Previous Section Index Home Page

8 May 2007 : Column 26WH—continued

Khairlanji was not unique in its core elements. In another landmark case, in February last year, a Dalit man named Bant Singh was brutally attacked after
8 May 2007 : Column 27WH
seeking justice for his daughter, who had been raped by higher-caste men in the village. He eventually secured the prosecution of three men, but the upper-caste men in the village then beat him in retribution.

In yet another case of retributive caste violence, which was reported in The Independent last November, a 15-year-old Dalit girl named Asha Katiya was raped by a higher-caste man from her village. She reported the incident to the police. Because she would not withdraw the claim she was burned to death in her bed. It is thought that the man whom she accused of raping her was responsible for her murder.

Official records show that the rate of atrocities against Dalits continues at about 26,000 a year. That figure is enormous but is unlikely to represent anything like the true extent of caste-based violence against Dalits. A seminal study last year, “Untouchability in Rural India”, found that in 28 per cent. of villages surveyed Dalits faced discrimination in entry into police stations and that in 32 per cent. they encountered discrimination in how they were treated in police stations. The testimony shared with me on my recent visit to India corroborates those statistics. Bhaiyalal Bhotmange told me that the tragic massacre in Khairlanji was initially dismissed out of hand by the local police. Other people stressed that Dalits face considerable social pressures from higher caste members in their communities not to register cases against them.

It is tragically true that women often suffer the brunt of caste violence, as happened in Khairlanji and to Bant Singh’s daughter and many others. Given the stigma associated with sexual abuse, it is highly likely that many cases go unreported. Sometimes the attempt to seek justice leads to further violence. Khairlanji is just one example of the systemic caste-based human rights abuse that still exists in India despite a constitutional and legal framework in which the manifestations of the caste system are abolished.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a moving and telling speech, to which I am listening attentively. On his trip to India, did he come across any problems with anti-conversion laws? Given that the Dalits, the lower-caste people, are born into the system, they face discrimination from the moment they are born. One way they can get out of the system is to convert to a different religion, but in many states they are hampered in doing so. Did my hon. Friend manage to conduct any investigations into that aspect?

Mr. Crabb: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, I did come across that issue. I understand that seven states in India at present have anti-conversion legislation either on the statute book or in the process of being passed. My hon. Friend is right to say that many Dalits seek to escape from their caste-based identity through conversion, often to Islam, Buddhism or Christianity, yet in numerous states they come up against the barrier of anti-conversion laws. I shall return to that point later in the discussion.

Our concerns involve not only caste-based violence. Dalits are also subject to the worst forms of labour exploitation as a result of their caste, and are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, sexual exploitation and bonded
8 May 2007 : Column 28WH
labour. In the UK, considerable attention has been devoted to those issues in recent weeks, following the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Bonded labour—debt bondage—is a massive problem in India. Although it was outlawed under the constitution and the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, it is still widespread, with estimates of the number of people who are affected by it ranging from 10 million to 40 million.

One striking feature of the Indian caste system is the extent to which it overlaps with the practice of bonded labour, by which people are forced to work as security for a loan that they cannot repay in any other way. Bonded labourers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Entire families may be bonded, and debts may be passed down through the generations. The vast majority of the victims of bonded labour are landless Dalits whose susceptibility is heightened by poverty, exclusion from education and caste attitudes.

During my most recent trip to India, I visited a settlement near Hyderabad that is colloquially referred to as “pipe village”. It is populated entirely by the work force of an adjacent factory that produces concrete pipes, and around half of the families are, in effect, enslaved to the bosses of the factory through debt bondage. Each family of workers inhabits one of the discarded concrete pipes, most of which stand at approximately waist height. The village is isolated, there are few facilities for its inhabitants, and no education is available for the children. Water is provided, but the villagers told me that their electricity supply, which is mediated by the factory, was cut off last year on the grounds that it was intended only for lighting but was being misused by workers who wanted to use kettles and televisions.

The typical working conditions that the labourers face are extremely severe. Some of them described to me their experience of working alternate 12-hour day and night shifts for a daily wage of some 70 rupees, or approximately 80p. Obviously, they considered their working conditions to be extremely poor, and they described the poor safety precautions in the factory.

