Sunday, 12 October 2008

Hidden Apartheid
Caste Discrimination against India’s “Untouchables”
India February 2007
More than 165 million people in India remain
vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation, and
violence simply because of their caste. India’s
“hidden apartheid” relegates Dalits, or socalled
untouchables, to a lifetime of
segregation and abuse. Caste-based divisions
continue to dominate in housing, marriage,
employment, and general social interaction—
divisions that are reinforced through
economic boycotts and physical violence.
Hidden Apartheid was produced as a “shadow report” in
response to India’s submission to the United Nations Committee
on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (“Committee”), which
monitors implementation of the International Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (“Convention”).
The report documents India’s systematic failure to respect,
protect, and ensure Dalits’ fundamental human rights.
Severe violations persist in access to education, health, housing,
and property, and freedom of religion, free choice of
employment, and equal treatment before the law. The report also
documents routine violations of Dalits’ right to life and security of
person through state-sponsored or sanctioned acts of violence,
including torture.
More than 165
million people in
India continue to be
subject to
exploitation, and
violence simply
because of their
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
India’s Obligations under the Convention
As a State Party to the Convention, India has an obligation to
prohibit and bring to an end caste-based discrimination. Article 1
of the Convention guarantees rights of non-discrimination on the
basis of “race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.” In
1996, the Committee concluded that the plight of Dalits falls
under the prohibition of descent-based discrimination.
The Committee is a body of independent experts responsible for
monitoring states’ compliance with the Convention. India’s
report to the Committee was more than eight years overdue.
Although it covers more than a decade of India’s compliance with
the Convention (from 1996 to 2006), it does not contain a single
mention of abuses against Dalits—abuses that India’s own
governmental agencies have documented and verified.
Hidden Apartheid fills that gap and presents Committee
members with information that is essential to a fair assessment
of India’s record and, ultimately, to encouraging the government
to live up to its domestic and international human rights
The 1950 Indian Constitution abolished the practice of
“untouchability” in all its forms, and a number of laws and
special measures have since been adopted to address castebased
discrimination and abuses. India has consistently cited
these laws and policies to show that it is protecting Dalits’ rights.
While these laws and policies are welcome, they have been
implemented sporadically and often not at all.
The information detailed in Hidden Apartheid demonstrates that
India has failed to enforce its laws in violation of its obligations
under Article 2 of the Convention to pursue by all appropriate
means a policy of eliminating caste discrimination, and to ensure
that all public authorities and institutions do not engage in castebased
As a State Party to
the International
Convention on the
Elimination of All
Forms of Racial
India has an
obligation to end
caste-based abuses
and segregation.
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
This failure is exemplified by police treatment of Dalits. India’s
National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)—a statutory
government body that India describes as the apex national
institution to protect human rights and redress grievances—has
commented that the law enforcement machinery is the greatest
violator of Dalits’ human rights.
According to the NHRC, police responsibility for the widespread
torture of Dalits in custody, rapes of Dalit women, and the looting
of Dalit property “are condoned, or at best ignored.” Dalits,
jurists, and human rights groups claim that a lack of political will
and immunity laws that shield those responsible for human
rights abuses from prosecution allow torture and other forms of
custodial abuse to continue unchecked.
Under a theory of collective punishment, the police often target
entire Dalit communities in search of select individuals. Dalit
women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence by the
police. Dalits are also vulnerable to arrest under draconian
security laws.
Under Article 2 India must also ensure the development and
protection of particularly marginalized groups. India grants Dalits
certain privileges, including “reservations” (quotas) in education,
government jobs and political posts. Like many of the protective
measures adopted, the reservation policy has not been faithfully
Caste-based occupational distribution is often reinforced in
government employment quotas, with Dalits assigned primarily
to the posts of sweepers. Reservations in higher education
continue to be met with a great deal of resistance, leading to
under-enforcement. Additionally, there has been widespread
public opposition to reservations for Dalits in local government
bodies, often leading to acts of violence against Dalit candidates.
According to government estimates in 2000, the unemployment
rate for Dalits and tribal groups was double that of non-
Custodial torture of
Dalits, rapes of Dalit
women, and the
looting of Dalit
property by the
police “are
condoned or at best
ignored.” –
National Human
Rights Commission
of India (2004).
