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THE CASTE SYSTEM OF INDIA

A Very Rudimentary Summary

Background

The caste system in India is an important part of ancient Hindu tradition and dates back to
1200 BCE. The term caste was first used by Portuguese travelers who came to India in the 16th
century. Caste comes from the Spanish and Portuguese word "casta" which means "race",
"breed", or "lineage". Many Indians use the term "jati". There are 3,000 castes and 25,000
subcastes in India, each related to a specific occupation. These different castes fall under four
basic varnas:

Brahmins--priests & teachers


Kshatryas--warriors & rulers
Vaishyas— farmers, traders & merchants
Shudras--laborers

Caste not only dictates one's occupation, but dietary habits and interaction with members
of other castes as well. Members of a high caste enjoy more wealth and opportunities while
members of a low caste perform menial jobs. Outside of the caste system are the Untouchables.
Untouchable jobs, such as toilet cleaning and garbage removal, require them to be in contact
with bodily fluids. They are therefore cosidered polluted and not to be touched. The importance
of purity in the body and food is found in early Sanskrit literature. Untouchables have separate
entrances to homes and must drink from seperate wells. They are considered to be in a permanent
state of impurity. Untouchables were named "Harijans" (Children of God) by Gandhi. He tried to
raise their status with symbolic gestures such as befriending and eating with Untouchables.
Upward mobility is very rare in the caste system. Most people remain in one caste their entire
life and marry within their caste.

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The Beginning of the caste system
There are different theories about the establishment of the caste system. There are
religious-mystical theories. There are biological theories. And there are socio-historical theories.

The religious theories explain how the four Varnas were founded, but they do not explain how
the Jats in each Varna or the untouchables were founded. According the Rig Veda, the ancient
Hindu book, the primal man - Purush - destroyed himself to create a human society. The different
Varnas were created from different parts of his body. The Brahmans were created from his head;
the Kshatrias from his hands; the Vaishias from his thighs and the Sudras from his feet. The
Varna hierarchy is determined by the descending order of the different organs from which the
Varnas were created. Other religious theory claims that the Varnas were created from the body
organs of Brahma, who is the creator of the world.

The biological theory claims that all existing things, animated and inanimated, inherent
three qualities in different apportionment. Sattva qualities include wisdom, intelligence, honesty,
goodness and other positive qualities. Rajas include qualities like passion, pride, valour and other
passionate qualities. Tamas qualities include dullness, stupidity, lack of creativity and other
negative qualities. People with different doses of these inherent qualities adopted different types
of occupation.

According to this theory the Brahmans inherent Sattva qualities. Kshatrias and Vaisias
inherent Rajas qualities. And the Sudras inherent Tamas qualities. Like human beings, food also
inherents different dosage of these qualities and it affects its eater's intelligence. The Brahmans
and the Vaisias have Sattvic diet which includes fruits, milk, honey, roots and vegetables. Most
of the meats are considered to have Tamasic qualities. Many Sudra communities eat different
kinds of meat (but not beef) and other Tamasic food. But the Kshatrias who had Rajasic diet eat
some kinds of meat like deer meat which is considered to have Rajasic qualities. Many Marathas
who claim to be Kshatrias eat mutton. The drawback of this theory is that in different parts of
India the same food was sometimes qualified to have different dosage of inherent qualities. For
example there were Brahmans who eat meat which is considered Tamasic food.

The social historical theory explains the creation of the Varnas, Jats and of the
untouchables. According to this theory, the caste system began with the arrival of the Aryans in
India. The Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BC.

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The fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from south Europe and north Asia. Before the
Aryans there were other communities in India of other origins. Among them Negrito, Mongoloid,
Austroloid and Dravidian. The Negrito have physical features similar to people of Africa. The
Mongoloid have Chinese features. The Austroloids have features similar the aboriginals of
Australia. The Dravidians originate from the Mediterranean and they were the largest community
in India. When the Aryans arrived in India their main contact was with the Dravidians and the
Austroloids. The Aryans disregarded the local cultures. They began conquering and taking
control over regions in north India and at the same time pushed the local people southwards or
towards the jungles and mountains in north India.