Human trafficking, which is often described as a modern equivalent of the slave trade, is another problem that we see in a new light when we look at it in the context of caste. I heard testimony from an activist in Nagpur who works among trafficked women in the state of Maharashtra. The situation was simply described as, fundamentally, “a Dalit problem.” In February last year, the Bihar-based non-governmental organisation Bhoomika Vihar found in a local survey that 98 per cent. of trafficked women belonged to Dalit communities, low castes or religious minorities, many of whom are themselves of Dalit background.

A closely associated form of exploitation of Dalit women and minors is the devadasi system of temple prostitution. Although traditionally considered a noble vocation, the experience of its victims is that it is a highly exploitative and degrading practice. Commonly, devadasis are minor girls who have been dedicated to a temple god. They serve as concubines to the priests and as prostitutes for temple users. They are often sold into prostitution after serving an open-ended tenure in the temple, and their children may suffer a similar fate.

India has several laws to prevent sexual exploitation, including the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956,
8 May 2007 : Column 29WH
which specifically prohibits the procurement of any person for the purpose of prostitution. However, the implementation of such laws was described by the activists whom I met as being very weak indeed.

Millions of Dalits fall prey to those most severe forms of labour exploitation, yet a greater number still are blighted by the continued association of caste with occupation. The jobs that are specifically reserved for Dalits, who are, literally, the outcasts of society, are the most menial, dangerous and, frankly, disgusting jobs. There is no escape from their occupation, which is dictated by birth. According to the most recent official figures, nearly 700,000 Dalits in India have the occupation known euphemistically as “manual scavenging”—the cleaning and removal of human excrement with the hands. Again, women are the worst affected.

The problems are worse in rural areas than in urban centres, where the new India is being forged. Segregation is a reality of life for many Dalits in rural areas. The report that I referred to earlier, “Untouchability in Rural India”, states that in 73 per cent. of villages surveyed, Dalits cannot enter non-Dalit homes; in 64 per cent. of villages, they cannot enter places of worship; and in 48 per cent. of villages—nearly half of all villages in rural areas—they cannot use the same water source as non-Dalits, on account of their supposed polluting influence.

Perhaps one of the most alarming statistics is the one revealing that segregation is not absent among today’s young generation: in 39 per cent. of schools, Dalit and non-Dalit children did not eat together. During my trip to India in February, I visited the village of Garipalli in Andhra Pradesh, where I saw non-Dalit children refuse to eat the food prepared by Dalit cooks. That is a sad reflection of the pervasiveness of caste attitudes even among the generation of tomorrow.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recently expressed concern that, despite the formal abolition of untouchability by article 17 of the Indian constitution, de facto segregation of Dalits persists, particularly in rural areas, in respect of places of worship, housing, hospitals, education, markets and other public places, and water sources. The committee urged the Indian Government to intensify their efforts to enforce the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, especially in rural areas, by effectively punishing acts of untouchability, by taking effective measures against residential segregation and segregation in public schools, and by ensuring equal access for Dalits to places of worship, hospitals, water sources and any other places or services intended for use by the general public. It is worth noting that an estimated 700 million people in India live in rural areas. The majority of the Indian population live in rural communities.

Against that backdrop of continuing caste-based discrimination, it is no wonder that Dalits are one of the groups that endure the worst socio-economic conditions in India. The estimated proportion of Dalits below the poverty line is 35 per cent. in rural areas, compared with 21 per cent. among other groups, and 39 per cent. in urban areas, compared with 21 per cent. among other groups. Those figures are based on the most recent large-scale national sample survey, which was carried out by the Government of India in
8 May 2007 : Column 30WH
2000. The overall proportion of the population living in poverty was assessed as 35 per cent.—360 million people in total—according to the international definition of poverty, which is based on income of $1 or less a day.

Child mortality for those under five years old among Dalits is 83 per 1,000 live births, compared with 22 for the general population. In fact, on virtually any statistical measure of well-being that one may choose, the figures for Dalits are much worse than the national average.

I appreciate that the Minister is not responsible for international development, but perhaps he could shed some light on whether any of our aid to India is targeted specifically at Dalits, with the aim of closing the gaps between life outcomes for Dalits and those of the wider community.

