ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION Urgent Appeal
Caste-based discrimination against ‘untouchable’ Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information concerning caste-based discrimination in the implementation of the Mid-Day-Meal scheme in Maregaon Village of Tehsil Gadarwara, Narshingpur, Madhya Pradesh. The monstrous failure of provincial authorities to distribute such welfare to those most in need is believed to be a reaction to a specific decision by the Ahirwar community to abandon the oppressive practice of carrying the carcasses of dead beasts imposed on them by the varna (upper) castes. Instead of actively resisting pervasive stereotypes of caste, the local government itself perpetuates parochial prejudices long rendered unconstitutional and commits acts of discrimination punishable by law.
The deprivation of adequate food, water and employment necessary to a person’s health and well-being, to a person’s right to life and to his or her inherent dignity is a crime against humanity. The provision of such is a responsibility that falls to the state. We urge you to write in to appeal to the relevant authorities to take actions against the officers responsible for these crimes against Ahirwar community and to restore to these victims their rights and access to water, food and employment. In so doing, we hope to not only assist these victims but countless others by stirring up compassion and a sense of duty in the central government. In so doing, we urge the government to strengthen rule of law throughout the land, which will win them the hearts of their people and bring about a lasting peace.
Yuva Samvad, Nagrik Adhikar Manch and National Secular Forum conducted an investigation on 2 May 2012 in Maregaon Village of Gadarwara Tehsil of Narsinghpur district and uncovered the following details:
Maregoan Village has a population of approximately 2000 individuals. Out of these, 100 families are of the Ahirwar community. Dalits make up most of the agricultural labourers in this area, where Ahirwars (Chamars) compose a majority of the Dalits. The Ahirwar are classified as a Scheduled Caste in India. Ahirwar are spread across Gadarwara and in nearly all adjoining villages, playing an important role in the socioeconomic activities of the region. The Lodhi community in Maregaon village belong to what is termed in India as the ‘Other Backward Class’ (OBC). They own farmland and generally hire Ahirwar to cultivate their fields.
Division of labour in the community has resulted in the imposition of certain menial and lowly occupations upon the Ahirwar. For centuries, the Ahirwar have been tasked to do “dirty” jobs such as carrying the carcasses of animals. Despite the necessity of such workers, and for forcing them to take up such jobs, the Ahirwar are seen as being polluted by death and greatly despised. The Ahirwar are made to live in a hamlet separated from the main village.
In 2009, the Ahirwar Samaj Mahaparishad built a consensus among the Ahirwar community to abandon the practice of carrying the carcasses of animals and shake off the label of “untouchable” imposed by the dominant castes. This decision was first acted upon by three or four individuals and was soon claimed by other Ahirwar. In response, individuals from dominant castes began a social and economic boycott against the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were not permitted to pass through the village and were forced to take a longer route in order to travel to other villages. The Ahirwar were prohibited from taking rations from the local shopkeeper; even the local milk vendor was intimidated by the Lodhi into not selling milk to the Ahirwar. The Ahirwar were even more cruelly persecuted through the denial of water from the hand pump located near the village temple. Prior to their decision to abandon the practice of carrying animal carcasses, the Ahirwar were still permitted to use this hand pump because there had been two at the time and the villagers were not facing a shortage of water. Today, the Lodhi have fenced in and put wire around the temple and areas surrounding it – this includes the hand pump the Ahirwar depended on for their water. In addition to such mistreatment and deprivation, the Ahirwar were further prohibited from using water from a communal water tank. This tank was also fenced in with wire by the Lodhi. The Ahirwar’s cattle were also not permitted to partake of water from the tank. The Ahirwar face a severe shortage of water at this present time.
Children of the oppressed castes are forced to clean the school while children from dominant castes are not. The school also discriminates through seating arrangements in class. To exacerbate the situation, the cook engaged in preparing the Mid-Day-Meal in Maregaon Village is a Lodhi. Despite efforts by authorities to relieve malnutrition in the area by implementing a Mid-Day-Meal scheme, the Ahirwar children who most require the sustenance are discriminated against. They are served only leftovers, if there are any, and the food is given to them from a distance. The Ahirwar children are also forced to bring their own plates while other students from the dominant castes are served from plates provided by the school. The children from the Ahirwar community are also fed insufficient amounts of food and punished for asking for more. Instead of the social, economic and intellectual progress thatmight be expected in the world’s largest democracy, Madhya Pradesh looks increasingly like Dickensian London. “Please, sir, I want some more” – will the authorities intervene, or participate in the silencing of such cries for help by refusing to?
