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Caste discrimination affects an estimated 260 million people

Caste discrimination affects an estimated 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia. It involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Caste systems divide people into unequal and hierarchical social groups. Those at the bottom are considered ‘lesser human beings’, ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’ to other caste groups.

They are known to be ‘untouchable’ and subjected to so-called ‘untouchability practices’ in both public and private spheres. ‘Untouchables’ – known in South Asia as Dalits – are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, and many are subjected to forced and bonded labour. Due to exclusion practiced by both state and non-state actors, they have limited access to resources, services and development, keeping most Dalits in severe poverty.

They are often de facto excluded from decision making and meaningful participation in public and civil life. Lack of special legislation banning caste discrimination or lack of implementation of legislation, due to dysfunctional systems of justice and caste-bias, have largely left Dalits without protection. Despite policy development and new legislation in some countries, fundamental challenges still remain in all caste-affected countries.

The progress that has been made is, to a large extent, a consequence of the tireless work of Dalit civil society groups in South Asia. They have also – through IDSN and by other means – managed to place caste discrimination firmly on the international human rights agenda. UN bodies and EU institutions are paying increasing attention to this issue.

The division of a society into castes is a global phenomenon not exclusively practised within any particular religion or belief system. In South Asia, caste discrimination is traditionally rooted in the Hindu caste system, according to which Dalits are considered ‘outcasts’. However, caste systems and the ensuing discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities. They are also found in Africa, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and in Diaspora communities.

Caste systems are a form of social and economic governance that is based on principles and customary rules:

  • Caste systems involve the division of people into social groups (castes) where assignments of rights are determined by birth, are fixed and hereditary.
  • The assignment of basic rights among various castes is unequal and hierarchical, with those at the top enjoying most rights coupled with least duties and those at the bottom performing most duties coupled with no rights.
  • The system is maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism (a system of social and economic penalties) in case of any deviations.

The doctrine of inequality is at the core of the caste system.

Those who fall outside the caste system are considered “lesser human beings”, “impure” and thus “polluting” to other caste groups. They are known to be “untouchable” and subjected to so-called “untouchability practices” in both public and private spheres.

“Untouchables” are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste. The work they do adds to the stigmatisation they face from the surrounding society.

The exclusion of ‘caste-affected communities’ by other groups in society and the inherent structural inequality in these social relationships lead to high levels of poverty among affected population groups and exclusion from, or reduced benefits from development processes, and generally precludes their involvement in decision making and meaningful participation in public and civil life.

The division of a society into castes is a global phenomenon not exclusively practised within any particular religion or belief system.

In South Asia, caste discrimination is traditionally rooted in the Hindu caste system. Supported by philosophical elements, the caste system constructs the moral, social and legal foundations of Hindu society. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ or people who fall outside the four-fold caste system consisting of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya and Sudra. Dalits are also referred to as Panchamas or people of the fifth order. However caste systems and the ensuing caste discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Caste systems are also found in Africa, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and in Diaspora communities around the world. In Japan association is made with Shinto beliefs concerning purity and impurity, and in marginalized African groups the justification is based on myths.

Caste discrimination affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia.

Caste discrimination involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It is often outlawed in countries affected by it, but a lack of implementation of legislation and caste-bias within the justice systems largely leave Dalits without protection.

A central feature of caste discrimination is the so-called “untouchability practices”. It stems from the notion that different caste groups have varying degrees of purity and pollution, with Dalits and other caste-affected groups being so impure that they can pollute other groups.

Paradoxically, sexual abuse and rape against Dalit women is not considered polluting to men from dominant castes.

If Dalits and other caste-affected groups challenge the untouchability practices, they often face violent sanctions and social boycott. Massive violations of human rights occur in relation to untouchability practices and other forms of caste-based discrimination.

Common untouchability practices:

  • Segregation in housing, schools and cremation grounds
  • De facto prohibition of inter-caste marriage
  • Limitation or prohibition of access to public places such as roads, temples and tea houses
  • Denial or limitation of access to public services such as water taps, health care and education
  • Restrictions on occupation; assignment of the most menial, dirty and dangerous jobs as defined by the caste hierarchy
  • De facto prohibition of access to ownership of land

The effect of untouchability practices and indeed the sexual abuse of “untouchable” women is that Dalits and other “untouchable” groups are kept powerless, separate and unequal.

Find out how these untouchability practices also constitute human rights violations

Database

IDSN has created an extensive database on caste-based discrimination.

Click here for all documents on untouchability

Other resources

Untouchability in Rural India by Shah, Mander, Thorat, Deshpande & Baviskar (2006)

Understanding Untouchability – A Comprehensive Study of Practices and Conditions in 1589 Villages by Navsarjan Trust and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights (2010)

Anthropology of Caste (from the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 2008)

Vidoes – Untouchability practices

Click here to view IDSNs YouTube channel with a selection of videos dealing with untouchability practices

The hierarchical division of a society placing inherent priviledges and restrictions by birth run contrary to the belief that “all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights” as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Caste discrimination involves massive violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Caste-affected communities are denied a life in dignity and equality.