Dalits experience violence committed with impunity, severe labour exploitation and modern forms of slavery, and discrimination in almost every sphere, yet escape from the shackles of the caste system is beyond the realm of imagination for millions of them. Freedom from the identity conferred on Dalits and low castes by the caste system is crucially important, and they have long seen the embracing of new faiths as a route for escaping from their identity. Of course, to say that is not to identify the caste system wholly and exclusively with the Hindu religion. It is practised by every religious group in India, including Muslims and Christians.

I recently met a well-respected Dalit activist, Dr. Kancha Ilaiah, who stressed to me that religious freedom is a vital right in the struggle for self-awareness and identity among the Dalit people, but that that right can be severely curtailed through legislation and social pressures. Dalits who embrace Islam or Christianity lose their eligibility for the benefits of the reservation policy that reserves certain jobs in the public sector for Dalits. State level anti-conversion laws are an increasingly prominent way of obstructing freedom of religion and are in force in seven states; further laws are expected soon. I would welcome hearing the Minister’s thoughts on the use of anti-conversion legislation in India. What discussions have he or his colleagues had with the Indian Government about such laws and does he think that they are compatible with the ideals and aspirations of the new India?

India is a beautiful and wonderfully diverse nation. It is also a truly remarkable liberal democracy. Human rights issues in India relate to a fundamentally different set of problems than those associated with the authoritarian regimes of Burma and North Korea. There is freedom to debate the issue of caste in India and an increasingly critical media respond to the new aspirations and values of young Indians. Earlier this year, a BBC World Service poll found that 55 per cent. of Indians think that the issues relating to caste are holding their country back.

Last December, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first sitting Indian Prime Minister to openly acknowledge the parallel between the practice of “untouchability” in India and apartheid in South Africa. He described “untouchability” as a “blot on humanity” and added that

8 May 2007 : Column 31WH

Opponents of that view in India maintain that, unlike apartheid in South Africa, the constitution in India does not endorse or tolerate any form of discrimination. Other Indians prefer to think that the situation facing Dalits is comparable to that faced by blacks 40 years ago in the southern states of the United States when, even though Supreme Court rulings had outlawed segregation, the reality of daily life for many was de facto segregation, barriers to advancement and continuing poverty.

When discussing possible remedies to the effects of caste-based discrimination in India we need to tread carefully and respect the fact that these are fundamentally questions for Indians themselves to resolve. However, I will put a number of questions to the Minister about what the British Government can do to assist the Indian Government and people in addressing this difficult issue. What assistance are we giving to organisations in India that represent and provide a voice for Dalits? Are we providing any specific assistance to organisations that are trying to raise the issue in India itself? What advice and assistance can we offer to help the machinery of Indian Government—the judicial system and the array of public services—to stamp out caste-based discrimination and to work more effectively for Dalits and those of lower castes? What encouragement and assistance can we provide to UK investors in India explicitly to recognise the plight of Dalits? How can UK companies build into their investment plans and corporate social responsibility plans a commitment to seeing their investments deliver real gains for Dalit communities?

At the end of March this year, the Conservative party’s human rights commission hosted a hearing at Parliament with Dalit representatives from India to take evidence on this subject. One of the strongest calls from that group of people was for greater English-medium education for Dalit children. In the new India, the ability to speak and write English is more important than ever, so what assistance can the Government provide to enable the expansion of English-medium education to Dalit children?

The nature of our relationship with India was described in a Foreign Office briefing paper as “strong, wide and deep”. Shared interests with India across many different fronts bind our two countries together: economically, commercially, strategically and environmentally—in the way that we try to tackle climate change—and through our shared language and history. Most fundamentally, we are connected to India through our shared humanity and commitment to freedom.

Will the Minister and his team make a commitment today that they will not allow a single opportunity pass them by to encourage our friends in the Indian Government to renew their efforts to end all forms of caste-based discrimination? I also ask the Minister not to let our common European position on India prevent us from raising the issue vigorously and on a bilateral basis. We should not let sensitivity about our colonial past prevent us from robustly raising the issue and we should not be fearful of undermining commercial and economic interests. As a good, critical friend of the
8 May 2007 : Column 32WH
Indian Government, we should offer whatever assistance we can to help stamp out caste-based discrimination.

