Accessibility links

UN Looks at Discrimination Against 'Untouchables,' South Asia's Lowest Caste

A United Nations committee is holding a special two-day meeting to examine the issue of descent, or caste-based, discrimination. Representatives from the Dalit, or so-called untouchable caste, who have come to Geneva, say they see this as an important opportunity to have their situation discussed at the international level.

There are more than 250 million so-called untouchables, or Dalit, in South Asia. The largest number is found in India. But, millions of low-caste people also live in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Other people are in similar caste situations in Senegal and Japan.

Fathima Natesan Burnad, an educated, dynamic woman of the Tamil Nadu Women's Forum was born an untouchable. As such, she said, she will be an outcast all her life. "Untouchable is not to be touched," she said. "Our right is to be touched. Even you can touch a dog. Even you can touch your pets. You can touch anything, but you cannot touch a human being."

Ms. Burnad said the economic, social, political and cultural rights of Dalit are violated. She said they are forced to do the dirtiest jobs for the lowest pay, and most are deprived of education. "We want the committees and people and the press to expose the situation, the discrimination the Dalits are facing, and make recommendations, so attention is given to our community," she said.

The discussion at the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination marks the first time the United Nations is dealing specifically with the issue of caste and discrimination. The Dalit representatives hope the U.N. committee meeting will give their situation visibility.

Paul Divakar, an official with the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, said caste-based discrimination is similar in many ways to race discrimination. "A weak argument that is being put forward by the Indian government is that caste and race are different. Therefore, semantically, what they are trying to do is somehow keep this issue from visibility at the international level," he said. "We are not saying it is race. It is a different kind of discrimination. But, the forms of discrimination under the caste-based discrimination are very similar, and in some places it is much, much more gruesome."

Mr. Divakar said support from the international community will strengthen the grassroots movement back home. He said a little pressure from the U.N. committee will help countries understand they cannot treat 250 million people as if they are less than nothing.