The Aryans organized among themselves in three groups. The first group was of the
warriors and they were called Rajayana, later they changed their name Rajayana to Kshatria. The
second group was of the priests and they were called Brahmans. These two groups struggled
politically for leadership among the Aryans. In this struggle the Brahmans got to be the leaders
of the Aryan society. The third group was of the farmers and craftsmen and they were called
Vaisia. The Aryans who conquered and took control over parts of north India subdued the locals
and made them their servants. In this process the Vaisias who were the farmers and the craftsmen
became the landlords and the businessmen of the society and the locals became the peasants and
the craftsmen of the society.

In order to secure their status the Aryans resolved some social and religious rules which,
allowed only them to be the priests, warriors and the businesmen of the society. For example take
Maharashtra. Maharashtra is in west India. This region is known by this name for hundreds of
years. Many think that the meaning of the name Maharashtra is in its name, Great Land. But
there are some who claim that the name, Maharashtra, is derived from the Jat called Mahar who
are considered to be the original people of this region. In the caste hierarchy the dark skinned
Mahars were outcasts. The skin color was an important factor in the caste system. The meaning
of the word "Varna" is not class or status but skin color.

Between the outcasts and the three Aryan Varnas there is the Sudra Varna who are the
simple workers of the society. The Sudras consisted of two communities. One community was of
the locals who were subdued by the Aryans and the other were the descendants of Aryans with
locals.

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In Hindu religious stories there are many wars between the good Aryans and the dark
skinned demons and devils. The different Gods also have dark skinned slaves. There are stories
of demon women trying to seduce good Aryan men in deceptive ways. There were also
marriages between Aryan heroes and demon women. Many believe that these incidences really
occurred in which, the gods and the positive heroes were people of Aryan origin. And the
demons, the devils and the dark skinned slaves were in fact the original residence of India whom
the Aryans coined as monsters, devil, demons and slaves.

As in most of the societies of the world, so in India, the son inherited his father's
profession. And so in India there developed families, who professed the same family profession
for generation in which, the son continued his father's profession. Later on as these families
became larger, they were seen as communities or as they are called in Indian languages, Jat.
Different families who professed the same profession developed social relations between them
and organized as a common community, meaning Jat.

Later on the Aryans who created the caste system, added to their system non-Aryans.
Different Jats who professed different professions were integrated in different Varnas according
to their profession. Other foreign invaders of ancient India - Greeks, Huns, Scythains and others -
who conquered parts of India and created kingdoms were integrated in the Kshatria Varna
(warrior castes). But probably the Aryan policy was not to integrate original Indian communities
within them and therefore many aristocratic and warrior communities that were in India before
the Aryans did not get the Kshatria status.

Most of the communities that were in India before the arrival of the Aryans were
integrated in the Sudra Varna or were made outcast depending on the professions of these
communities. Communities who professed non-polluting jobs were integrated in Sudra Varna.
And communities who professed polluting professions were made outcasts. The Brahmans are
very strict about cleanliness. In the past people believed that diseases can also spread also
through air and not only through physical touch. Perhaps because of this reason the untouchables
were not only disallowed to touch the high caste communities but they also had to stand at a
certain distance from the high castes.

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The Religious form of Caste System

Hinduism there exists four castes arranged in a hierarchy. Anyone who does not belong
to one of these castes is an outcast. The religious word for caste is 'Varna'. Each Varna has certain
duties and rights. Each Varna members have to work in certain occupation which only that Varna
members are allowed. Each Varna has certain type of diet. The highest Varna is of the Brahman.
Members of this class are priests and the educated people of the society. The Varna after them in
hierarchy is Kshatria. The members of this class are the rulers and aristocrats of the society. After
them are the Vaisia. Members of this class are the landlords and businessmen of the society. After
them in hierarchy are the Sudra. Members of this class are the peasants and working class of the
society who work in non-polluting jobs. The caste hierarchy ends here. Below these castes are
the outcasts who are untouchable to the four castes. These untouchables worked in degrading
jobs like cleaning, sewage etc.