I am hugely optimistic about India’s future, but we know that the societies that are likely to do best in the 21st century are those in which the conditions of freedom and social mobility are maximised. Human capital is India’s greatest asset and yet almost a quarter of the Indian population are held back by systemic discrimination, segregation and human rights abuse. Caste-based discrimination constrains the life chances of approximately 200 million people and must have no place in the new India.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to express his strong commitment to working with the Government of India to challenge, not least through education, the persistence of a degrading and pernicious system that threatens the social stability and economic progress of India.

11.25 am

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the wonderful speech of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). I speak as an unpaid trustee of The Dalit Solidarity Network UK and regard myself as a critical friend of India. I am aware that millions and millions of Hindus in India and around the world, including the UK, object to casteism and consider that it entrenches discrimination based on work and descent. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that Dr. Manmohan Singh has recently likened casteism to apartheid and called it a “blot on humanity”. That is a significant step forward.

Hon. Members often discuss poverty in Africa, and rightly so. However, there are more poor people in India than in the whole of Africa. One of the main causes of poverty in India—although it is not the only cause—is casteism because it holds people back from development. Some of my points have already been raised by the hon. Gentleman in his excellent speech, but one aspect that was not mentioned has a huge bearing on the UK as an international power: it is what was said to me and other hon. Members when a group of Dalit leaders visited the House this spring. We were told that there is a significant risk of civil war in India unless the Dalit issue is addressed—and I do not say that lightly.

For the past 35 or 40 years there has been an incipient naxalite rebellion, particularly in the north-east of India. That rebellion is spreading because of the frustration of Dalits at their lack of life chances and with the daily discrimination, violence, poverty and rape that they face. A growing number of Dalits do not believe that those issues can be adequately addressed within the constitutional framework of India. I dearly hope that they are wrong. I do not believe that engaging in violence provides a tit for tat solution for the daily violence suffered by Dalits and I stress that that is not the way forward. However, I understand why, 60 years after independence and after a huge number of laws have been passed to address Dalit discrimination, a growing number of Dalit in India feel that the laws and the constitution are simply not working.

A civil war in India would be a disaster for India and its residents, but it would also be a disaster for other
8 May 2007 : Column 33WH
countries, including the United Kingdom, as we have close family and historic ties with India—it is the leaders of the Dalits, not me, who are giving that warning. I emphasise that they are not in favour of a civil war, but that they recognise the risk of it happening. The pot is starting to boil and things must change.

If we are honest, one of the many difficulties is that the rule of law in India is, to put it mildly, somewhat weak. The Dalit are excluded from enforcing their rights and victims of anti-Dalit action often find that the police will simply not investigate their complaint. If they do record it, they do not investigate it.

Education is part of the reason. Police officers must be better-educated perhaps than the average person in India, which means that it is harder for Dalits to become police officers. All too often—not all the time—the prevailing culture of the police is anti-Dalit. All the laws in the world giving people rights are almost useless if people do not observe them and there is no effective sanction for breaking them, which happens in India all too often.

Coupled with that is corruption, which is still far too widespread in India. Naturally, it is not confined to the private sector, but leaks into the public sector, including the police and judiciary. Dalits face another obstacle even if they manage to get the police to record and investigate an incident: in many parts of India, proceedings in the higher courts are still conducted in English. Owing to a lack of educational opportunities, the vast proportion of the overall Indian population are not fluent in English, but that proportion is disproportionately large among Dalits. The courts in their own country are conducted in a foreign language. That is most regrettable.

The lost opportunities for India’s economic development resulting from the blocked potential of hundreds of millions of Dalits can be highlighted by the example of one of my political heroes, who is well-known to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)—Dr. Ambedkar. He was born a Dalit—an untouchable—in 1893, but through patronage he became an incredibly well-qualified polymath in the social sciences, economics and law.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar chaired the committee that drew up the Indian constitution, behind which he was the driving force. He had help, but effectively he wrote the constitution—certainly, he set the tone. Many of us in the Room have visited India—I have done so on two occasions. Across the country, one can see—rightly—statues of Dr. Ambedkar. He rose from his humble background to great heights. In 1956—the year of his death—he converted to Buddhism. He was frustrated after more than 50 years of trying to get his countrymen—principally, but not exclusively Hindus—to recognise and act against caste-based discrimination.

Next Section Index Home Page