Indian "Apartheid," Hidden in Plain View

Ten years ago this month, South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution went into effect, laying the foundation for the establishment of a non-racial democracy with a mandate to overcome the effects of decades of institutionalized inequality. The new South African charter has been widely heralded as among the world’s most progressive, entrenching a broad range of civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights as foundational guarantees and explicitly mandating courts to consider international human rights norms when interpreting its fundamental rights provisions.

With formal South African apartheid receding into the past, however slowly, as South Africans work arduously to overcome its legacy, what does it mean to invoke the concept of “apartheid” in the world today more generally? Comparisons to South African apartheid have abounded for years, and have invariably been controversial. In recent months, for example, former President Jimmy Carter has argued to some controversy that Israel’s “rigid system of required passes and strict segregation between Palestine's citizens and Jewish settlers in the West Bank” is tantamount to apartheid. Later this week, when it meets to consider India’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) could confront the contemporary significance of apartheid in another context: the systematic and well-documented discrimination against India’s 165 million Dalits, or so-called untouchables. The issue is suggested in the title of a comprehensive report issued last week by Human Rights Watch and the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination Against India’s ‘Untouchables.’” According to the report, to which students in the NYU International Human Rights Clinic contributed extensive research and analysis:

Dalits endure segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services. They are denied access to land, forced to work in degrading conditions, and routinely abused at the hands of the police and upper-caste community members who enjoy the state’s protection. Entrenched discrimination violates Dalits’ rights to education, health, housing, property, freedom of religion, free choice of employment, and equal treatment before the law. Dalits also suffer routine violations of their right to life and security of person through state-sponsored or -sanctioned acts of violence, including torture.

Caste-motivated killings, rapes, and other abuses are a daily occurrence in India. . . . 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.

Both state and private actors commit these crimes with impunity. Even on the relatively rare occasions on which a case reaches court, the most likely outcome is acquittal. Indian government reports reveal that between 1999 and 2001 as many as 89 percent of trials involving offenses against Dalits resulted in acquittals. [link]

Much of the factual information in the report is uncontroversial, coming directly from Indian governmental and nongovernmental sources and previous Human Rights Watch reports. Indeed, perhaps more noteworthy than any of the specific facts documented in the report is that a couple of months before its publication, in December 2006, the Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made a statement resting on similar premises — namely, that discrimination against Dalits is “fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general” and that South African apartheid may constitute “[t]he only parallel to the practice of untouchability.”

With such widespread acknowledgment of the pervasive and systematic nature of discrimination against Dalits, one plausibly might quarrel with the HRW/NYU report not for its characterization of that discrimination as “apartheid,” but rather for its suggestion that these abuses are in any sense “hidden.” To be sure, there are obvious differences between formal South African apartheid, which was lawfully enforced by the state itself, and substantive caste-based “apartheid” in India, which persists in the face of an extensive array of constitutional and statutory provisions that outlaw untouchability and caste-based discrimination and justify state intervention to eliminate those practices. But despite these laws, abuses against Dalits remain no less widespread or systematic for lack of formal legal sanction by the state. State actors remain complicit in countless abuses against Dalits and, at the same time, frequently fail to stop abuses committed by private actors. While affirmative action programs have played a significant role in improving the status of some Dalits, these limited government interventions have been inadequate given the overwhelming extent of caste-based discrimination in Indian society. Such abuses are hidden only to the extent that they “hide” behind their formal illegality while, in many contexts, remaining as visible as ever.

Analogies to South African apartheid not simply are potent rhetorically, but also have potential legal significance, if taken seriously, given the extent to which apartheid has been formally condemned by the international community. At the height of South African apartheid, the U.N. General Assembly adopted numerous anti-apartheid resolutions and effectively expelled South Africa from its meetings. An international convention against apartheid entered into force over thirty years ago and now has 107 state parties. Eventually, even the U.N. Security Council concluded that South African apartheid constituted a threat to international peace and security and adopted a number of anti-apartheid resolutions, including one mandatory resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter imposing an arms embargo against South Africa. Today, many years after the formal demise of South African apartheid, the Rome Statute expressly defines apartheid as a crime against humanity over which the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction.

Remarkably, India’s official report to CERD — which, in fairness, was submitted long before Prime Minister Singh’s recent statement — contains no information on discrimination against Dalits or other lower caste groups, which the Indian government had refused to acknowledge as encompassed within the Convention at all. This stance is unfortunately consistent with India’s more general resistance to meaningful engagement and cooperation with international human rights monitoring institutions — for example, by refusing to permit U.N. special rapporteurs to visit the country to examine various human rights concerns. There are poignant ironies in this resistance, which disregards CERD’s clear conclusion that caste-based discrimination falls well within the Convention’s protections against discrimination on the basis of “descent.” For one thing, when the Convention was being drafted, it was India which proposed to include discrimination on the basis of “descent” within its ambit, apparently with caste-based discrimination in mind. For another, it was India which first put the issue of South African apartheid itself on the international community’s radar screen. Around the same time that it was drafting its own post-independence constitution — which, like the new South African constitution today, was widely heralded at the time as a progressive model with a mandate to overcome past injustices and transform Indian society — India became the first nation to raise the issue of South African apartheid in the U.N. General Assembly. For many years thereafter, India continued to play a leading role in the global anti-apartheid struggle, during a period when many Western nations chose instead to make accommodations with South Africa’s apartheid-era regime.

Rather than regarding international human rights monitoring institutions as obstacles to be resisted, India could instead choose to regard greater engagement and cooperation with these institutions as a constructive means to help address what is widely acknowledged as a serious human rights challenge, as Meenakshi Ganguly has noted. Such an approach to the “hidden apartheid” of discrimination against Dalits would set an important example to other countries, and certainly would be more faithful to India’s own pioneering role in challenging the international community to help bring South African apartheid to an end.

Links: “Hidden Apartheid: Caste Discrimination Against India’s ‘Untouchables’”; audio commentary by Professor Smita Narula, NYU Center for Human Rights & Global Justice and co-author of the report (English, Hindi)