The first three castes had social and economical rights which the Sudra and the
untouchables did not have. The first three castes are also seen as 'twice born'. The intention in
these two births is to the natural birth and to the ceremonial entrance to the society at a much
later age.

Each Varna and also the untouchables are divided into many communities. These
communities are called Jat or Jati (The caste is also used instead of Jat). For example the
Brahmans have Jats called Gaur, Konkanash, Sarasvat, Iyer and others. The outcasts have Jats
like Mahar, Dhed, Mala, Madiga and others. The Sudra is the largest Varna and it has the largest
number of communities. Each Jat is limited to professions worthy of their Varna. Each Jat is
limited to the Varna diet. Each Jat members are allowed to marry only with their Jat members.
People are born into their Jat and it cannot be changed.

This is the how the caste system is supposed to be in its religious form. But in reality it is
much more complicated and different from its religious form.

The Confusing Caste System


The confusion in the caste system begins by the use of the word caste. The Indians in
their different languages use the word 'Jat' for any community who have something common like
religion, language, origin, similar geographical background and so on. The Indians also use the

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word 'Jat' for Varna. The Portuguese who were the first European power to arrive in India
distorted the word 'Jat' into caste. The British who arrived to India much later after the

Portuguese also used the word caste. The British used the word Caste instead of Jat and Varna.
And so sometimes in English the caste system is explained in a confusing way according to
which, the caste system consists of four castes which are divided into many castes. Sometimes in
English the word caste is used for Varna and the word sub-caste for Jat. In this section to prevent
confusion we will use the words Varna and Jat.

Caste system in modern India


The leaders of independent India decided that India will be democratic, socialist and
secular country. According to this policy there is a separation between religion and state.
Practicing untouchability or discriminating a person based on his caste is legally forbidden.
Along with this law the government allows positive discrimination of the depressed classes of
India.

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The Indians have also become more flexible in their caste system customs. In general the
urban people in India are less strict about the caste system than the rural. In cities one can see
different caste people mingling with each other, while in some rural areas there is still
discrimination based on castes and sometimes also on untouchability. Sometimes in villages or in
the cities there are violent clashes which, are connected to caste tensions. Sometimes the high
castes strike the lower castes who dare to uplift their status. Sometimes the lower caste get back
on the higher castes.

In modern India the term caste is used for Jat and also for Varna. The term, caste was
used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British who wanted to rule India efficiently
made lists of Indian communities. They used two terms to describe Indian communities. Castes
and Tribes. The term caste was used for Jats and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities
who lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the main population and also
communities who were hard to be defined as castes for example communities who made a living
from stealing or robbery. These lists, which the British made, were used later on by the Indian
governments to create lists of communities who were entitled for positive discrimination.

The castes, which were the elite of the Indian society, were classified as high castes. The
other communities were classified as lower castes or lower classes. The lower classes were listed
in three categories. The first category is called Scheduled Castes. This category includes in it
communities who were untouchables. In modern India, untouchability exists at a very low extent.
The untouchables call themselves Dalit, meaning depressed. Until the late 1980s they were
called Harijan, meaning children of God. This title was given to them by Mahatma Gandhi who
wanted the society to accept untouchables within them.

The second category is Scheduled Tribes. This category includes in it those communities
who did not accept the caste system and preferred to reside deep in the jungles, forests and
mountains of India, away from the main population. The Scheduled Tribes are also called
Adivasi, meaning aboriginals.

