Caste System: A Veiled Apartheid and an Overt Violation of Human Rights

Saturday, February 13, 2010
By Fahima Vakalia

Caste System: A Veiled Apartheid and an Overt Violation of Human Rights

“We cannot choose freedom established on a hierarchy of degrees of freedom, on a caste system of equality like military rank. We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”

William Faulkner

The Human race is homogenous enough for rights to be formulated to ensure an individual’s existence with a ‘standard of adequate quality’; however, factors like political movements, culture and past history can become dependent variables that require additional rights that address these issues in order to achieve that ‘standard of adequate quality’ of life. The core of human rights as a result are angled into two categories, Civil and Political (CP) rights that include right to life, liberty and freedom of expression, and the Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights that include the right to participate in culture, the right to food and the right to work and receive an education.[1]

Despite the fact that ESC rights are an integral part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948[2] and the claims that CP rights and ESC rights are indivisible and interdependent, the reality is that the ESC rights or the “second generation” rights are frequently viewed as a subsidiary of their CP rights counterparts and have had little success due to a) Less importance given in relations to the CP rights[3] b) Lack of clarity of the ESC rights, c) Lack of implementation, and d) The lack of recognition from the 137 countries that signed the covenant.[4] As a result of these deficiencies, millions are still living under conditions that resemble the segregation of Black Americans in the first half of the 20th century and the South African Apartheid. In the following paper, I will focus on the caste system in India as a case study that exemplifies the need for a human rights approach that incorporates and enforces the implementation of the ESC rights.

Discrimination as a result of social class is prevalent in developing countries like India (untouchables, Dalits, Adivasis); however, remnants of this form of violation continue to exist in developed countries like Japan (Burakumin).[5] The case study of the untouchables in India serves as an example of countries that pledge respect of human rights on treaties and covenants, however, fail to proactively abide by the ESC rights or take measures on rectifying the violations of ESC rights.

Brief History of the Untouchables:

The caste system is a rigid social class system in which a social hierarchy is maintained generation after generation simply as a result of being born into a cast. This system allows little mobility for groups to move up or out of their respective social class. The four original castes which have been subdivided into numerous sub-castes, include the upper “Brahmins or the priests”, “Kshatriyas” or the warrior, “Vaisyas” or the merchants, and “Sudras” or the unskilled laborers. The remaining members of the society that were not part of the four castes were considered outcasts or untouchables, also referred to as Dalits (broken) or Adivasis (indigenous).[6] The Indian government recognizes this socially impecunious group as part of the Scheduled castes or Scheduled tribe and has formally outlawed the practice of untouchability as per the Constitution of India in 1950.[7] Although the introduction of laws specific to Scheduled Castes and Tribes have helped decrease this practice significantly since then, as demonstrated by K. R. Narayanan who became the tenth President of India even though he belonged to a caste formerly considered untouchable, this practice remains deeply entrenched in the rural India which accounts for over 70% of India’s population.[8]

Untouchables and Human Rights Violation:

The 2001 Census of India reports that 24% of India’s population is either a member of the Scheduled caste or tribe.[9] In spite of affirmative education and employment programs, and laws like ‘Atrocity Act’ and ‘Employment and Service Regulation Act’ in place to curb and criminalize caste-based discrimination, discrimination for belonging to these castes persists. The continued labeling of a group and anachronistic behavior towards this particular group creates an absolute encroachment of human rights.

According to the National Commission of Human rights of India, more than 62,000 human rights violations of Dalits are recorded annually. On average, two Dalits are assaulted every hour, three Dalit women and children are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and at least two Dalits are tortured or burned every day.[10] Table 1 and 2 illustrate the statistics on criminal cases of atrocities committed against the Scheduled caste population.[11] Two concerns are to be duly noted before relying on these numbers, 1.) An extraneous approach is typically taken by the ones in-charge, as pointed out by the author of the Report on the Prevention and Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, “ Even the reports prepared by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and placed before Parliament contain merely factual information received from States about registration and disposal of cases; various administrative arrangements made for the function of the Act and funds spent, without any meaningful analysis of the performance of the States which could form the basis for making corrective interventions,” 2.) Under-reporting of Atrocities Act cases, this is a very common phenomenon. One NGO in Gujarat conducted a 4-year study involving 11 atrocities-prone districts. The findings showed among the cases that were reported under this act, 36% of atrocities cases were not registered under the Atrocities Act and when the Act was applied, 84.4% of the cases were registered under wrong provisions in order to conceal the actual and violent nature of the incidents.[12]

Table 1: Total number of reported criminal cases of atrocities against Scheduled Castes under the Indian Penal Code, Protection of Civil Rights Act and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act

Year Reported Crimes
1995 32,996
1996 31,440
1997 27,944
1998 25, 638
1999 25,093

Source: National Crime Records Bureau, Crime in India 1997, 1998, 1999[13]

