US Congress holds hearing on India's caste system

The US Congress held an unprecedented hearing on Thursday on India’s Dalits, once known as the “untouchables,” highlighting what it calls a key human rights issue in the world’s largest democracy.

About 200-million of India’s estimated population of a billion people are Dalits, occupying the bottom rung in Hinduism’s 2 500-year-old caste system, and the hearing was told that they faced discrimination, abuse, torture and even death because of the family into which they were born.

“To keep nearly a quarter of one’s population in subhuman status is not only a grotesque violation of human rights, but it is a formula for economic and political stagnation as well,” said Republican New Jersey Representative Christopher Smith, who chaired the one-day hearing.

He said that as the United States sought to develop a strategic partnership with India, including civilian nuclear cooperation, “we must not lose sight of India’s serious human rights problems”.

The Indian government “condones, ignores and in some instances, has even promoted… massive catalogues of human rights violations,” said Smith, who heads a House of Representatives human rights panel that organised the hearing.

“All too often, enforcement of laws protecting human rights has been weak or non-existent,” he said.

While most Dalits lived in extreme poverty, Smith said, Hindu extremists resented gains made by this oppressed group which benefited from education and medical programmes launched by Christian missionaries.

“Converts to Christianity and Christian missionaries are particularly targeted, as violence against Christians often goes unpunished,” Smith said, adding that many states had adopted anti-conversion laws in violation of India’s constitutional protection for religious freedom.

This is the first time Congress has held a hearing on the plight of the Dalits, said Nanci Ricks, the executive director of the Colorado-based Dalit Freedom Network, among groups which helped organise the event.

Congressional sources said Christian-based groups had lobbied Republican legislators to hold the hearing, entitled “India’s Unfinished Agenda: Equality and Justice for Victims of Caste System.”

Asked to comment on the event, a spokesperson for the Indian embassy in Washington said New Delhi had taken various steps, including making provisions in the country’s charter, to help the Dalits.

“As a vibrant democracy, India has in place constitutional safeguards as well as an active affirmative action programme to address the problems of the weaker sections of society, including the Dalits,” said spokesperson Venu Rajamony.

“These efforts are continuing and their positive results are visible to all,” he said.

Amnesty International’s Asia advocacy director T Kumar told the hearing that the Indian government should fully enforce laws against discrimination on the basis of caste and descent, and rein in groups, including the police, which he said had discriminated against Dalits.

“This culture of impunity must end. Until India’s ‘hidden apartheid’ is truly and completely abolished, the world’s largest democracy cannot hope to make truly substantive progress towards liberty for all,” he said.

Kumar urged US-owned businesses in India to establish a quota system, similar to the Indian government’s, which ensured the setting aside of jobs for qualified Dalits, especially women.

The US government, he said, should urge the World Bank to also ensure that funds allocated to India were “non-discriminatory” and include a quota for Dalits.

Barbara Lee, an African-American Representative from California, suggested a dialogue between representatives of the Black American and Dalit communities to discuss “our ongoing struggle”.

“As an African-American, many of the issues and difficulties and the atrocities taking place on the Dalits, I can very much relate to given our history here on slavery and segregation,” she said. - AFP

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