enthral anyone who has been fortunate enough to travel there.
Britain and India are democratic nations with many shared values as well as significant common economic and security interests. Bilateral trade is worth around £6 billion annually. Our cultural, sporting, linguistic and historic links—some of which have required colonial ghosts to be laid to rest—underline the values that bind us together.
In 1949, India and Britain were founding members of the Commonwealth, which exists to promote democracy, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multiculturalism and world peace—ideals that, as the events of 26 November illustrate, have been undermined and are under siege in many parts of the world today. I join other noble Lords in expressing condolences to and sympathy with the families of the 173 people who died, to the hundreds left injured and to the Government of India.
Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I want to address two questions: first, on the lessons we might learn from that heinous attack and, secondly, on the principal challenges that India faces. The ferocious assault on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other targets in Mumbai was not an isolated incident; it was part of a concerted and systematic international campaign. According to the Wall Street Journal, 5,000 have died in India since 2004—more terrorist fatalities than in any other country except Iraq. This is the third major attack on Mumbai in 15 years. In July 2006 alone, 183 people were savagely murdered as they travelled on commuter trains. During 2008, militants attacked hotels in Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahmedabad and the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. One lesson that we must learn is that more commando-style raids on soft targets are likely.
Their purpose, of course, is to spread fear, to disrupt, and to assert a violent ideology. The visceral nature of that ideology can be seen in the decision by the terrorists to hunt down a rabbi and a small group of Jews in Mumbai’s Nariman House. It can be seen in the terrorists’ decision at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel to look specifically for American and British guests, in order to execute them. It can be seen in their hatred of all things Indian, the “idea of India”, that led to the indiscriminate and wholesale massacre of innocent Indian lives.
Some have pointed the finger of blame at Pakistan, for persisting, perhaps, with its battles over the status of Kashmir, or secretly aiding and abetting extremists schooled by al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban and their affiliates in the madrassas of the north-west frontier. Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, has refuted these accusations of complicity, rightly insisting that the same forces who have attacked India want to destroy Pakistan too.
Mr Zardari’s shaky Government need all the help they can get in countering terrorism; and all of us welcome Gordon Brown‘s decision to travel to Islamabad and India to underline that message. However, I add the cautious rider that it does not bode well that Mr Zardari quickly retracted his offer to send the head of Inter-Services Intelligence to India, and elements of the Pakistani military have clearly played a double game, by saying that they are fighting the Taliban on one hand and, on the other, diverting resources, often blindly given by the West, to Kashmiri militants, global terrorists and the Taliban itself. The Pakistan army is the most important institution in Pakistan and must be held accountable.
It may be tempting for India’s politicians to try to deflect criticism of intelligence failures into rumbustious forms of anti-Pakistan sentiment, or to advocate cross-border attacks; but this would be a dangerous and, given the respective nuclear capabilities of both countries, potentially catastrophic outcome. Competitive demagoguery, and sabre rattling by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party, would be self-indulgent. It risks raising the temperature rather than effectively combating those seeking to destroy “the idea of India”.
Any escalation of military tension would force Pakistan to divert its army from the West, which in turn would allow the militants to strengthen their bases. An attack on Kashmir would rally extreme elements in Pakistan, escalating an already dangerous situation. This would play into the hands of the Mumbai terrorist-recruiting sergeants. In Pakistan and in parts of Britain, along with the fifth column that operated inside Mumbai, there would be a new glut of applications.
Instead, India and Pakistan, with international support, must combat an enemy that threatens them both. The casus belli of the recruiting sergeants must also be addressed, finding solutions to the running sores of Palestine and Kashmir, as well as assisting the entrenchment of strong civil societies in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But these questions should not be used as an excuse for dealing with deeper structural questions and questions of identity.
In 2009, India’s 700 million voters will elect a new Government, but whoever wins will face the fundamental issues that threaten India’s cohesion. Islamic extremists, Hindu radicals, Maoists and communalism—ethnically or religiously based sectarianism—have all found a fertile breeding ground in India. Terror has spawned terror. The bombing of the Malegaon mosque in 2006 and the arrest of several persons related to Hindu radical groups underline that. Moderates have disavowed violence, whereby, for instance, Muslims have disallowed the bodies of terrorists from being buried in their graveyards and have marched with their countrymen in protest against terrorism; but too often, extremism and communalist violence have gone unchallenged.
Revolutionary Maoism has found a foothold in eastern India. The /glossary/?gl=264HYPERLINKDr Manmohan Singh, has described Maoist insurgency as the greatest internal security challenge the country has ever faced. The political classes, without a Gandhi or a Nehru, have not risen to these challenges. Criminal elements have found their way into the highest reaches of political life. Of the 522 Members of Parliament in Delhi, 120 are facing criminal charges and 40 face serious charges including murder and rape. Too often, processes of governance face paralysis.
Plenty of attention is given to what should be done; more attention needs to be given to how it should be done. Our Indian diaspora in Britain, great human capital, are uniquely placed to assist in that process. However, the fact that social policy is neglected in Indian national security planning is astounding. As my noble friend Lord Bilimoria said in his excellent intervention, the World Bank estimates that some 456 million people, 42 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line. India has some 60 million chronically malnourished children—two fifths of the world’s total. Last year, 2 million children died, and 1,000 died each day of diarrhoea-related sicknesses.
World recession is likely to reduce growth next year to 5.5 per cent, the lowest since 2002. Exports fell in October by 12 per cent and the country faces phenomenal challenges in building a modern infrastructure while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. India is the fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.
