Stung by UN Report on Caste Discrimination, India Cries Foul

UN official has over-reached her mandate, says New Delhi; not so, says the special rapporteur on minority issues; what's wrong in talking about caste in an international forum, ask Dalit activists.

un dalitsNew Delhi: A report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues has irked the Indian government, prompting it to warn that questions would be raised about the lack of “seriousness of work” in the UN body.

Rita Izsák-Ndiaye’s report [PDF], submitted two weeks ago, came as a bolt out of the blue for India. The Hungarian expert released a 20-page document, which was claimed as the “first comprehensive UN report on caste-based discrimination”. It makes a number of factual, if embarrassing references to the plight of the Dalits and other lower castes in India.

This report comes even as there is heightened political tension over the suicide of the Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula, as well as controversies over the continuation of caste-based reservations that Prime Minister Modi has sought to allay.

As expected, India is not amused by the report. With a history of taking umbrage at any discussion on caste-based discrimination at the international level, New Delhi struck back during an ‘interactive dialogue’ with Izsák-Ndiaye.

India objects to broadened mandate

On March 15, India’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Ajit Kumar said that the report “was a breach of the SR’s mandate”.

Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the UNHRC to examine specific themes or countries, based on a mandate delineated by the council.

The senior Indian diplomat pointed out that when Izsák-Ndiaye’s ‘mandate’ was extended on March 2015, caste was not covered as per the categories of minorities.

As per operational paragraph 11 (a), the special rapporteur’s mandate [PDF] was to promote the human rights of persons belonging to “national, or ethnic, religious minorities” – which could not be used to extend her report to caste groups, argued India.

“It would have been preferable for the SR to take the guidance of the relevant resolutions that led to the establishment of the SR’s mandate rather than to seek to extend it. Despite the SR’s own acknowledgement of the weakness of this aspect, the SR has gone ahead to make a series of sweeping judgments,” said Kumar.

In her report, Izsák-Ndiaye said that there is a “complexity” in talking about casteism in a “minority rights framework”, but pointed out that “caste-affected groups” shared “minority-like characteristics, particularly their non-dominant and often marginalised position, stigma.”

Kumar pointed out that the justification of “minority-like characteristics” was not convincing, as it could cover almost every group in society.

“This is a questionable proposition, because in some context or the other all categories of persons could well be classified as minorities, and hence, is there any section of society over which the SR’s mandate will not be applied?’ he asked.

If “incentives” for each SR to go “beyond” and reinterpret their mandates were allowed, it would have the “potential for calling into question the seriousness of the work of this council”, India argued.

Kumar termed the publication of the report as an “opportunity” to address the entire issues of “role and responsibility of UN special procedures mandate holders”.

India's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ajit Kumar (centre) in the chamber of the UNHRC. Credit: pmindiaun.org

India’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ajit Kumar (centre) in the chamber of the UNHRC. Credit: pmindiaun.org

MEA officials noted that other countries in the region – Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka – had also objected to the special rapporteur’s observations.

Sri Lanka had pointed out that several of the references in the report were “factually incorrect” and hoped that a visit to the Indian ocean country by the SR would help to provide “accurate information”.

“The term “Dalit” has no relevance whatsoever in the context of Sri Lanka. There is no community or caste identified by such nomenclature in Sri Lanka,” the Lankan representative had said.

Speaking to The Wire, official sources were scathing about the report. “There were no signs that such a report was in the works. It does not seem that the report was done based on any field studies based on country visits. It seemed more like a research compilation,” said an MEA official.

He noted that India had never recognised caste groups as being equivalent to “religious or other minority groups”. “By this definition, 25% of the Indian population would become minorities in one stroke,” he added.

India has a “standing invitation” to all special procedures mandate holders to visit the country since 2011, but officials said that there were no requests from Izsák-Ndiaye, so far. However, a Dalit activist told The Wire that “representatives” of the special rapporteur had met with Dalit organisations last year.

Incidentally, the next special rapporteur to travel to the country will be looking at the right to adequate housing, with experts on cultural rights and environment also in the visits pipeline this year.

Rapporteur sticks to her guns

The last SR to visit India was in March 2012, tasked with monitoring violence against women. So far, eight SRs have visited India since 2000. This includes the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief’s 17-day India sojourn in March 2008.

Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, the UN special rapporteur for minorities. © Miklós Déri

Rita Izsak-Ndiaye, the UN special rapporteur for minorities. © Miklós Déri

Izsák-Ndiaye told The Wire that she had not requested a visit to India as the report was not country-specific, but based on a theme.

“I have not requested a country visit before the preparation of the thematic report as it is not a standard practice (unlike with country reports which are only issued after an actual visit had taken place). Also kindly note that this is a global report with global tendencies, challenges and [the] recommendations are not specifically on India,” she said.

On India’s trenchant criticism, Izsák-Ndiaye noted that “it is not unusual at the human rights council to have disagreement between the member states and the mandate-holders on the approach they take and the actual content of their reports.”

“I respect India’s opinion and as I highlighted, ‘lower caste’ groups often self-identify as minorities (and in many situations they are indeed clearly religious or ethnic minorities in classic terms) and have historically used the minority rights framework and therefore sought the support of my mandate since its establishment to claim their rights,” the Hungarian expert told The Wire.

She also pointed out that a “guidance note” [PDF] of the UN secretary general on racial discrimination and the protection of minorities in March 2013 “explicitly recommended that the UN should focus attention on caste-based discrimination and related practices”.

In her report, Izsák-Ndiaye defined caste-based discrimination as that based on “descent”. The other characteristics was labour stratification, untouchability practices and forced endogamy.