The third category is called sometimes Other Backward Classes or Backward Classes.
This category includes in it castes who belong to Sudra Varna and also former untouchables who
converted from Hinduism to other religions. This category also includes in it nomads and tribes
who made a living from criminal acts.

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According to the central government policy these three categories are entitled for positive
discrimination. Sometimes these three categories are defined together as Backward Classes. 15%
of India's population are Scheduled Castes. According to central government policy 15% of the
government jobs and 15% of the students admitted to universities must be from Scheduled
Castes. For the Scheduled Tribes about 7.5% places are reserved which is their proportion in
Indian population. The Other Backwards Classes are about 50% of India's population, but only
27% of government jobs are reserved for them.

Along with the central government, the state governments of India also follow a positive
discrimination policy. Different states have different figures of communities entitled for positive
discrimination based on the population of each state. Different state governments have different
lists of communities entitled for positive discrimination. Sometimes a specific community is
entitled for rights in a particular state but not in another state of India.

In modern India new tensions were created because of these positive discrimination
policies. The high caste communities feel discriminated by the government policy to reserve
positions for the Backward Classes. In many cases a large number of high caste members
compete for a few places reserved for them. While the Backward Classes members do not have
to compete at all because of the large number of reserved places for them compared to the
candidates. Sometimes in order to fill the quota, candidates from the lower classes are accepted
even though they are not suitable. Sometimes some reserved positions remain unmanned because
there were few candidates from the lower classes causing more tension between the castes.
Between the lower castes there are also tensions over reservation.

In the order of priority for a reserved place of the Backward Classes, candidate from the
Scheduled castes is preferred over a candidate from the Scheduled Tribes who is preferred over a
candidate from the other Backward Classes. As stated earlier Other Backward Classes are about
50% of India's population but only 27% of the Other Backward Classes are entitled for positive
discrimination according to central government policy. Some Other Backward Classes
communities are organizing politically to be recognized as Backward Classes entitled for
positive discrimination.

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The Scheduled Tribes who are seen as the aborigins of India got ownership and certain
rights over Indian land. Many communities in India claim also to be aborigins of India and they
are claiming the same rights as the Scheduled Tribes.

The caste identity has become a subject of political, social and legal interpretation.
Communities who get listed as entitled for positive discrimination do not get out of this list even
if their social and political conditions get better. In many cases the legal system is involved to
decide if a certain person is entitled for positive discrimination.

But with all this positive discrimination policy, most of the communities who were low in
the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. And communities who were high
in the social hierarchy remain even today high in the social hierarchy. Most of the degrading jobs
are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans remain at the top of the hierarchy by
being the doctors, engineers and lawyers of India.

Caste-Based Discrimination,
and the New Perception of India

India is often called the world’s largest democracy, containing the second largest
population in the world. Since its independence in 1947 the western perception of India has
changed; from categorising and treating it as a ‘developing’ nation - marginalised in the
periphery with many of the post-colonial states - to today’s cautious reading that India is a power
to be reckoned with and a possible ally in the international society.
So what is India? It is a democracy on paper. But judging by India’s critical human rights
issues, office corruption, state-fragmentation, insurgency problems, and its alarming overall
poverty, India does not quite fit the normal definition of a democratic state. These issues are at
the centre of discussions when elections are pending, and mandated governments often build
their policy-programmes trying to address many of these problems. Unfortunately they remain to
a large extent unhealed. There are two overall reasons for this: first, the sheer massiveness of the
problems in terms of resources and possibilities contra cultural embeddedment. Secondly, in
India there exists a culture of neglect in policy-implementation. This neglection (closely linked
to systemised corruption) cripples all levels of government, locally in particular.