As my noble friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth mentioned, education is a key to this issue. India is to be admired for providing near-universal education, and there has been a rise from 7 per cent to 13 per cent in those entering higher education, but many agree that teaching remains poor and only 20 per cent of job seekers have any vocational training.
Even these opportunities tend to be denied to the dalits and the 84 million tribal people, who suffer discrimination and marginalisation—an issue touched on by my noble friend Lord Sandwich and many others. The failure to address the caste system, which has left 167 million dalit people trapped by the curse of untouchability, and the failure to counter the surge of communalist violence in states such as Orissa, threatens “the idea of India” and the country’s future. This vast expanse of humanity, trapped in a time warp, appears wholly unconnected to and at variance with India’s sophisticated economic and technological advances—and is certainly at variance with the advertising slogans, “Amazing India” and “Incredible India“.
What is truly amazing and incredible in this day and age is that around one in four of India’s population should be classed as tribal or dalit, a term which derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “broken” or “crushed”. Two years ago, on 26 March, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, I quoted William Wilberforce in your Lordships’ House. He described “the cruel shackles” of the caste system as,
“a detestable expedient … a system at war with truth and nature”.
That week I attended the launch of “India’s Hidden Slavery”, a powerful film which highlights the violence, exploitation and discrimination experienced by the dalits. The persistence into the 21st century of this degrading and pernicious system threatens the social stability and economic progress of India. Other noble Lords have rightly quoted Dr Manmohan Singh, who said that:
“Untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity”.
It is estimated that every day three dalit women are raped; dalit women are often forced to sit at the back of their school classrooms, or even outside; it is estimated that every hour on average two dalit houses are burnt down; higher castes will avoid having a dalit prepare their food for fear of becoming polluted; in one recent year alone, 25,455 crimes were committed against dalits, although many more went unreported, let alone investigated or prosecuted; 66 per cent of dalits are illiterate; their infant mortality rate is close to 10 per cent; 70 per cent are denied the right to worship in local temples; 56 per cent of dalit children under the age of four are malnourished; 60 million dalits are used as forced labourers, often reduced to carrying out menial and degrading forms of work; most dalits are not allowed to drink the same water as the higher castes; and they are trapped in a caste system that denies them adequate education, safe drinking water, decently paid jobs and the right to own land or a home.
Segregated and oppressed, the dalits are frequently the victims of violent crime. In one case, 23 dalit agricultural workers, including women and children, were murdered by the private army of high-caste landlords. What was their crime? It was listening to a local political party, whose views threatened the landlords’ hold on local dalits as cheap labour. The list of atrocities and violence is exponential.
Although laws against caste discrimination have been passed, discrimination continues and little is done to prosecute offenders. In recent years, however, there has been a growing desire for freedom among the dalits and low-caste Hindus. Demands have been made for justice and freedom from caste slavery and persecution, and a detailed charter of dalit human rights was drafted, with appeals to the international community and the UN, in the hope that this would put positive pressure on the Indian Government.
I have one further connected point to make. Since 1956, when the dalit leader, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, led hundreds of thousands of dalits to convert to Buddhism, dalits have often seen religious conversion as a means, either symbolic or actual, of escaping caste. Coercion in a number of ways—the loss of assistance through affirmative action for dalit converts to Islam, Christianity or Buddhism, for example—and anti-conversion laws both need to be challenged because of the way that they affect dalits.
These laws undoubtedly contribute to a climate of violence and aggression against India’s tiny Christian minority, which numbers some 24 million followers—just 2.3 per cent. St Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to Kerala in India in 52AD, long before it arrived in the US, the UK or many European nations. Christianity in India is almost as old as Christianity itself. However, in Orissa, as my noble friend Lady Cox points out, we have seen the worst spate of communal violence ever faced by Indian Christians since independence in 1947. This has included vicious murders—the Catholic Church puts the number at over 60—and has included burning alive and mutilating bodies. At least 160 Christian churches have been destroyed. I hope that the Orissa state government and the Indian Government will institute a widespread inquiry into these issues and ensure that those responsible are prosecuted.
I want to quote Vir Sanghvi, writing in the Hindustan Times on 11 October. He put it well when he said:
“Every single Hindu I know has been deeply disturbed and more than a little ashamed by the recent violence against Christians … It reminds us that beneath our gleaming high-tech, IIT-engineered facade, there lurk medieval forces, full of hatred and bloodlust … without a tradition of religious freedom and equality, we would be no better than Pakistan … But here’s the thing: ban conversions and you destroy the idea of India. At the root of our notion of who we are as a nation is that we are a secular, liberal democracy. This means not only that religion and politics will be kept separate but that we will afford complete freedom of belief in both areas … Unless I have the right to change my mind, my secular freedom is meaningless”.
In conclusion, India is the world’s largest democracy—home to one-sixth of the world’s population. It can be proud of its many fine achievements. Like all our democracies, it is a work in progress, and there are many bright spots. India produced one of the first female Heads of Government; a dalit wrote the constitution; a female dalit is currently one of the most powerful politicians in the country; a Muslim has been head of state four times; and a Jew and a Sikh are two of India’s greatest war heroes. So an astounding amount has been achieved.
However, India cannot be proud of the more general fate of the dalits, the caste system or the extremism which still play too great a role in fashioning modern India. In the light of these recent tragic events—from Mumbai to Orissa—Britain and India need to seize the moment and find rational political responses based on our shared values.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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