India: The current situation of Dalits, especially in Punjab; and any protest rallies held by dalits in Punjab in 1997 and 1998 and subsequent reaction by the authorities
|Publisher||Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada|
|Author||Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada|
|Publication Date||1 April 1999|
|Citation / Document Symbol||IND31487.E|
|Cite as||Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, India: The current situation of Dalits, especially in Punjab; and any protest rallies held by dalits in Punjab in 1997 and 1998 and subsequent reaction by the authorities, 1 April 1999, IND31487.E, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6ad3914.html [accessed 19 May 2013]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
No reports of any protest rallies held by Dalits in Punjab in 1997 and 1998 could be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.
The following information on the caste system and the Dalits in India was taken from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (First Floor, Premier Residency, Plot No. 165, 1-8-142/B, 3rd Cross, Prenderghast Road, Secunderabad 500 003 India) at
One of the more confusing mysteries of India is her caste system. The caste system, which exists already for more than 3000 years, seems to have been developed by the Brahmins (priests) in order to maintain their superiority. Eventually, the caste system became formalised into 4 distinct classes (Varnas).
At the top are the Brahmins, the priests and arbiters of what is right and wrong in matters of religion and society. Next come the Kshatriyas, who are soldiers and administrators. The Vaisyas are the artisan and commercial class, and finally, the Sudras are the farmers and the peasant class. These four castes are said to have come from Brahma's mouth (Brahmin), arms (Kshatriyas), thighs (Vaisyas) and feet (Sudras).
Beneath the four main castes is a fifth group, the Scheduled Caste. They literally have no caste. They are the untouchables, the Dalits, which means oppressed, downtrodden and exploited social group.
... The Dalits perform the most menial and degrading jobs. Sometimes Dalits perform important jobs, but this is mostly not socially recognised. Dalits are seen as polluting for higher caste people. If a higher caste Hindu is touched by an untouchable or even had a Dalit's shadow across them, they consider themselves to be polluted and have to go through a rigorous series of rituals to be cleansed.
In India there are approximately 240 million Dalits. This means that nearly 25% of the population is Dalit. It also means that in a country, where everybody is supposed to have equal rights and opportunities, 1 out of 5 persons is condemned to be untouchable.
In general one can say that being a Brahmin means that you are more privileged. This can imply having a good education and, accordingly, a more powerful position in the society. Being born as a Dalit you will be less off and because of less education you will have a less good job. In daily life it has a lot of consequences of being a Dalit.
Dalits are poor, deprived and socially backward. Poor means that they do not have access to enough food, health care, housing and/or clothing (which means that their physiological and safety needs are not fulfilled). They also do not have access to education and employment. With deprived we would like to underline the injustice they face in every days life. Officially, everybody in India has the same rights and duties, but the practice is different. Social backwardness, lack of access to food, education and health care keeps them in bondage of the upper castes.
Nevertheless, in the recent past the Dalit society has also thrown up powerful leaders, like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. He was on of the most powerful personalities to stand for the rights of Dalits.
On 14 April 1999 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a lengthy report on the situation of Dalits in India called Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables" (Dawn 15 Apr. 1999; HRW Apr. 1999a; ibid. Apr. 1999b). A copy of this report can be accessed on the Internet at
The following articles summarizing the HRW report on Dalits have been reproduced in their entirety:
Violence Against "Untouchables" Growing, Says Report
Indian Government Fails to Prevent Massacres, Rapes, and Exploitation
(London, April 14, 1999) -- The Indian government has failed to prevent widespread violence and discrimination against more than 160 million people at the bottom of the Hindu caste system, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released today. The report, Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's "Untouchables," calls on the Indian government todisband private militias and implement national legislation to prevent and prosecute caste-based attacks.
"Untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950. Yet entire villages in many Indian states remain completely segregated by caste, in what has been called "hidden apartheid." Untouchables, or Dalits -- the name literally means "broken" people -- may not enter the higher-caste sections of villages, may not use the same wells, wear shoes in the presence of upper castes, visit the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, or lay claim to land that is legally theirs. Dalit children are frequently made to sit in the back of classrooms. Dalit villagers have been the victims of many brutal massacres in recent years.
