The Fate of India’s Dalits


The Fate of India’s Dalits

2.18 pm: March 5th 2010 Second Reading Debate on Bill to create an Anti-Slavery Day.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I add my voice to those supporting the terms of my noble and learned friend’s Bill to inaugurate an anti-slavery day. I commend my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey for the way in which she has moved the Second Reading debate today. Like others, I should also like to pay tribute to Mr Anthony Steen MP, and to the all-party group for its tireless efforts on this issue. At one time Mr Steen and I were neighbours as Members of Parliament in Liverpool before he became the Member of Parliament for Totnes, and we remain friends to this day. My noble friend kindly mentioned the Jubilee Campaign during the course of her remarks, an organisation that I helped to found some years ago. I am grateful to her for that.

In 2007, which was the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, I ran a series of Roscoe lectures on behalf Liverpool John Moores University, where I hold a chair, commemorating the passage of William Wilberforce’s Bill to abolish the transatlantic slave trade and highlighting the nature of contemporary forms of slavery. For those who may not have read it, William Hague’s magnificent biography of Wilberforce simply cannot be bettered.

Liverpool was at the epicentre of the trade. Even so, brave men such as William Roscoe would not countenance support for slavery, and he voted with Wilberforce. In his epic poem, The Wrongs of Africa, which was published in 1787, Roscoe wrote of the iron hand crushing the people of Africa. He devoted the proceeds of the poem to the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He wrote:

“Blush ye not

To boast your equal laws, your just restraints,

Your rights defined, your liberties secured,

Whilst with an iron hand ye crush to earth

The helpless African; and bid him drink

That cup of sorrow, which yourselves have dashed,

Indignant, from oppression’s fainting grasp”.

With great strength and clarity, the final stanza of part 1 of this 35-page poem warns its readers:

“Forget not, Britain, higher still than thee

Sits the Judge of Nations, who can weigh

The wrong and can repay”.

Hansard records that, on 23 February 1807, Roscoe told the House of Commons that the slave trade had “disgraced the land”, and he condemned what he called an “inhuman traffic”. After his vote and on return to Liverpool, Roscoe was assailed by the mob and was never returned again to Parliament. It is important that stories like his are not forgotten. The courage and determination of men such as Roscoe and Wilberforce and others who have been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, and my noble friend, should remain an inspiration to future generations.

The stories matter because many of the same battles remain to be fought in our own generation. A week ago I was in West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. At several events I spoke about the plight of India’s untouchables, the Dalits, and the forms of exploitation and slavery which stem from the caste system. Dalit is a term which derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “broken” or “crushed”. Dalits form about a quarter of India’s population; one in 40 of the world’s population is a Dalit living in India.

I recalled in my remarks there that, on 22 June 1813, Wilberforce made a major speech in the House of Commons about India. In his remarks he said that the caste system,

“must surely appear to every heart of true British temper to be a system at war with truth and nature; a detestable expedient for keeping the lower orders of the community bowed down in an abject state of hopelessness and irremediable vassalage. It is justly, Sir, the glory of this country, that no member of our free community is naturally precluded from rising into the highest classes in society”.

Two centuries later, India’s President Dr Manmohan Singh has trenchantly argued that,

“untouchability is not just social discrimination; it is a blot on humanity”.

Yet, in 2010, while India is a rising world power and is rightly gaining a reputation for innovation and excellence in many fields, this “blot on humanity” disfigures India’s reputation and has become one of the world’s greatest human rights challenges. Hundreds of millions of people remain imprisoned by the bondage of what Wilberforce called “the cruel shackles” of the caste system. Those shackles inevitably lock their prisoners into the most menial forms of labour, trap them in servitude and leave them susceptible to innumerable forms of exploitation.

In fairness to the Indian Government, growing social mobility and a series of remedial measures introduced since independence have provided some amelioration. Some individual dalits have reached high positions in Indian society, not least Justice K G Balakrishnan, the senior judge of India’s Supreme Court, and Ms Meira Kumar, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower House of India’s Parliament. Yet, as I heard first hand, even where dalit people are securing some kind of elementary education, the same opportunities for educational progress later and employment opportunities have been blocked to them.

Few would disagree that the caste system, with all the social prejudices and hierarchies which it entails, continues to enforce and compound servitude and exploitation. The perpetuation of humiliating descent-based occupations is the natural and inevitable consequence of the caste system. The rationale for caste was the division of labour, but—to paraphrase Dr B R Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution and hero of the dalits—caste came to enforce a division of labourers.

I illustrate this point with reference to one of the most appalling and disgraceful forms of labour anywhere in the world, known euphemistically as manual scavenging. It involves cleaning human excrement from dry latrines and is uniquely performed by dalits as a consequence of their caste. The number engaged in this occupation is not known for certain, but it may be as high as, or higher than, the equivalent of the population of Birmingham.

Tens of millions of India’s citizens are subject to many forms of highly exploitative forms of labour and modern-day slavery. This often plays into the problem of debt bondage and bonded labour, which affects tens of millions. It perpetuates a cycle of despair and hopelessness, as generations are bonded to the family debt, unable to be educated and unable to escape. Tragically, the debt is often the result of a loan taken out for something as simple and essential as a medical bill.

The caste system also plays into people trafficking, another form of slavery which affects millions in India and which has been spoken about eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne. According to a report on CNN Asia last year, India’s Home Secretary, Madhukar Gupta,

“remarked that at least 100 million people were involved in human trafficking in India”,

whether for sex or for labour. The head of the Central Bureau of Investigation said that India occupied a unique position as a source, transit and destination country for trafficking, and that it has more than 3 million prostitutes, of whom an estimated 40 per cent are children. These statistics are hugely significant: the situation in India simply must be at the heart of the fight globally against trafficking. The Dalit Solidarity Network UK, which has been calling for an end to manual scavenging before this year’s Commonwealth Games, also highlights devadasi—a system of ritual prostitution of almost exclusively young dalit girls.

During their time in India, the British failed to heed Wilberforce and resisted the calls to abolish caste. Although untouchability was barred by the constitution when India secured independence, the system was not dismantled. Most of the worst forms of exploitation are proscribed by statute, but all too often the laws are simply not implemented and the police further entrench, rather than protect against, caste prejudice. This point was made repeatedly in the concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in May 2007.

A damning verdict was reached also by a recent, in-depth report by the Robert F Kennedy Centre, entitled Understanding Untouchability: A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1,589 Villages. It describes,

“the Government of India’s continued ignorance about the depth of the problem and inadequacy in addressing untouchability and meeting its legal obligations in regard to the abolition of untouchability”.

Caste discrimination is usually associated with India but, in parenthesis, I might add that there are also an estimated 3.5 million to 5.5 million dalits living in Bangladesh, which is 2.5 to 4 per cent of the total population. The majority are landless and live in chronic poverty in rural areas or urban slums. They are deprived of or actively excluded from adequate housing, healthcare, education, employment and participation in public life. Approximately 96 per cent are illiterate.

I commend the attempt of my noble friend to remember and highlight the campaign against modern-day forms of slavery. In my study at home in Lancashire, I have a small terracotta pot given to me by Dr Joseph D’Souza, president of the International Dalit Freedom Network. Such pots must be broken once a dalit has drunk out of them so as not to pollute or contaminate other castes. This is the 21st century. It is not the pots which need to be broken, not the people, but the system which ensnares them. Dr D’Souza rightly says:

“If we are not intentional about bringing change and transformation in lives and society it will not happen. To love people is to act on behalf of them”.

My learned and noble friend’s Bill will be a stimulus to act on behalf of people such as the dalits and I readily support it.

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