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India: Humanity, Equality, Destiny?

Despite the international perception of India, social discrimination based on the outlawed caste sys

In 2010, the Commonwealth Games will take place in Delhi, India's capital under the slogan 'Humanity, Equality, Destiny'. To many, this may seem appropriate - earlier this year the country underwent its fifteenth general election since independence. 714 million registered to vote, reinforcing India's position as the largest functioning democracy in the world. But for millions of people in India, these concepts are far from reality.

Social discrimination based on the outlawed caste system is still very much intact. There are approximately 200 million dalits living in India - also referred to as 'scheduled castes' or 'untouchables'. These people are ranked at the bottom of the Hindu religious hierarchy on account of family descent, and as a result, are forced into social deprivation.

The Indian Constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste. Indeed, over the past 60 years, caste barriers have largely broken down in cities, but in rural areas where approximately 70 per cent of India's population lives, they are still prominent. Even the country's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh acknowledges the problem - "after 60 years of constitutional legal protection and support ... Dalits face a unique discrimination in [Indian] society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability [is] Apartheid."

Sharadah is a dalit who lives in a small village in Gujarat - a resource rich state in western India. At 3am she begins her daily routine as one of India's 1.3 million manual scavengers. Her job involves going around local houses emptying the human waste from non-flushing toilets. After she has collected the waste using a brush and large drum, she carries the drum on her head, walking 4 kilometers to dispose of the contents. Many manual scavengers like Sharadah have tried to escape the manual scavenging trade, setting up alternative businesses. But in small towns and villages where the caste system is still prominent, higher castes refuse to purchase from or associate themselves with dalits. As a result, these people are forced back into manual scavenging to make enough money to survive.

Manual scavenging is a typical job assigned to dalits in India. In 1993, in response to growing domestic and international pressure from human rights groups, the Indian government passed 'The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act'. The Act prohibits the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry toilets not connected to proper drainage channels. Violations of the act can lead to imprisonment for up to one year or a substantial fine of 2,000 Indian Rupees. In spite of this, a 2003 government impact assessment of the Act found that the law had only been adopted in 16 of India's 28 states, and has not been enforced in any.

The Act is a typical example of a 'white elephant' policy, implemented as a short term measure to shake off interest group pressure. It is clear that without the inclusion of clear provisions for tackling the deeper issue of caste-based discrimination, that it was an impossible law to implement.
A number of interest groups are currently working to influence change from different angles. More focus needs to be brought to groups who are striving for social change through creative methods, challenging the social system through international pressure and through empowerment of the dalits themselves.

The Dalit Solidarity Network is a UK-based network of individuals, groups and organisations working with Dalit communities in Asia to end global caste-based discrimination. Alongside government lobbying and advocacy initiatives, DSN-UK has undertaken an action study 'Another Apartheid? Caste Discrimination and UK Companies' in response to growing economic investment in India by UK-based companies in recent years. Through case study investigations into eight different UK-based organisations operating in India, DSN-UK has sought to develop an understanding of employment practices by foreign investors in India with regard to the Dalit community.

"Our aim [by undertaking this study] was to open up dialogue and work with the corporate sector to inform best practice with regard to caste and caste discrimination" says Meena Varma, Director of the Dalit Solidarity Network. "It is not surprising... that few companies, especially those moving to South Asia for the first time are aware of caste discrimination. There is a real opportunity for global corporations in India to address caste through their employment, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and - in the case of banks -financing policies."

The published report includes a number of key recommendations for private investors, one of which is to encourage adoption of 'The Ambedkar Principles ' - a set of guidelines developed in 2004 which suggest numerous ways for international investors to strengthen the Dalit workforce in caste-affected countries. The Principles recommend that companies provide in-house training programmes about the caste system and emphasise the importance of complying with national legislation on the subject.

Another organisation is taking the issue of caste discrimination to the international level, encouraging discussion and awareness at international institutions including the UN and the EU. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) is an international network of organizations which strives to link grassroot priorities with international institutions in order to change policies and practices related to caste discrimination worldwide. They have a secretariat in Copenhagen, Denmark.

In November, coordinator of IDSN Rikke Nohrlind visited Brussels with three dalit representatives from India and Nepal to discuss the extent of caste discrimination in India and South Asia. The occasion was a briefing for members of the Asia-Oceania Working Party (COASI) and Working Party on Human Rights (COHOM) - two EU working groups responsible for Asia-Europe relations and human rights respectively.

The overall purpose of the November visit was to explore how the EU can address caste discrimination in its interaction with caste-affected countries through development cooperation, trade relations and political dialogues. The delegation also urged the EU to take the issue further at the European Council level and to continue its support within the UN framework. A set of UN principles and guidelines has been developed on the basis of existing human rights principles and obligations, proposing measures for governments and other actors to prevent and address caste discrimination. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently urged the international community to endorse the guidelines and "eradicate the shameful concept of caste".

Whilst efforts from organizations such as these are invaluable in slowly encouraging change to occur, the most important type of work for dalits such as Sharadah is empowerment from the grassroots upwards. In conjunction with international projects and advocacy efforts, grassroots level initiatives are vital in challenging the social constructs of society.

Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) is a dalit movement committed to the eradication of manual scavenging in India. It was initiated in 1986 by a group of human rights activists in the state of Karnataka. Over the past twenty years, the organisation has grown substantially, and now focuses predominantly on organising and mobilising manual scavengers around the issues of dignity and rights.

In order to do this, representatives from SKA hold local meetings with manual scavengers throughout India, engaging the workers in discussion on the issue of manual scavenging, exposing its links to the caste system and identifying the inherent problems associated with the occupation. They aim is to raise awareness among the community about their rights under the law, and strive to improve the capacity of these workers to enable them to advocate for their own rights and to challenge their own position in society.

SKA also seeks to identify manual scavengers willing to work for their community, and trains them to take on work as fulltime SKA activists. These trainings centre on building perspectives on the links between the caste system and manual scavenging, human rights, developing skills of mobilisation, strategising interventions, leadership and articulation skills, as well as networking and alliance building at different levels.

Through conducting activities like these and building networks with likeminded individuals, SKA have rolled out and expanded their work across India - from its inception as a small group of social activists, SKA now have an active presence in 16 states across India. Movements like this show glimmers of hope for the future of the dalit population.

'Humanity', 'Equality' and 'Destiny' are a far cry from the existing state of Indian society, and this is unlikely to change before the commonwealth games commence next year. The caste system is a deeply entrenched issue in Indian society. However, the hosting of the games is an ideal opportunity to put India in the spotlight, encouraging more initiatives like SKA and bringing awareness to advocacy efforts like those undertaken by DSN-UK and IDSN.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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