According to a comprehensive UN study on discrimination based on work and descent, a number of human rights violations occur in relation to caste discrimination:

  • The right to physical security and life and the right to be free from violence
  • The right to equal political participation
  • The right to fair access to justice
  • The right to own land
  • The right to equal access to public and social services
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to marriage on free will
  • The right to education
  • The right to cultural identity
  • The right to equal opportunity and free choice of employment
  • The right to equal, just and favorable conditions of work
  • The right to be free from forced or bonded labour
  • The right to be free from cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment
  • The right to health
  • The right to adequate food, water, sanitation, clothing and housing

Impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against caste-affected groups and non-implementation of legislation permeates the justice and law enforcement systems. Dalit cases are often not reported, investigated or prosecuted properly. Policemen, lawyers and judges often belong to dominant castes and they are unwilling to investigate, prosecute and hear cases of crimes against Dalits. Very few cases of crimes against Dalits lead to conviction.

The United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommends with specific reference to caste-affected communities that all states “take the necessary steps to ensure equal access to the justice system for all members of descent-based communities as well as ensure the prosecution of persons who commit crimes against members of descent-based communities and the provision of adequate compensation for the victims of such crimes.”

Learn more about our work on international level to adress the human rights violations that stem from caste discrimination

Learn more about how we work with the business sector on corporate social responsibility

See the Human Rights Correspondence School lessons on caste discrmination here

Database

IDSN has created an extensive database on caste-based discrimination.

Click here for all documents on business and Human Rights 

Several UN bodies have reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent – the UN terminology for caste discrimination – is prohibited by international human rights law, and that it is a global human rights phenomenon which should be addressed comprehensively through existing human rights mechanisms.

IDSN considers caste (and related discrimination and exclusion) to be a unique phenomenon – though widely spread in different geographical regions and cultural contexts. Among other unique aspects of caste systems are the association with (traditional) occupation, beliefs concerning purity and pollution, and ‘untouchability’ practices. Although caste is distinct from the concept of race, both types of discrimination produce comparable forms of political, economic, and social exclusion.

Precisely because of its unique nature – as well as the vast numbers of people affected globally and the severity of associated human rights violations – IDSN believes that caste discrimination warrants separate and distinctive treatment in the UN human rights system.

IDSN considers the argument about whether caste is similar to race to be an unproductive debate on semantics. States have the principal duty to promote, protect and respect the rights of citizens affected by all forms of discrimination, including caste discrimination, in accordance with existing international human rights obligations. States must avoid serious implementation gaps of their obligations in order to adhere to the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of the grounds on which discrimination is exercised.

Download full version of IDSN position paper on caste, race and descent

Commmittee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

In 2002, CERD adopted General Recommendation 29 on the term “descent” in article 1(1) of the Convention, which reaffirmed that caste-based discrimination falls within the scope of the Convention and therefore constitutes an effective framework to improve analysis and reporting on governments’ performance.

Read about UN treaty body observations on caste discrimination

UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism

The UN Special Rapporteur has several times reaffirmed the position of CERD that discrimination on the grounds of caste falls within the scope of existing instruments, in particular the International Convention on the Elimination of Alls Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Read about the UN Special Rapporteur on racism and caste

Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

Read about the Durban Review Conference, DDPA and caste discrimination

More information:

IDSN recommendations to the Human Rights Council

UN Principles and Guidelines on the effective eliminate of discrimination based on work and descent

What is discrimination based on work and descent?

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Caste system  is  a form of social and economic governance that is based on principles and customary rules that:

  • Involve the division of people into social groups (castes) where assignments of rights are determined by birth, descent and work  are fixed and hereditary.
  • The assignment of basic rights among various castes is unequal and hierarchical, with those at the top enjoying most rights and privileges coupled with least duties, and those at the bottom are forced to perform  most duties considered  impure  coupled with no rights.
  • The system is maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism (a system of social and economic penalties) in case of any deviations.

The doctrine of inequality is at the core of the caste system.

Those who fall outside the caste system are considered “lesser human beings”, “impure” and thus “polluting” to other caste groups. They are known to be “untouchable” and subjected to so-called “untouchability practices” in both public and private spheres.

“Untouchables” are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial, filthy and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste, sewage, removal of corpuses and garbage. The work they do adds to the stigmatisation they face from the surrounding society.

The exclusion of ‘caste affected communities’ by other groups in society and the inherent structural inequality in these social relationships lead to high levels of poverty among affected population groups and exclusion from, or reduced benefits from development processes, and generally precludes their involvement in decision making and meaningful participation in public and civil life. Their right to property and education continues to be violated.

Read about caste discrimination and the human rights violations that inevitably follows

No. The division of a society into castes is a global phenomenon not exclusively practised within any particular religion or belief system. In South Asia, the caste system originally emanated from  the Hindu religion and caste discrimination is today still deeply engrained in  the Hindu  society. Supported by philosophical elements, the caste system constructs the moral, social and legal foundations of Hindu society. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ or people who fall outside the four-fold caste system consisting of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya and Sudra. Dalits are also referred to as Panchamas or people of the fifth order. However caste system and the ensuing caste discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Caste systems are also found in Africa, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and in Diaspora communities around the world. In Japan association is made with Shinto beliefs – Buraku people – concerning purity and impurity, and in marginalized African groups the justification is based on myths.

