29/09/2011 09:35 BST | Updated 28/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Dalits Remain 'Untouchables'

The UN General Assembly sessions, like listings at bookmakers' parlour, have favourites, and on occasions, even clear winners.

The UN General Assembly sessions, like listings at bookmakers' parlour, have favourites, and on occasions, even clear winners. As a scribe, for instance, you have a fair idea that Israel-Palestine issue will incite passions and dominate the agenda. From leaders with well-rehearsed speeches to news channels on a countdown, the stage is purpose-set for a grand show.

Political careers are pitched; channels get a ratings boost; activists have a field day before a global audience; and street vendors in New York too make a brisk business. Everybody wins. Then, who are the losers?

Ask 170 million dalits of India. For decades, organisations representing dalits who are traditionally regarded as 'untouchables' in centuries-old caste grouping in the Indian subcontinent, have tried relentlessly to make themselves heard at the UN forums. However, they very much remain outcasts in the world outside, as much as they remain excluded and marginalised within the South-Asian societies they live in.

Ten years ago in Durban, the UN World Conference Against Racism adopted the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Heralded as a united global action against racism, the declaration expressly set out to tackle racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. But despite years of protests, lobbying and advocacy, mention of dalits and caste-based discrimination were ignored in the declaration following a strong opposition led by the Indian government.

Organisations representing dalits have for decades argued that caste-based discrimination is a distinct form of racism and must be acknowledged and addressed in its own identity. Being born a dalit may mean being made to sit separate from other children in a classroom or denied education altogether; forbidden to touch other higher caste people; denied entry into temples and places of worship; not allowed to own land or property; only expected to do menial jobs; and face risk of violent retribution if you dare to challenge or transgress your social ranking.

Even though caste-based discrimination is a crime and punishable in local laws across South Asia region, yet centuries of social hierarchy is still deeply rooted in the subcontinent and governs daily lives of hundreds of millions. It is existent more or less uniformly across all religions and cultures in the region, making it a very unique social practice of discrimination endemic to the region and even common among the South Asian diasporas across the world. As a result, millions are deprived of dignity and freedoms which constitute the basic core values of human rights. It is common to read about atrocities committed on dalits because of their caste and status in the society. Very often, their status is exacerbated by poverty and limited chances they enjoy to progress in life.

Dalit organisations are often blamed for their failure to articulate their standpoints and advocate their rights. This, to a certain degree, is true. I recall sending stories to Outlook magazine in New Delhi from the media hub in Durban conference describing how fractured the dalit caucus was as compared to the Palestinians or the Israelis.

However, we are missing the point. It is not the failure of the dalit organisations or their leadership for their lack of ability and success in putting a robust case together. It is fundamentally a failure of the system that guarantees parity and fairness for all at platforms such as the UN. On the crest of political clamour, media rally and raucous protests, poorly resourced groups and unfashionable causes routinely fall off the agenda at key UN sessions. The case of dalits also exposes the fact that like the nations projecting themselves as moral torchbearers, human rights discourses too have a tendency to follow popular causes.

Last week, world leaders met at a high-level UN General Assembly meeting to reaffirm their commitment to the fight against racism on the 10th anniversary of the Durban Declaration. Once again, there was no mention of dalits. A scourge that blights the lives of millions who collectively represent more than half the population of the United States or roughly the populations of United Kingdom, France, Canada and Australia put together, continues to be underplayed or buried under generic definitions.

For leaders there is no political leverage to be gained; for sheer force, dalit protests rarely go beyond playing of traditional drums and sporadic sloganeering; caste-based discrimination isn't a sexy story for the media; and often broke dalit activists travelling on a shoestring budget from rural pockets in India are no joy to enterprising street hawkers either. Nobody wins, certainly not dalits. In their quest for a separate identity, dalits are fighting a very lonely battle. Not only at home, but also on global forums they continue to be 'untouchables.'