"'Untouchability' is not an ancient cultural artifact, it is human rights abuse on a vast scale," said Smita Narula, researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The tools for change are in place -- what is lacking is the political will for their implementation." Human Rights Watch is an international human rights monitoring organization based in New York.
Since the early 1990s, violence against Dalits has escalated dramatically in response to growing Dalit rights movements. The release of the 291-page report today is timed to coincide with the birthday of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian constitution and revered Dalit leader who died in 1956. The National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, the first of its kind in history, will be marking the occasion with rallies in ten states.
The report includes more than forty specific recommendations to the Indian government at the central and state level, many of them focused on implementing a 1989 law banning atrocities against Dalits. According to that law, it is illegal to force Dalits into bonded labor, deny them access to public places, foul their drinking water, force them to eat "obnoxious substances," or "parade them naked or with painted face or body." The recommendations also call for the establishment of special courts and atrocities units to prosecute crimes against Dalits, and more women police personnel to register complaints by Dalit women.
"The violence will only grow without these measures," said Narula. "It isa crisis that calls out for national and international attention."
At the international level, the report calls on India's donors and trading partners to build anti-discrimination measures into all aid projects where problems of caste violence are particularly severe. All of the recommendations were formulated in consultation with Indian activists involved in the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, founded in 1998.
Upper-caste employers frequently use caste as a cover for exploitative economic arrangements. With the exception of a minority who have benefited from India's policy of reservations (affirmative action), Dalits are relegated to the most menial tasks.
An estimated forty million people in India, among them fifteen million children, are bonded laborers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off debts. The majority of them are Dalits. At least one million Dalits work as manual scavengers, clearing feces from latrines and disposing of dead animals with their bare hands. Dalits also comprise the majority of agricultural laborers who work for a few kilograms of rice, or 15-35 rupees (less than US$1) a day.
In India's southern states, thousands of Dalit girls are forced to become prostitutes for upper-caste patrons and village priests before reaching the age of puberty. Landlords and the police use sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women to inflict political "lessons" and crush dissent within the community. Dalit women have been arrested and tortured in custody to punish their male relatives who are hiding from the authorities.
The report documents violence in the eastern state of Bihar and the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, high-caste landlords have organized private militias, or senas, which have killed Dalit villagers with impunity. Extremist guerrilla groups have retaliated by killing high-caste villagers, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. Such attacks on civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch has called for independent investigations into the killings and for the disarming of the militias.
One of the most prominent militias, the Ranvir Sena, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. Within a span of three weeks in January and February 1999, sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks. On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Centre, a guerrilla organization with low-caste supporters, beheaded 33 upper-caste villagers in retaliation for the sena killings. Both sides have threatened more "revenge killings" in the weeks to come.
The senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them during their attacks and have stood by as they killed villagers in their homes. In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the senas. The purpose of the raids is often to terrorize Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of guerilla organizations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and destroyed property. Sena leaders and police officials have never been prosecuted for such killings and abuses.
Dalits throughout the country also suffer from de facto disenfranchise-ment. During elections, Dalits are routinely threatened and beaten by political party strongmen in order to compel them to vote for certain candidates. Dalits who run for political office in village councils and municipalities (through seats that have been constitutionally "reserved" for them) have been threatened with physical abuse and even death to get them to withdraw from the campaign.
In the village of Melavalavu, Tamil Nadu, following the election of a Dalit to the village council presidency, members of a higher-caste group murdered six Dalits in June 1997, including the elected council president, whom they beheaded. As of February 1999, the accused murderers -- who had been voted out of their once-secure elected positions -- had not been prosecuted.
In cases investigated for this report, with the exception of a few transfers and suspensions, no action has been taken against police officers involved in violent raids or summary executions, or against those accused of colluding with private actors to carry out attacks on Dalits. In many instances, Dalits have repeatedly called for police protection and been ignored. Even national government agencies concur that impunity is rampant.
"Talking about the problem is not enough," said Narula. "The Indian government must act now to demonstrate its stated commitment to ensuring equal rights for Dalits."