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
Dalits/tribals. Public sector divestment is estimated to have left
200,000 Dalit employees jobless. Dalits continue to be
significantly underrepresented in most professional strata. Dalit
representation in India’s high industries and service sectors is
dismal. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes has stated that the private sector, which
continues to enjoy government patronage, should also be
brought under the purview of the reservation policy.
The Government of India has established several programs for
the development of Dalits. According to the NHRC, however,
many such programs fail to reach their target groups.
Additionally, India has failed to address the multiple forms of
discrimination faced by Dalit women. Even as compared to Dalit
men, Dalit women do not have equal access to employment
opportunities or justice mechanisms. They must contend with
threats to their personal security, including trafficking and sexual
violence. In some states in India, Dalit women are forced into
prostitution under the devadasi system and are ultimately
auctioned off to urban brothels. This puts them at particular risk
of contracting HIV/AIDS.
Residential segregation of Dalits is prevalent across the country,
in violation of India’s obligations under Article 3. Segregation is
also evident in schools, in access to public services, and in
access to services operated by the private sector. In his 1999
Annual Report, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary
forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related
intolerance found “untouchability” to be “very much alive” in
rural areas.
A recently published survey investigating the extent of
“untouchability” in 565 villages in 11 Indian states found that the
practice continues to profoundly affect the lives and psyches of
millions of Dalits. “Untouchability” practices were documented
in almost 80 percent of the villages surveyed.
The Dalit woman
faces triple
because she is an
untouchable, of a
poor class and is a
woman. – National
Campaign on Dalit
Human Rights
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
The open dissemination of propaganda targeting both Dalits and
religious minorities by Hindu nationalist groups—whose
members have incited and engaged in widespread violence—
calls into question India’s commitment to fulfill its Article 4
obligations to condemn the promotion of hatred and
discrimination in any form. Educational measures to combat
caste-based prejudices are also sorely lacking.
Dalits’ fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural
rights are routinely violated by state actors and private
individuals, in violation of Article 5 of the Convention. Castemotivated
killings, rapes, and other abuses are a daily
occurrence in India, resulting in routine violations of Dalits’ right
to security of person and protection of the state. The police have
systematically failed to protect Dalit homes and Dalit individuals
from acts of looting, arson, sexual assault, torture, and other
inhumane acts such as the tonsuring, stripping and parading of
Dalit women, and forcing Dalits to drink urine and eat feces.
Much like cases of police abuse against Dalits, attacks by private
actors often take the form of collective punishment—entire
communities or villages may be punished for the perceived
transgressions of individuals who seek to alter village customs or
demand their rights.
Between 2001 and 2002 close to 58,000 cases were registered
under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of
Atrocities) Act, 1989—legislation that criminalizes particularly
egregious abuses against Dalits and tribal community members.
A 2005 government report states that a crime is committed
against a Dalit every 20 minutes. Though staggering, these
figures represent only a fraction of actual incidents since many
Dalits do not register cases for fear of retaliation by the police
and upper-caste individuals.
In a study of 11
Indian states, the
practice of
was documented in
almost 80 percent of
the 565 villages
surveyed. – Action
Aid India (2006).
Every 20 minutes, a
Dalit becomes a
victim of crime. –
India’s National
Crime Records
Bureau (2005).
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
Political rights, including the right to vote freely and the right to
stand for election, have repeatedly been denied to Dalits through
acts of booth rigging, restricted access to polls, intimidation, and
Dalits’ right to freedom of residence is severely curtailed by the
practice of “untouchability,” which often dictates where Dalits
must live. Dalits’ right to freedom of movement within India is
affected by conditions that make Dalits vulnerable to migratory
labor and forced displacement, particularly in the aftermath of
episodes of caste violence.
Strict prohibitions on marriage and other social interaction
between Dalits and non-Dalits violate the rights of Dalits to marry
and choose their spouse. Endogamy is a hallmark feature of the
caste system. Inter-caste marriages are frequently extra-judicially
punished by acts of public lynching, murder, rape, beatings, and
other sanctions against the couple and their relatives. On August
6, 2001, in Uttar Pradesh, an upper-caste boy and a lower-caste
girl were publicly hanged by members of their own families for
refusing to end an inter-caste relationship.
The right to own property is systematically denied to Dalits.
