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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.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.