Table 2: Total number of reported crimes committed against Dalits

Year Murders Violence Rape Arson Others Total
1981 493 1,492 604 1,295 10,434 14,318
1986 564 1,408 727 1,002 11,715 15,416
1991 610 1,706 784 602 13,944 17,646
1996 543 4,585 949 464 24,899 31,440
1997 513 3,860 1,037 389 22,145 27,944
1998 516 3,809 923 NA NA 28,172
1999 506 3,241 1,000 337 21,727 26,811
2000 526 3,457 1,083 290 25,815 31,171

Source: National Conference of Dalit Organization[14]

Social and Economic Conditions of Dalits:

The affected members of the Scheduled castes and tribes face significant discrimination in access to services such as health care and education, religious and social freedoms. Many live in segregation, many are malnourished and the majority of them are bonded laborers. Their living conditions obstruct most of their ESC rights. Crimes committed by upper caste members against the Dalits often go unpunished because the crime was either not reported out of fear or failure to prosecute by the authorities.[15] A good example that embodies the extent of social exclusion experienced by this group is exemplified during the 26 December 2004 tsunami.[16] Dalits in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu experienced a significant blow with an estimated 10,000 deaths and 650,000 displacements. Many of them during an already daunting time were made to suffer from the worst forms of discrimination and humiliation. Dalit victims were not paid compensation, the upper Hindu castes were still strung on their caste boundaries thereby ostracizing the group even then and as a result, this group was provided shelter in areas limited to garbage dumps and graveyards. In several instances, Dalits were prevented from drawing water from the common taps because of the fears of the upper caste Hindus of the ‘pollution’ of water at the hands of the untouchables. The Dalit people in general continue to survive under sub-human, degrading conditions.[17]


The caste system which measures an individual’s dignity and worth based on social class is clearly incompatible with human rights. This goes against the article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wherein all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.[18]

In order for effective change to be brought about in the lives of the so called untouchables, self-initiated change within the government is essential. Although India has been acknowledging the presence of ESC violations by creating the necessary legislation, it is important that the government actively implements these legislations. It is also important that the other international and independent organizations like the UN hold the countries as such accountable; it is duly noted that as of September 2009, the UN’s Human Rights Council was expected to ratify draft principles that pledges for the “effective elimination of discrimination based on work and descent”. Nepal has welcomed this move; however, the Indian government has lobbied heavily for the Human Rights Council to remove the word ‘caste’ from a draft earlier this year.[19] It is important that the UN and other organizations continue this push against this cause.

Since the age old cultural habits have been working against the Indian government’s efforts to improve the state of this community, it is vital that a system is in place to end the actual structure of the caste system from within, be it by educating the offending parties or simply by holding the digressers accountable. Lastly, it is quintessential that along with protecting the Civil and Political rights of human beings, equal attention is paid to the Economic, Social and Cultural rights. ESC rights not only allow one to demand that the government of the victims be accountable to their obligations to respect protect and fulfill the basic rights and freedoms to which all human beings are entitled to but also allow for an improvement of a disfavored group as a whole.

[1] Peter Uvin. Human Rights and Development (Connecticut: Kumarian Press, 2004) 14.

[2] As has been more extensively elaborated in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ICESCR) of 1976[2] and more recently in the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in December 2008 (A/RES/63/117).

[3] David Beetham. What Future for Economic and Social Rights. Political Studies 1995, XLIII, 41-60.

[4] Ellyn Artis, Chad Doobay and Karen Lyons. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights For Dalits in India: Case Study on Primary Education in Gujarat. The Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs and International Affairs. Jan 2003,

[5] “Japan’s Outcasts Still Wait for Acceptance” NORIMITSU ONISHI, New York Times, Jan 16, 2009 pp A1

[6] Note: In this paper I interchangeably use Dalits to refer to the members of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

[7] The Constitution (Scheduled Castes) ORDER, 1950, 1 (C.O.19). Ministry of Law and Justice,

[8] CIA World Factbook. htts://

[9]Census India.2002,

[10] Human Rights Watch, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India’s “Untouchables”, 1 April 1999,

[11] Indian Parliament passed another a law called “Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989”. The Rules under the Act were framed in 1995 to prevent commission of atrocities against members of the Schedules Castes and Tribes, to provide for special courts for the trial of such offences and for the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of such offences and for matters connected there with or incidental thereto.

[12] National Human Rights Commission Report on the Prevention and Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, Nov 2002,

[13] National Crime Records Bureau, Crime in India 1997, 1998, 1999 (qtd in National Human Rights Commission Report on the Prevention and Atrocities against Scheduled Castes)

[14] National Conference of Dalit Organization.

[15] Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (India). United States Department of State. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

[16] Vincent Manoharan. National Public Hearing on Discrimination against Dalits in Tsunami Relief and Rehabilitation,

[17] Eva-Lotta Hedman, The politics of the tsunami response, Forced Migration Review July 2005 Issue.

[18] “Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948″.

[19] UN says that Caste System is a Human Rights Abuse. Sep 29, 2009.

© 2010, Fahima Vakalia. All rights reserved.

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