Landlessness—encompassing a lack of access to land, inability
to own land, and forced evictions—constitutes a crucial element
in the subordination of Dalits. Land reform legislation is neither
implemented nor properly enforced. When Dalits do manage to
acquire land, access to it is often denied. In 2004, the Dalits of
Kalapatti village, Tamil Nadu, were forced to flee after an attack
in which upper-caste neighbors burned and destroyed over 100
Dalit homes.
Dalits in India face a number of restrictions on their right to
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Dalits are
frequently denied entry into places of worship. Some Dalits have
responded to ill-treatment by upper-caste Hindus by converting
en masse to Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. However, the loss
of constitutional privileges upon conversion (to Christianity and
On August 6, 2001,
in Uttar Pradesh, an
upper-caste boy and
a lower-caste girl
were publicly
hanged for refusing
to end an inter-caste
In 2004, the Dalits
of Kalapatti village,
Tamil Nadu, were
forced to flee after
an attack in which
neighbors burned
and destroyed over
100 Dalit homes.
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
Islam) is a serious impediment to Dalits’ freedom to choose their
religion. In addition, the introduction of anti-conversion
legislation in several states has made religious conversion
extremely difficult if not impossible. Tragically, even conversion
does not guarantee escape since “untouchability” is practiced
across all faiths in India.
The denial of the right to work and free choice of employment
lies at the very heart of the caste system. Dalits are forced to
perform tasks deemed too “polluting” or degrading for non-
Dalits. According to unofficial estimates, more than 1.3 million
Dalits—mostly women—are employed as manual scavengers to
clear human waste from dry pit latrines. Dalits comprise the
majority of agricultural, bonded, and child laborers in the
country. Many survive on less than US$1 a day. Dalits are also
discriminated against in hiring and in the payment of wages by
private employers. Laws designed to eradicate exploitative labor
arrangements are largely ineffective.
Dalits are often refused access to health care in violation of their
right to the highest attainable standard of health and social
services. In a number of cases, those who are admitted to
hospitals receive discriminatory treatment. Caste-based
occupations, such as manual scavenging and forced prostitution,
frequently expose Dalits to serious and sometimes fatal health
Manual scavengers are routinely exposed to both human and
animal waste without proper protection. This has severe
repercussions for their health; most suffer from anemia, diarrhea,
vomiting, and respiratory diseases. In many cities, Dalits clear
sewage blockages without protective gear. Over 100 die each
year from inhaling toxic gases or from drowning in excrement.
Many Dalits survive
on less than US$1 a
More than 1.3
million Dalits –
mostly women –are
employed as
manual scavengers
to clear human
waste from dry pit
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
The right to education free from discrimination is not secured for
Dalit children. Ninety-nine percent of Dalit students are enrolled
in government schools that lack basic infrastructure, classrooms,
teachers, and teaching aids. They are made to sit in the back of
classrooms and endure verbal and physical abuse from teachers
and students. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the
right to education, teachers have been known to declare that
Dalit pupils “cannot learn unless they are beaten.” The effect of
such abuses is borne out by the low literacy and high drop-out
rates for Dalits. Upper-caste hostility toward Dalits’ education is
linked to the perception that Dalits are either incapable of being
educated, or if educated, would pose a threat to village
hierarchies and power relations.
Dalits are denied equal access to public places, such as police
stations, government ration shops, post offices, schools, water
facilities, and village council offices. More than 20 percent of
Dalits do not have access to safe drinking water. Only 10 percent
of Dalit households have access to sanitation (as compared to 27
percent for non-Dalit households), and the vast majority of Dalits
depend on the “goodwill” of upper-caste community members
for access to water from public wells. Dalits are also excluded
from, or receive discriminatory treatment in, private businesses
such as food stalls, barber shops, and cinemas. Dalits are made
to use separate crockery and cutlery and drink from separate tea
glasses which they are then required to wash.
Attempts by Dalits to defy the caste order, to demand their rights,
or to lay claim to land that is legally theirs are consistently met
with economic boycotts or retaliatory violence. For example, on
January 5, 2006 Punjabi Dalit activist Bant Singh was beaten to
the point of losing his limbs for seeking justice for the gang rape
of his daughter. On September 26, 2006 in Kherlanji village,
Maharashtra, members of a Dalit family were brutally beaten and
killed by an upper-caste mob because they refused to let uppercaste
farmers take their land.
