Ravi Kumar: Focus on India

In recent years the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, has likened the caste system to an apartheid regime, and has described the Maoist insurgency as the biggest threat to the security of India. Also, in 2009, Navai Pillay the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a strong and eloquent call on the world to end caste discrimination like it did apartheid and slavery.

As a result the Birmingham Branch UNA were keen to further explore the meaning behind such statements and recently held talks, attended debates, and participated in international lobbying campaigns related to these matters.

The statistics are stark, those who are aware of the economic development and progress India has made in recent decades, may also be aware of the lack of progress in places: half the population is undernourished, 37.7% suffer from chronic malnutrition, 60% of them are Dalits (marginalised castes) and 50% Adivasis (indigenous / tribal peoples). 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 that are 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 labourers in India. Many survive on less than 1 US dollar a day. Although various constitutional rights for the poorest section of the society have existed for 63 years, in reality, their lot in life has seen very little improvement.

In July, Tari Atwal, from the Asian Rationalist Society Britain, gave a very informative and educational talk to the branch where he explained the impact India’s recent economic success has had on its poor. According to the World Bank over 35 million people, vast majority being Dalits and Adivasis, have been displaced to make room for mining, industries and infrastructure projects.

With many even denied a patch of land to rest on. A lively discussion ensured which explored the impact of International trade rules & regulations on India, and similarities with other countries going through similar situations (forced displacement of indigenous populations).

In May, branch members also visited the Friends Meeting House in London to listen to booker prize winner Arundhati Roy give a talk on her experiences of working with Adivasis in Central India.

She especially focused on the ongoing Indian Government Military campaign - Operation Green Hunt. Claiming that the campaign is not solely aimed at the Maoists, as claimed by the Indian Government, she believes that the real objective is to grab the rich minerals and natural resources of these areas and hand them over to multinational corporations who will exploit them for their own super profits.

Roy said: “Right now in central India, the Maoists' guerrilla army is made up almost entirely of desperately poor tribal people living in conditions of such chronic hunger that it verges on famine of the kind we only associate with sub-Saharan Africa... If the tribals have taken up arms, they have done so because a government which has given them nothing but violence and neglect now wants to snatch away the last thing they have – their land.”

And finally, I have recently returned from Geneva where I was involved in lobbying for the protection for victims of caste discrimination. The caste system although very prevalent in India is found in many other parts of the world such as Africa and Japan.

Disturbingly it has also found its way into Britain. Over the last 60 years the Asian Diaspora has settled in the UK bringing with them, their social customs, and social forms of discrimination. For many of the nearly two million Britons of Indian origin, caste continues to exert a powerful influence over their everyday lives. It is both subtle and extreme and takes place in schools, workplaces, in shops and in places of worship.

Much work has been done by organisations that represent Dalits here in the UK, especially in seeking protection under Equality Act 2010. Following a Government commissioned research, which confirmed the existence of Caste Based Discrimination in Great Britain, in August, I visited Geneva to lobby and provide evidence to the United Nation's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which resulted in the CERD recommending that the UK Government bring into force the provision under section 9(5)a of the Equality Act 2010 to provide for caste to be an aspect of race in terms of legal protection for victims of Caste Based Discrimination in England.

Ravi Kumar