(2) On 15 April 1999 the Karachi-based English language daily newspaper Dawn carried the following article, taken from AP, on the HRW report:
"India's 'Untouchables' Live in Sub-Human Conditions: HR Group"
More than 160 million lower-caste "untouchables" in India live in sub-human conditions and face increasing discrimination, violence, rape and murder, according to the Human Rights Watch.
In an in-depth report released on Wednesday, the US-based lobby group urged the Indian government to prevent caste-based oppression through new legislation, saying the abolition of the 2,000-year-old tradition of "untouchability" in 1950 had had no effect.
It said "untouchables," commonly known as "Dalits" or "broken" people, suffered from a "hidden apartheid," with caste violence "since the early 1990s ... escalating dramatically in response to the growing Dalit rights movement."
Between 1994 and 1996, a total of 98,349 cases were registered with the police nationwide as crimes and atrocities against Dalits.
Human Rights Watch said that figure was the tip of the iceberg "given that Dalits are both reluctant and unable, for lack of police cooperation, to report crimes against themselves."
The formal launch of the report coincided with the birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, the "untouchable" author of the Indian constitution and the first leader to rise out of the socially deprived community. India's untouchables, who occupy the lowest rung of the entrenched caste system, have come a long way since 1947. The current president, K.R. Narayanan, is the country's first "untouchable" head of state.
However, in large parts of India their lot has worsened, the report said, highlighting the murderous activities of an upper-caste landlords' militia, the Ranvir Sena, in Bihar. The Ranvir Sena has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. Within a span of three weeks in January and February, Sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks.
"The Senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have stood by as they killed villagers," the report said.
"During the (Sena) raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women and destroyed property." The report said Dalits were still forced to live in segregated villages, denied access to public places including wells and temples and forced into prostitution and slavery.
It called for the immediate disbanding of the Ranvir Sena, stiffer punishment for caste offences, strict implementation of laws and the launch of a national awareness campaign. The report also urged India to allow foreign rapporteurs to assess the situation and called upon the World Bank and other global lending bodies to ensure that anti-discrimination clauses accompanied grants and aid.
Smita Narula, the author of the report, said the ancient Hindu caste system, which totally negated the rights of the lowest caste, was not a "cultural artifact" but "human rights abuse on a vast scale.
Human Rights Watch said an estimated 40 million people, including about 15 million children - the majority of them untouchables - worked as bonded labour under slave-like conditions to pay off their debts.
"Dalits also comprise a majority of agricultural labourers who work for a few kilograms of rice or less than one dollar a day," it said.
The report highlighted the story of Guruswamy Guruammal, a 26-year-old pregnant woman, who was forced to parade naked in public, beaten and then jailed for complaining about a policeman who sexually harassed her.-AFP
(3) The following 23 April 1999 HRW press release describes police responses to recent attacks by the upper caste Hindu militia Ranvir Sena on Dalit villages in Bihar:
State, Central Authorities In India "Criminally Negligent"
(New York, April 23, 1999)- Human Rights Watch today condemned the Bihar state government for refusing to heed warnings that the Ranvir Sena, a private militia of upper caste landlords, was planning a revenge attack on lower caste villagers. Yesterday, gunmen belonging to the upper caste Hindu militia killed twelve people in an attack on two neighboring villages in the Gaya district, south of the state capital, Patna. According to press reports, the victims included four women and a baby. The hands of some victims were reportedly bound together before they were shot. The killings were in apparent retaliation for the killing of thirty five upper caste villagers by Maoist guerrillas last month.
As rival political parties in New Delhi struggle to form a new government, violence against the country's most marginalized groups continues. In a 291-page report released on April 14, "Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's 'Untouchables,'" Human Rights Watch documented other recent incidents of violence in Bihar in which private militias like the Ranvir Sena have killed Dalit villagers with impunity. Extremist guerrilla groups have retaliated by killing highcaste villagers, leading to an escalating cycle of violence. Such attacks on civilians constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch has called for independent investigations into the killings and for the disarming of the militias. The group has also urged that authorities provide full security to villagers against further Ranvir Sena attacks.
