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FOCUS June 2007 Volume 48

Untouchability and Violence against Dalits

N. Paul Divakar*

* N. Paul Divakar is presently the National Convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). NCDHR, formed in 1998, is a coalition of civil society organizations and Dalit activists to address the issues of human rights and development concerns of Dalits and strengthen the movement for the elimination of the practice of discrimination and Untouchability and violence against Dalits.

The so-called Scheduled Castes (SCs) of India, erstwhile Untouchable communities and presently termed Dalits by most movements and political bodies in the country, number 167.2 million people (2001 census). In addition, there are at least 42 million Muslim, Sikh and Christian Dalits who in one form or another are vulnerable to discrimination and also to different and particular form of backlash violence

Untouchability a crime

The Constitution of India not only guarantees equality, liberty, fraternity, justice and basic human rights as Fundamental Rights but also prohibits the practice of Untouchability in any form. Through the efforts Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the iconic leader of Dalits, who led the Dalit liberation movement and was the Chairperson of the Constitution Drafting Committee, the Constitution has made Untouchability a crime and provided safeguards against it. Article 17 of the Constitution abolished Untouchability and its practice in any form is forbidden. Article 25(2b) of the Constitution provides that Hindu religious institutions of a public character shall be open to all classes and sections of Hindus. This provision is contrary to the traditions of some sects of Hinduism that prohibits Scheduled Caste members from entering temples. Two important legislations were enacted to give effect to these articles. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 punishes the preaching and practice of Untouchability

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 criminalizes certain acts against members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes such as traffic in human beings, 'begar (free labor)' and forced labor in any form. A related law, the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 provides for a special program for identifying bonded laborers, and for their liberation and rehabilitation. While this law does not specifically mention Scheduled Castes, it is especially significant to them because the majority of bonded laborers belong to the Scheduled Castes. Article 24 of this law provides that no child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any hazardous employment. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 complements this law. The practice of requiring Dalits to clean/remove human feces by hand continues despite the prohibition of manual scavenging by the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993

Rampant Untouchability despite law

A recent study on Untouchability in rural India,[1] covering five hundred sixty five villages in eleven States, found that public health workers refused to visit Dalit homes in 33% of villages, and Dalit children sat separately while eating in 37.8% of government schools. Dalits were prevented from entering police stations in 27.6% of villages, did not get mail delivered to their homes in 23.5% of villages, and were denied access to water sources in 48.4% of villages

Backlash violence against those challenging Untouchability

Police statistics averaged over the past five years show that every week: thirteen Dalits are murdered, five Dalits' homes or possessions are burned, six Dalits are kidnapped or abducted; every day: three Dalit women are raped, eleven Dalits are beaten up; and for every eighteen minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit.[2] This is despite the fact that many Dalits do not report crimes for fear of reprisals by the dominant castes. Despite twenty-seven officially registered atrocities being committed against Dalits every day, the police often prevents Dalits from entering police stations, neglect their cases and even partake in torture

Impunity and wilful negligence

The state machinery, especially the police, exhibits gross negligence of the plight of Dalits resulting in impunity. In a query raised by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Andra Pradesh on a Public Interest Litigation case filed by Sakshi Human Rights Watch to the State Police Department,[3] it admitted to 14,452 cases with delayed filing of charge sheet beyond the stipulated period of thirty days as per the SC/ST POA Act. This means insurmountable impunity resulting in denial of justice to the victims of violence

Multiple forms of discrimination and Violence

The discrimination against the Dalits takes different forms such as:

a. Dalit Women: They face double discrimination on the basis of caste and gender in all spheres of life and are subjected with impunity to gross violations of their physical integrity, including sexual abuse by dominant castes; they are socially excluded and economically exploited. The practice of 'divine prostitution' (Jogini/Devadasi systems) continues even today despite laws prohibiting this menace affecting the Dalit women

b. Communities involved in manual scavenging: Of the more the 1.2 million manual scavengers, over 95% are Dalits. They are compelled to undertake this inhuman and degrading task under the garb of 'traditional occupation'. The practice of manual scavenging is illegal and unconstitutional and a blot on the face of humanity. But it still continues

c. Exclusion from political participation: Many reports from across the country reveal that Dalits' exercise of their legitimate and rightful claim to representation (namely participation or leadership in the electoral process) is met with violence