Teachers have been
known to declare
that Dalit pupils
“cannot learn unless
they are beaten.” –
UN Special
Rapporteur on the
right to education
Dalits depend on
the “goodwill” of
members for access
to water from public
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
Both state and private actors commit the abuses documented in
Hidden Apartheid with impunity. In violation of India’s Article 6
obligations to ensure effective remedies against acts of
discrimination, police, prosecutors, and judges routinely fail to
properly pursue cases brought by Dalits. Police systematically
fail to properly register these crimes under the Scheduled Castes
and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and the
Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1995. Even on the relatively rare
occasions on which a case reaches court, the most likely
outcome is acquittal.
The innocuous treatment of the caste system in school textbooks
and curricula, along with insufficient media attention to Dalit
issues, all suggest that the Indian government is failing to take
effective measures to counter caste prejudice, in contravention of
Article 7 of the Convention.
Dalit Rights Movements
In response to centuries of inhuman and degrading treatment,
and in spite of tremendous obstacles, Dalit rights movements
across the country are growing, as are their demands for basic
dignity and human rights.
Dalits have also begun to raise their voices in international
forums, such as the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism,
successive World Social Forums, and in hearings before various
UN human rights bodies.
International scrutiny is growing and with it the condemnation of
abuses resulting from the caste system and the government’s
failure to protect Dalits’ rights.
They have got my
limbs, but I have
still got my voice, I
can sing. –
Dalit activist Bant
Singh (2006). Singh
was beaten to the
point of losing his
limbs for seeking
justice for the gang
rape of his daughter.
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
On December 27, 2006 Manmohan Singh became the first sitting
Indian prime minister to openly acknowledge the parallel
between the practice of “untouchability” and the crime of
apartheid. According to Singh, “The only parallel to the practice
of ‘untouchability’ was Apartheid in South Africa. ‘Untouchability’
is not just social discrimination. It is a blot on humanity.” Singh
added that “even after 60 years of constitutional and legal
protection and state support, there is still social discrimination
against Dalits in many parts of our country.”
We welcome Prime Minister Singh’s remarks and hope that this
statement will prompt vigorous reforms and state action that will
begin to close the gap between India’s human rights
commitments and the daily reality faced by over 165 million of its
The only parallel to
the practice of
was Apartheid in
South Africa.
“Untouchability” is
not just social
discrimination. It is
a blot on humanity.
– Indian Prime
Minister Dr.
Manmohan Singh
(December 2006).
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and Human
Rights Watch call on the Indian government to take active steps
to comply with its obligations under international human rights
law and respect, protect, and ensure the rights of Dalits. In
particular, India should:
• Eradicate caste-based segregation in residential areas and
schools, and in access to public services.
• Implement laws and government policies to protect Dalits,
and Dalit women in particular, from physical and sexual
• Ensure appropriate reforms to eliminate police abuses
against Dalits and other marginalized communities.
• Ensure proper investigation and prosecution of crimes
against Dalits.
• Identify obstacles in the implementation of legislation
designed to protect Dalits and take steps to overcome
these obstacles. In particular, ensure the effective
eradication of exploitative labor arrangements and
implement rehabilitation schemes for Dalit bonded and
child laborers, manual scavengers, and for Dalit women
forced into prostitution.
• Combat hate speech and other actions inciting caste or
religion based discrimination and violence.
• Implement the recommendations of the 2004 National
Human Rights Commission report on atrocities against
• Ensure proper implementation of the “reservations” policy,
including providing protection for Dalit candidates in local
• Ensure proper implementation and monitoring of Dalit
development programs.
Hidden Apartheid February 2007
About the Report
Hidden Apartheid is based on in-depth investigations by the
Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Human Rights
Watch, Indian non-governmental organizations, and media
sources. The pervasiveness of abuses against Dalits is
corroborated by the reports of Indian governmental agencies,
including the National Human Rights Commission, and the
National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes. These and other sources were compiled, investigated,
and analyzed under international law by NYU School of Law’s
International Human Rights Clinic.
Hidden Apartheid is available for download at and
For more on the work of the Center for Human Rights & Global Justice see
For more on the work of Human Rights Watch on Asia see

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