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The two stated reasons why India continues to be haunted internally by fragmentation
and massive poverty necessitates closer examination on numerous topics, and this introductory
paper has no space for such an inquiry. However, I would like to bring up a core human rights
issue in India that affects millions of people every day, namely caste-based discrimination.
Caste discrimination is not something that has emerged post-colonially. It is a cultural
and social phenomenon that has been a part of the traditions of Hinduism for thousands of years,
dividing people into castes in a hierarchical order based on their descent. Since independence
Indian authorities has struggled to impede this type of discrimination with various means (and
minor results), while at the same time endorsing religious freedom in a much proclaimed secular
state. The efforts made by various governments, such as legislation changes, has been proved
drastically insufficient and caste based discrimination has moved from being a religious tradition
to becoming a human rights issue with international proportions.
With this paper I would like to present caste-based discrimination and how it is being
addressed by the authorities in contemporary India. I also want to look at how the western states,
in particular those of the European Union, are positioning themselves on the issue. It is
interesting that the western perception of India has changed from being that of an under-
developed state throughout most of the second half of the last century, to becoming that of a
respected world power - all the while many of the internal characterises that usually defines
‘under-development’ remains intact in the country. The quiet position on the matter reveals a
strategy for EU to maintain a smooth relationship with India. Caste discrimination is not a
popular topic for discussion between the two, not even in the annual human rights-dialogue, and
the international concern is mainly built by NGOs with a shortfall of supportive state-players. Of
course some high-end efforts have been made, for example by the European Commission to
shine light on the topic. It might be a matter of sovereignty, India and its people has the right to
self-determination, so the question is, when is it justified for one democracy to point fingers and
accuse another democracy of inadequate measures? There are numerous examples of other major
powers disliking foreign enquiries about human rights (China for example); however, India is a
peculiar case since it is defined to be a democracy. I will devote a part of the paper to discuss this
further.

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The structure of this essay is straight-forward. Firstly, a chapter on caste discrimination
and its everyday effects in Indian civil society; secondly, a chapter on how the authorities deals
and has dealt with the matter; and thirdly, defining EU’s position on caste discrimination in
relation to the new perception of India as a superpower in the international community. After
these three chapters, I will present a minor conclusion.
2. Context
2.1 Definition and background
The Indian caste system refers to the social stratification of people into ranked groups defined by
descent and occupation, based on the underlying notion of purity. Usually the caste system is
described as a more than 2,000-year-old Hindu tradition geographically originating from early
civilizations on the Indian subcontinent. The system divides people into four larger caste
categories with their traditional set of inherited tasks (much resembling the four estates of pre-
20th century Swedish society); Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers),
Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (laborers and artisans). A fifth category falls
outside these larger categories and consists of those known as "untouchables" or Dalits as they
call themselves (“broken people”). The casteless group have earned their status “untouchable”
from the tasks and labours they inherit which are often too polluting to grant them inclusion in
the traditional caste system. In performing these labours they become physically untouchable by
the other castes and expelled from certain parts of everyday social life. Basically the caste system
is a pyramid and Dalits are at the lower end.
Caste-based discrimination can influence all spheres of life and violate a cross-section of
basic human rights including civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. It is also a
major obstacle to achieving development goals, since affected populations are often excluded
from development processes.
The system traditionally discourages people from different castes to interact with each
other more than out of necessity, for example by prohibiting inter-caste marriage. Especially in
rural areas, caste divisions dominate in housing, marriage, and general social interaction -
divisions that are reinforced through the practice and threat of social exclusion, economic
boycotts, and even physical violence. It should be noted that in contemporary urban India, social
attitudes towards the traditional caste stratification are changing, especially as new forms of
occupations are developing.