d. 'Discrimination by Default': The 2005 Asian Tsunami demonstrated that all levels of authority involved in responding to the tragedy practiced Untouchability. Aid was distributed through caste panchayats, and those who called themselves traditionally as 'fisherfolk by birth' were given priority on receiving aid. These organizations proved efficient in distributing aid in their community, but excluded some people including Dalits regardless of loss or suffering. This was done through coercion as well as simple exclusion. Higher authorities or donors did nothing to ensure equitable distribution

f. Education: Untouchability in schools has contributed to drop-out and illiteracy levels for Dalit children far beyond those of the general population, with the 'literacy gap' continuing between Dalits and non-Dalits and literacy rates for Dalit women remaining as low as 37.8% in rural India (2001 Census). Teachers have been found to maintain discriminatory attitudes and practices that underlie caste relations in society

g. Nutrition: Half of India's Dalit children are undernourished, 21% are 'severely underweight', and 12% die before their 5th birthday.[4]

h. Exclusion from budget: The Government of India has a potentially powerful mechanism for the economic empowerment of Dalits known as Special Component Plan (SCP). The spirit of the Plan has been consistently thwarted in its application and implementation by most of the departments at the Central and States levels, by diverting on an average Euro 2,000 million (2.7 billion US dollars) every year[5] during the past five-year plan period

i. Labor market: Like other sectors Dalits also face discrimination in the labor market. This is clearly exhibited in exclusion of Dalits from employment by 'higher caste'; exclusion of 'low caste' from certain types of jobs/work due to notion of pollution and purity associated with Untouchability; selective inclusion in employment but with unequal treatment reflected (i) in lower wages (lower than wages given to other laborers), (ii) in terms and conditions with respect to hours of work, (iii) different behavior by employers towards low caste laborer /worker in the work place, and (iv) compulsive and forced work governed by traditional caste related obligations.[6]

j. Economic exclusion and discrimination: Through differential pricing in sale, purchase and hiring activities ranging from raw materials to finished goods Dalits are disadvantaged.[7] They are also denied the sale or purchase of land for agriculture and non-agricultural use

Persistent denial in the United Nations

While the situation of the Dalits still warrants special and urgent measures and interventions by various bodies of the state and the civil society, the state is still in a dilemma in its commitment to challenge the precipitation of the mindset of Untouchability and the resulting caste-based discrimination. While, at the time of Independence and thereafter, the Indian state did recognize and take constitutional and legislative remedies to correct the injustices caused, gross gaps in their implementation result in impunity. This mindset is also reflected in the actions of India at the United Nations (UN) and its various bodies that could have addressed the situation of discrimination and exclusion. It declined to address the issue in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Relate Intolerance (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa from 31 August-8 September 2001

Dalits betrayed

There is a strong comfort level in society and the state that crimes against Dalits do not need to be punished. This attitude of impunity is rooted in social and cultural values and persists in society despite the constitutional provisions against it. Protecting the rights of marginalized and vulnerable people is probably the most overlooked and disregarded area of human rights in India

However there is a clear departure from this denial through a realistic acknowledgment of the situation. Manmohan Singh, the President of India, at an international conference on Dalits and Minorities in New Delhi on the 27 November 2006[8] drew the parallel between social and caste injustices saying it was modern India's failure that millions of Dalits were still fighting prejudice. He explained:

Even after 60 years of constitutional and legal protection and support, there is still social discrimination against Dalits in many parts of our country. Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid.

For further information, please contact: N. Paul Divakar, National Convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), 36/12, 1st Floor, East Patel Nagar, New Delhi - 110 008, Mobile: +91 99100 46813,;


1. Shah, Mander, Thorat, Deshpande and Baviskar, Untouchability in Rural India. Delhi: Sage Publications, 2006

2. Based on Crime in India 2005, and

3. Writ Petition No. 1019 of 2006, High Court of Andhra Pradesh, filed by Sakshi Human Rights Watch, Response by the State Police Department in Annexure R-2/1

4. National Family Health Survey, commissioned by the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 1998-99 (last survey available), page 11,

5. Calculated from Expenditure Budget Vol. II (Notes on demands for Grants), Union Budget 2006-07; Statement No. 21, Expenditure Budget Vol. I, Union Budget 2006-07; Outcome Budget 2006-07- for various Ministries of Central Government

6. Sukhadeo Thorat, M. Mahamallik, and Ananth Panth. Caste, Occupation and Labour Market Discrimination: A Study of Forms, Nature and Consequences in Rural India. Report Submitted to International Labour Organization, New Delhi, India, January 2006

7. Ibid

8. The Guardian, 28 December 2006 - reporting the Prime Minister of India's inaugural address on the occasion of the International Conference on Dalits and Minorities in New Delhi, 27-28 December 2006.