In 1948, the year that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, thousands of Dalits gathered outside a temple in India, from which they had been barred entry because of their caste. A bill had been passed making it illegal to forbid entry to temples on the grounds of caste, but as the group approached, the temple priests denied them access to worship. The protests were led by Dalit woman activist, Kamlaben Gurjar, who stood in the courtyard of the temple and proclaimed,
“The Supreme Court has opened the temple gates but more efforts will go into opening the doors of the minds of temple heads.”
This was a revolutionary campaign for human rights, dignity and equality for a group in society that had for centuries been treated as ‘untouchables’ and ‘unworthy’ of basic rights and respect.
Today, as we celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the struggle to open the doors of the minds of people across the world, to accept that all humans are of equal value and deserve equal rights, remains one of the key challenges facing our societies. As another Dalit woman leader from Bangladesh, Moni Rani Das, has stated,
“If you are not considered human, human rights do not apply to you.”
Dalit resistance to caste oppression is growing in strength by the minute. Everyday there are stories of courageous, visionary and bold Dalit women, men, girls and boys who stand up for their rights despite risking beatings, sexual abuse, losing their jobs, homes, place in school, and sometimes even their lives.
While the last 70 years have seen an impressive amount of laws forbidding caste discrimination introduced in some key South Asian countries, the burden of ensuring that these laws apply in real life seems to fall mainly on Dalit human rights defenders, with very weak support from the police, courts or other authorities in charge.
These defenders are facing escalating violence and abuse for daring to support the assertion of basic human rights of their communities. Nonetheless, they continue and persevere because they have a dream that is bigger than them and stronger than all the threats, injustice and adversity they face. As the International Dalit Solidarity Network, we share this dream.
We have a dream that one day all people irrespective of their caste can share food and water at the same table, from the same cups and plates and bond together in their shared humanity.
We have a dream that one day two people that love each other can marry without fearing for their lives, no matter what caste they come from.
We have a dream that one day caste will no longer determine whether you are destined for slavery, poverty and struggle and that everyone is given equality of opportunity to fulfil their dreams.
We have a dream that one day all children will be treated with dignity and given equal access to realise their potential irrespective of their caste. A world where no child will be made to sit separately, clean the toilets and not be allowed to touch their fellow classmates.
We have a dream that one day Dalit women will be respected and treated with dignity and equally with her fellow men and fellow women of any caste or creed.
We have a dream that universal respect for the worth and dignity of our fellow human beings will one day erase the lines of caste and replace them with love, respect and compassion.
We have a dream that all people of all castes, creeds, religions, and nationalities will join together to create a future free of caste injustice and inequity.
As we step into an eighth decade for human rights we hope that you will join us in making this dream a reality and let freedom from caste oppression ring from every corner of this planet.