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Nevertheless the caste system continues to survive in modern India. There are over 160
million Dalits in India, not counting the tens of millions of Dalits who have already converted to
other religions such as Buddhism and Christianity to escape their caste faiths. During the eighties
and nineties caste discrimination became a much debated issue on the political arena following a
report published by a government commission that mapped out and defined current “backward”
castes and ethnic groups in India 1. The report also stated a set of recommendations to be
implemented by the authorities including several reservation laws for public and educational
seats. Reservation laws had already been incorporated in the forties, with states endorsing their
own types of discrimination preventive policies, but the report renewed the debate and created a
much needed political and social awareness. The outcomes are disputed but there is nonetheless
an increased presence of Dalits in the higher spheres of power in India today than any time
before. The debate also saw the creation of numerous local and national political parties claiming
to be representing the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, some becoming very successful. Two
examples of high positioned Dalits are the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Kumari
Mayawati who won the state elections in 2007 for the fourth time; and M. Narayanan, President
of India 1997-2002.
2.3 Caste discrimination in practice

Being based in deeply engrained social structures, caste based discrimination is part of day to
day life2. Discrimination is often based on housing, work and access to public spaces. There are
examples of Dalits being denied access to public services such as deep wells, water taps, health
care and education. Segregation in housing, schools and cremation grounds, occupational
restrictions, prohibition of ownership and access to land, bonded labour, forced prostitution and
manual scavenging3 are other examples of discrimination in the everyday life of Dalits.

1
The Indian constitution refers to Dalits as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and ethnic minorities as Scheduled Tribes (STs), and together
they comprise more than 24 % of India’s population. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/Census_Data_2001/
India_at_Glance/scst.aspx
2
For a situational overview of caste discrimination see the study Caste-based Discrimination in South Asia (2009) by ISDN
commissioned by the European Commission. http://idsn.org/uploads/media/EU_Study_CD_2009.pdf. Also, a survey conducted
in 2006 examined the practice of untouchability in 565 villages across 11 states in India. See Untouchability in Rural India by
Ghanshyam Shah, et al (2006).
3
Manual scavenging was outlawed in 1993, yet today 1.3 million Dalits, mostly women, are employed by municipalities in
this occupation.

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Discrimination on caste base can also be seen in terms of the relative underdevelopment of
low-caste groups: the literacy rate for Dalits is significantly lower than for the rest of the
population, infant mortality and under-five mortality among Dalits are much higher than the
average, and Dalits are paid lower wages than other workers for similar tasks. These are just a
few specific examples.

There are also more violent forms of caste-based discrimination. Dalits are on occasions
subjected to violent attacks, murder, harassment, and other atrocities. These cases are rarely
reported, investigated or prosecuted, as police, lawyers and judges often belong to more
dominant castes and are unwilling to get involved. Impunity in such cases remains common
practice. However, it has to be acknowledged that media are becoming more vocal on the
condition of Dalits.

3. India’s legal framework

The government of India has on a number of occasions recognised that caste-based


discrimination is a problem with deep social roots in the Indian society. Since independence the
government of India has implemented legislation and policies aimed at improving the situation
of low-castes groups and prevent caste-based discrimination.
3.1 Constitution
The Indian constitution (1947) protects the fundamental rights of every Indian citizen,
including equality, freedom of speech, expression, belief, assembly, association, movement,
education, equality of opportunity in matters of public employment without discrimination on
grounds of race, religion, caste or gender. It also formally abolishes “untouchability” and
prohibits its practice.
The Constitution includes specific affirmative measures, for example reservation of seats
in the public services, administration, Parliament (both upper and lower house), and setting up
advisory councils and separate departments for the welfare of socially and economically
vulnerable groups. The Constitution provides that the proper of implementation of the safeguards
is to be monitored by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National
Commission for Scheduled Tribes.

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3.2 The Indian Penal Code
India’s legal framework, The Indian Penal Code (IPC), provides various provisions
specifically adopted to prevent forms of caste discrimination and other violations of minority
rights, both on national and state level. Instead of a foundational rights’ framework for the
protection of every citizen in India, the Penal Code provides various Acts to prevent specific
types of behaviour, such as The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976) and The
Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act (1993).
For example, The Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) list ”unlawful” behaviours against
Scheduled Castes and Tribes (by defining atrocities such as intimidation, sexual abuse, denial of
access to water et cetera).
Both the Constitution and The Indian Penal Code provides almost a watertight package of
individual rights for the Indian population and the problem caste-based discrimination does not
lie in an insufficient legal framework – rather it is a question of implementation.