Caste discrimination affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia.

Read about where caste systems and caste discrimination occur

Dalit means “broken people” and is the name the “untouchables” of India have chosen for themselves to signify a growing movement of empowerment, assertion and challenging an oppressive system and the oppressors.

Affected communities in other South Asian countries have followed and Dalit is now a term widely used in South Asia.

Affected communities in Africa and other places have different names.

Learn more about the terminology for caste-affected groups

Scheduled Castes is the official term found in the Constitution of India and Pakistan for those who fall outside the caste system. “Scheduled tribes” is the official Indian constitutional term for the indigenous tribes of India. More popularly known as “Adivasi”, they often suffer from poverty and discrimination, but they do not suffer under untouchability practices.

The “Harijans” is the term used by Mahatma Gandi for “untouchables”. It means “children of God – Hari”. The word is also related to the word “hari” which in Pakistan is used for the Dalit community of mud hut builders. “Harijans” is largely perceived as patronizing and is no longer used as the term is widely objected and challenged by most Dalits.

Learn more about the terminology used for groups affected by caste discrimination

The ordering of a society into castes and the ensuing caste discrimination is found in several cultures around the world. Because caste discrimination involves certain practices prohibited by international human rights instruments, such as the practice of untouchability, the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens against such violations, to punish the perpetrators, and to ensure that they do not take place under its jurisdiction.

Caste discrimination can and should be eliminated, but it requires action on many levels – from the grass roots level to state and national level, as well as to the international level. Legislation, its implementation as well as the change in the people’s mindsets should be looked at.

Caste discrimination is not an internal matter, which only the state is obliged to act upon. The international community has a responsibility to act because caste discrimination is a global human rights problem – one of the biggest and most overlooked of our times – which acts against the universal principles of non-discrimination, human dignity and equality.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar(1891-1956) from India was an Indian scholar, political leader and chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Born into an “untouchable” community, he spent his life fighting against the Indian caste system. He has embraced Buddhism as a protest to Hinduism and he is the icon of Dalits and his birthday 14 April is every year celebrated as Ambedkar Day.

“Jai Bhim” means victory to Ambedkar and is used as a greeting among followers of Ambedkar in the struggle against caste discrimination.

Caste discrimination is recognised by the United Nations as a contemporary form of racial discrimination, although casteism cannot be said to be the same as racism.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

“the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Because discrimination based on “descent” is central in caste discrimination, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) adopted General Recommendation no. 29 to confirm the legal interpretation of the term “descent” in article 1(1) of the Convention. This General Recommendation reaffirms that caste-based discrimination falls within the scope of the Convention:

“Strongly reaffirming that discrimination based on “descent” includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights […]”

Read more about caste, race and descent

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948).

But 260 million world wide continue to suffer from caste discrimination.

Many countries have legislation that outlaws caste discrimination – in India, for example, the body of legislation meant to protect Dalits and improve their situation is extensive. But political will to ensure implementation is lacking and discrimination from village level up to government level continues unabated. Caste discrimination and the human rights violations that inevitably follow can only be avoided if decision makers at all levels decide to take action.

Change has to come from within caste affected countries themselves, but IDSN raises awareness and engages with policy makers at international level in order to create pressure from the outside.

Learn more about our work with the United Nations

Learn more about our work with the European Union

Our members and associates also engage in dialogue with national and regional decision makers  – learn more via their respective websites.

The struggle against caste discrimination is a struggle for dignity and human rights.

While the caste systems in South Asia are originally linked to Hinduism, it is today a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon that is practised in varying forms within many different religious communities such as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

The struggle to eliminate caste-based discrimination condemns upholding the caste system and its discriminatory practices, which constitute serious violations of basic human rights. Thus, it is not Hinduism as such that is attacked, but practices that constitute violations of human rights.

In the words of Dr. Ambedkar:

“For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

The term affirmative action describes many policies intended to promote access to education or employment for historically and socio-politically disadvantaged and non-dominant groups. The motivation for affirmative action is to redress negative effects of past or current discrimination that has negatively affected the possibilities of discriminated groups to participate in society on an equal footing with other groups.

Some countries in South Asia have affirmative action programmes in the form of reservation of seats for Dalits in electoral bodies or in public universities, as well as jobs in the public sector.

These programmes exist to compensate for the disadvantage that Dalits face due to discrimination experienced in almost every sphere of life.

Likewise, special measures are necessary in social, development, health and education programmes to make sure that Dalits and other groups subjected to caste discrimination are not excluded due to the deeply rooted culture of discrimination.

In the draft UN Principles and Guidelines on the Elimination of discrimination based on work and descent, a number of recommendations can be found on special measure to avoid ‘discrimination by default’ in contexts where caste discrimination is deeply rooted in culture.

Read the draft UN Principles and Guidelines