"The government's failure to stop the Ranvir Sena this time and protect these Dalit villages amounts to criminal negligence," said Patti Gossman, senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
The Ranvir Sena, which is one of the most prominent militias, has been responsible for the massacre of more than 400 Dalit villagers in Bihar between 1995 and 1999. Within a span of three weeks in January and February 1999, sena members killed 34 Dalit villagers in two separate attacks. On March 19, 1999, members of the Maoist Communist Centre, a guerrilla organization with lowcaste supporters, beheaded 33 uppercaste villagers in retaliation for the sena killings.
Despite the fact that the senas frequently give warnings before they attack, little has been done to protect vulnerable villages and prevent attacks. The senas, which claim many politicians as members, operate with impunity. In some cases, police have accompanied them during their attacks and have stood by as they killed villagers in their homes. In other cases, police raids have followed attacks by the senas. The purpose of the raids is often to terrorize Dalits as a group, whether or not they are members of guerilla organizations. During the raids, the police have routinely beaten villagers, sexually assaulted women, and destroyed property. Sena leaders and police officials have never been prosecuted for such killings and abuses.
Human Rights Watch reiterates its call on the Indian government at the central and state level to implement a 1989 law banning atrocities against Dalits.
(4) The following article, downloaded from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (Secunderabad, India), provides some examples of what it is like to be a Dalit in India:
Atrocities in Dalits' daily life
The oppression of Dalits has been going on for over 3000 years. They are segregated in all spheres of social life: places of worship, education, housing, land ownership, use of common wells, roads, busses, etc. They are the people who have to do the menial and degrading jobs. They are considered to be untouchable. In their daily life untouchability results in, among others, the following consequences (For more day to day examples also go through the press releases).
In a lot of the upper caste (rich) families the servants are Dalits. After the servant has cleaned the rooms, pots and pans, one of the family members will sprinkle 'holy' water to purify all that has been touched by the servant.
Dalits are not allowed to wear shoes; if they wear them, Dalits will have to take off their shoes at times they meet a higher caste person.
In the rural areas, Dalits are not allowed to cycle through the village streets in which the higher caste people live.
The Dalits mainly live in separate communities, outside the actual village.
In general, Dalits are not allowed to sit at the bus stop; they have to stand and wait till upper caste people have entered the bus.
Dalits are also not allowed to sit on the seats, even though they are vacant.
After half a century of Independence even the educated among the Dalits are not free to get a house for rent of their choice to live in.
Most Hindus will avoid having a Dalit to prepare their food, because they fear becoming polluted.
The government has made reservations for Dalits, so that they can enter into jobs in the public sector, parliamentary State Assemblies and universities. This reservation, however, makes them even more vulnerable in the society.
Mira Saroj: Daughter of a toddy tapper in Uttar Pradesh, she is enrolled at Delhi University but jumps in with manual labour at home when she is free from studies. 'Sadly, an educated Dalit women is almost a contradiction in terms', says Mira. (Outlook Magazine, November 16, 1998)
'We may touch a cat, we may touch a dog, we may touch any other animal, but the touch of these human beings is pollution.' (G.K. Gokhale, in Jesus the Dalit by M.R. Arulraja, 1996. Volunteer Centre, 7-1-30/6, Ameerpet, Hyderabad - 16)
For additional information on the situation of Dalits in India, please consult the Research Directorate's July 1998 Human Rights Information Package: India and its 1999 supplement.
This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.
Dawn [Karachi]. 15 April 1999. "India's 'Untouchables' Live in Sub-Human Conditions: HR Group." [Internet]
Human Rights Watch (HRW). April 1999a. Violence Against "Untouchables" Growing, Says Report. [Internet]
_____. April 1999b. State, Central Authorities in India "Criminally Negligent." [Internet]
National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. n.d. Who Are Dalits? [Internet]
_____. n.d. Atrocities in Dalits' Daily Life. [Internet]
Additional Sources Consulted
Amnesty International Report 1998. 1998.
Dalit Christians of India Website.
The Hindu [Chennai/Madras]. N.d. "A Diary of Important National Events in 1997."
Human Rights Watch World Report. Yearly. 1987, 1988.
India Today [Delhi]. Fortnightly. January 1997-July 1997.
Resource Centre. "India" country file. January 1997-August
Sharma, K.L. (ed.). 1994. Caste and Class in India.
Electronic sources: Internet, IRB Databases, NEXIS.