3.3 Implementation issues


As noted above many laws have been introduced to prevent caste-based discrimination
and untouchability. The government has set up several bodies and commissions to monitor
progress, and some measures have enabled Dalits access into public office employment. The
problem is not the legislation but its implementation. At all levels, there is a lack of political will
to ensure that the laws are applied on the ground. Untouchability, bonded labour, poverty, manual
scavenging, segregation, landlessness and violence are the everyday reality whatever the laws
and special measures prescribe. Impunity is a core factor why it is so difficult for Indian
authorities to come to terms with caste discrimination.
3.4 International commitments
Expect for the domestic legal framework that ensures human rights in India, the country
has also committed itself to several international treaties and conventions. Almost all UN
conventions has been ratified (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Racial Discrimination). In spite of India's international legal obligations to protect Dalits' human
rights several UN Treaty Bodies, in particular CERD, CEDAW and CESCR, have urged the

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Government of India to implement the concerns raised in their observations and to ensure
full implementation of these international treaty obligations at domestic level. 4 There is an
ongoing dispute between India and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination whether or not caste-based discrimination should fall within the definition of
racial discrimination.5 So far India has refused.
4. Actions by NGOs
There are very few international NGOs working specifically with raising awareness on
caste-based discrimination. Most of the larger scale efforts to push untouchability to the forefront
of various international human rights agendas are being made by domestic civil society
organisations in India, in particular by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights
(NCDHR). The organisation is a coalition of NGOs, human rights activists, journalists and
academics throughout India which was formed in 1998 to respond to the continued practice of
untouchability. The organisation has made possible collaboration between smaller local NGOs all
over India. NCDHR is also to a large extent responsible for various state actors recognising the
problem, such as the EU (European Commission) and IOs like the UN, by continuously
publishing reports and fact-finding documents on the Dalit situation. Perhaps the only
“international” non-governmental organisation trying to raise awareness on Dalit discrimination
is the Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), which often
collaborates with NCDHR.
5. EU’s position
To describe EU’s position on a specific human rights issue is quite difficult since most Member
States adopt individual positions, or rather; they avoid adopting direct policies on specific human
rights issues while endorsing the UN forum, which is to many western countries the appropriate
arena for such discussions. Certainly every western country by principle supports human rights
doctrines that are overall ratified, but in asserting whether a country has failed to provide for its
citizens there must be a level of understanding in terms of culture, efforts already made,
resources, actual possibilities, et cetera in particular if the state is recognised as a democracy.

4
One example of concern is raised by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in their annual observation
report on India (2007). http://idsn.org/uploads/media/CERD_concl_obs_India_12.pdf

5
The UN term for caste-based discrimination is ”discrimination based on work and descent”. See for example CERD General
Recommendation 29 on descent (2002), http://idsn.org/fileadmin/user_folder/pdf/New_files/UN/CERD_GR29.pdf