Based on these traits, she concluded that while the largest groups caste-affected groups were in India, they also existed in countries as diverse as Yemen, Japan and Mauritania. She termed it as a “global phenomena” which impacted 250 million people worldwide.

Her report quotes India’s National Crime Records Bureau data to note there has been an increase in reported crimes against the scheduled castes by 19% in 2014 compared to the previous year. It mentions that despite prohibition through legislation, the state has institutionalised the practice with “local governments and municipalities employing manual scavengers”.

Further, the SR’s report notes that casteism directly affects the health of the discriminated, citing an Indian study which “demonstrated stark disparities between Dalit and non-Dalit women in terms of life expectancy and access to prenatal and postnatal care”.

A history of Indian hypersensitivity on caste

India’s long-established sensitivity about discussing casteism on any international platform was most famously demonstrated during the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, when there was a major effort by Indian NGOs to include casteism on the agenda.

The NDA government, represented by Omar Abdullah, who was minister of state for external affairs at the time, had bluntly said that the “issue of caste was not an appropriate subject for discussion at this conference”, mentioning India’s extensive affirmative action program.

In 2004, the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Doudou Diène had included the caste system in the list of “political platforms which promote or incite racial discrimination”.

At that time, Hardeep Puri, who was the Indian permanent representative in Geneva, vigorously criticised the inclusion, noting that the Indian freedom struggle and Indian constitution were “entirely to the contrary”. He had also stated that caste “was a “social and class distinction which has its origins in the fundamental division of Indian society during ancient times.”

“The use of the term ‘descent’ in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination refers to ‘racial descent’. Communities which fall under the definition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are unique to Indian society and its historical process and do not come under the purview of Article 1 of the convention,” said Puri.

This was despite the fact that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had asserted as far back as 1996 that ‘descent’ in the convention “does not solely refer to race”.

At a 2006 international conference on Dalit rights in The Hague, Chin-Sung Chung, special rapporteur on discrimination on the basis of work and descent noted: “In 2002, CERD General Reccommendation XXIX stated: ‘The Committee strongly condemns descent-based discrimination such as discrimination on the basis of caste and analogous systems of inherited status, which is a violation of the Convention’.” 

Speaking at the same event, Doudou Diène, who had clashed with Puri two years earlier, made a passionate plea for the reality of caste discrimination to be discussed and understood [PDF]:

“You have to go beyond the law. You have to get to the identity constructions. How, over centuries, the Indian identity has been constructed. All forms of discrimination can be traced historically and intellectually. One of the key strategies of the racist, discriminating communities is to make us believe that discrimination is natural, that it is part of nature, and that you have to accept it. This is part of their ideological weapon and it is not true. Discrimination does not come from the cosmos. Caste-based discrimination can be retraced and deconstructed to combat it.”

Three years ago, the European parliament adopted a resolution that called on the European Commission to recognise casteism as a “distinct form of discrimination rooted in the social/or religious context”.

Dalit activists “not surprised” by Indian government’s stand

Dalit activists were not surprised by the Indian stance at Geneva, but said that this position was now outdated in a globalised world.

“Nobody wants the sovereignty of the country to be challenged. We don’t want superpowers to dictate to us. But, if we are part of the UN and are aspiring to be a candidate for the Security Council, we should follow the rules,” said N. Paul Divakar, general secretary, National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights.

He said that the report showed how caste and analogous discrimination was happening even in places like Japan. “This shows that it happens everywhere. In Senegal, I saw how the Neenos had a separate graveyard and also sat in a another terrace,” added Divakar.

Incidentally, Izsák-Ndiaye, who describes herself as being from “Hungary/Senegal” lives in Dakar and has also referred to discrimination against the Neenos in her report.

The Dalit activist said that internationalisation would only show how far India has gone in supporting Dalit rights within the legislative and legal framework. “I think India leads the world… That’s why instead of perpetuating old positions, India could have showcased its programs and acted as a role model by engagement”.

The Indian position, he felt, was the “stance of the bureaucracy, not the government”.

This view was also echoed by Ashok Bharti, chair of the National Confederation of Dalit and Adivasi Organisations. “The whole government suffers from a mindset of the upper castes, who are victims of their own guilt and will therefore try to hide their faults,” he said.

He said that if the Indian government had done so well in supporting Dalits, “why have there been thousands of cases of atrocities in the past 25 years? How many perpetrators have been punished?”. If domestic pressures and remedies do not work, he added, internationalisation was a viable option to seek improvement in the status of Dalits.

‘India has always objected’

India’s former permanent representative to UN in Geneva, Dilip Sinha told The Wire that India had always “strongly objected to linking caste discrimination to race or the majority-minority construct”.

On the Indian statement critiquing the report, Sinha noted that it was based on a technical point.  “There are 54-55 special rapporteurs in UNHCR, some of whom indulge in ‘mission creep’ to try and justify their existence. That’s what we object so strongly,” said Sinha.

He added that the UN secretary general’s guidance note was basically instructions from the Secretariat. “We have also said that the guidance should come from the council, not the [UN] secretariat.”

Sinha also said that India has spoken about casteism on an international stage, but in the proper context. “We believe that the UPR (universal periodic review) which looks at all aspects of human rights is the right platform,” he said. As India’s PR, Sinha noted that he had evolved an Indian position on the caste issue to the extent that officials did speak about it at the proper multilateral forum. “During India’s UPR cycle in 2013, India’s attorney general had spoken about caste at the UNHRC,” he said, adding that the Indian line was that “we recognise that there is a problem, but at the same time, we have the most extensive affirmative action program in the world”.

Note: This article was edited on March 26, 2016 to add quotes from Dilip Sinha, a former Indian ambassador to the UN in Geneva as these had not come in at the time of original publication