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There are of course apparent contradictions in this last statement and I will present this a
bit further down. Let’s In 2004 EU and India initiated a ‘strategic partnership’ with the intention
to fully explore and narrow down the key areas of interest for a strengthened relation. The
following year EU and India signed a Joint Action Plan to outlay the details for such a
partnership. The key areas of interest are many with a focus on trade and technology, EU being
India’s largest trading partner6. What is significant with the Joint Action Plan is the apparent lack
of human rights rhetoric, expect for stating a continuation of the annual Human Rights Dialogue.
What is quite frightening is the lack of documentation on the EU-India HR dialogue in terms of
joint statements, communiqués, or other official “handshakes” which discloses a struggle for the
actors to find a suitable balance in the discussions. The balance is determined by the actors’
hopes and expectations for the dialogue, which doesn’t necessitate that the hopes have to be
unrealistic; rather it means that there is diffusion as to what such a dialogue is about. Since the
beginning (initiated by EU) India has been reluctant and several times postponed and even
cancelled the meetings which gives weight to the hypothesis that India does not know what to
expect of such a dialogue in terms of EU demands and expected outcome.
5.1 European Commission, European Parliament, and Member States
The European Parliament has under the last decade recognises discrimination based on
caste as a major human rights issue, through various debates and reports, and after a hearing in
the Development Committee in 2007, resolution B6-0021/20077 was adopted. The resolution
expresses an urgent concern for the human rights situation for Dalits in India and stresses a
number of recommendations to the Indian authorities. The resolution did not receive any clear
response by India; however, the document has been widely used by Dalits rights’ organisations.
The European Commission carries out its own set of development projects in the third world
with a set agenda for the specific country. Under the last couple of years the European
Commission has carried out various projects directly related to improving the situation of the
Scheduled Castes and preventing discrimination based on work and descent. The projects have
been focused on the areas of education, prevention of child labour and empowering of women
with a specific focus on Scheduled Casts.
As mentioned earlier, the European Commission also commissioned a report named
Caste-based Discrimination in South Asia (2009) published by IDSN. Every Member State has
6
See the revised Joint Action Plan (2008) at http://commerce.nic.in/india-EU-jap.pdf
7
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P6-TA-2007-0016&language=EN&ring=B6-2007-0021

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bilateral relations with India in various focus areas. In terms of human rights, most western
countries use a detached development department to operate projects that follows a set agenda.
Human rights are often bunked together with a number of other developing issues and there is
unfortunately no room here to present the Member States’ set agendas for India in terms of
development issues.
5.2 The new perception of India
India along with China is contesting the post-Cold War unilateral world. Both countries
are emerging as contesting superpowers that can possibly alter the current US hegemonic balance
of power8. India is quite different from China since it is understood to be a democracy following
western political thought with its economic liberalisation and a constitution protecting
fundamental rights of the citizens. The economic liberalisation has specially been important for
the new perception of India because of its extravagant economic growth during the last two
decades. India has been a democracy for sixty years but pursued a much more socialist strict
economic agenda up until early nineties, when it suddenly started a huge deregulation. With
deregulation comes foreign investment and trade opportunities and suddenly India attracted a
broader audience. With this economic expansion and India’s newfound nuclear proficiency the
perception that India is on the verge to becoming a significant power on the world arena has
became everyday IR knowledge. The new perception has altered India’s previous ‘development’
status and created a minor wave of international acknowledgement from western actors by their
pursuit for deepened India-relations. One good example is the new bilateral agreements between
US and India in trade and nuclear technology 9. This alteration of status means that EU and US
cannot treat India as “just” a developing nation anymore; bilateral dialogues needs to be more on
equal terms which makes it harder to lay demands on India. Therefore, pursuing a human rights
agenda perhaps needs more subtleness than before. As mentioned in the beginning of this chapter
there is a natural opposition for a state in respecting the sovereignty of another state and pursuing
a global human rights agenda. The shift in the west’s perception of India shows just that.
6. Conclusion
India is a diverse country. It is a democracy in the broader sense, yet when looking more closely
it surprises me with its critical deficiencies in areas of poverty, corruption, impunity, human
8
For a general survey of this new perception see: Cohen, S. C. (2002). India: Emerging Power, Brookings Institution Press, and
Mohan, C. R. (2006). India and the Balance of Power. Article in Foreign Affairs, July/Aug 2006.
9
For more information on the US-India nuclear agreement see the Council on Foreign Relations website:
http://www.cfr.org/publication/9663/

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rights et cetera. And the new perception of India has possibly made it more difficult for western
countries to help India in these areas, since it should be allowed as a great power to care for these
matters itself if it chooses to. It is a very interesting topic and it needs more inquiry, and I hope
with this essay to have raised some of the questions that needs to be answered.

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