Finally, the report exposes shockingly poor implementation of the Apex Court’s orders concerning the Government Food, Employment and Welfare Schemes to prevent hunger and malnutrition among the people of Maregaon Village. Central to this failure has been the wrong identification of Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. Of the more than 100 Ahirwar families who conduct manual labour for a living, only 20-25 families have been issues the PBL card. Many live in terrible conditions and should also be included on the BPL list but have not been. Most Ahirwar are deprived of the benefits of the government scheme that targets BPL families. The Ahirwar have job cards but only two to three individuals have found employment under the NREGA scheme while the rest languish, unemployed and “unemployable” due to their caste affiliation. So far local officials have not acted to discipline such blatant acts of discrimination and assure the Ahirwar of protection against future abuses.
Although plans and efforts by the government to alleviate hunger and malnutrition are commendable, the government should also pursue the goal of correct implementation of such schemes. To foolproof the programme would be the only responsible thing to do, especially in light of the recent reports made against abuses in the system. While the government may not actively discriminate against the Ahirwar, to passively watch other actors do so – to refuse to act – is a betrayal of a common humanity; it means to be complicit in such acts of violence and inhuman, degrading treatment. This is unforgivable for an administration powerful enough to carry out punitive actions against perpetrators and practically assist this neglected and long-oppressed segment of society.
Entire paradigms must be radically altered for real and sustainable change. Human beings have to recognise above all things the equality and inherent dignity of fellow human. Only by acknowledging a common humanity can we hope to evade the violence that proceeds from other exclusive and necessarily reductive identities (religious, ethnic, linguistic, gender, national, political affiliations). The residents of Maregaon Village can begin to mend the rifts in their community’s social fabric by permitting the Ahirwar occupations of their own choosing, by paying the Ahirwar for services rendered and by learning to dissociate the derogatory label of “untouchable” from menial but freely chosen jobs. Such critical re-evaluation of their beliefs would not only restore the dignity of the Ahirwar but serve the dominant class by freeing them to participate in free market systems, to have healthy and peaceable relationships with their neighbours. As with all social reform, this will take effort and time. Yet the state bears a more immediate obligation to its people, to the Ahirwar. The state must release the Ahirwar from their servitude, inhuman and degrading treatment, poor standards of living and oppression at the hands of the Lodhi. Without urgent intervention, the Ahirwar and their children face continued caste-based discrimination and an uncertain future.
Rights are not merely privileges; they are entitlements. And the Ahirwar have been robbed of these entitlements.
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) laid out some guidelines concerning the protection of the protection of individuals’ fundamental rights. By virtue of being human, the Ahirwar are, ”without distinction”, fully entitled to enjoy such rights and liberties as set forth in the Declaration, and the Indian state is expected to bear the responsibility of providing access to and protection of such rights (Article 2). Relevant to this case of discrimination are Articles 3, 4, 5, 23 and 25, which collectively assert that every human has a right to life, liberty and security of person, work, free choice of employment, just and favorable conditions of work, protection against unemployment, equal pay for equal work, just remuneration for an existence worthy of human dignity, a standard of living adequate for health and well-being, including food, housing, medical care, social services and security in the event of unemployment or lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Children are entitled to special care and assistance. The Ahirwar also have rights against servitude and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which India ratified in 1979, reiterate such rights in Articles 6 (right to life, protected by law), 7 (right against cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment), 8 (right against servitude and forced or compulsory labour), 24 (right of the child to protection without discrimination), 26 (all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without discrimination to the equal protection of the law). The Indian state is bound by international law to upholding these rights.
India’s own Constitution, that came into effect in 1950, declaims discrimination on grounds of religion, race, sex, place of birth and caste. Article 15(2) (a) and (b) state that no citizen shall be denied access to the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and public places dedicated to the use of the general public. Article 15(3) and (4) go further still to endorse affirmative action and promote special provisions for the most vulnerable sectors of Indian society: women, children, members of socially and educationally backward classes of citizens, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes. Article 16 stipulates ”equality of opportunity in matters of public employment” and also permits positive discrimination to increase the participation and representation of the same vulnerable groups of individuals in the civil service but also prohibiting discrimination on the grounds already mentioned. Article 17 of the Indian Constitution crucially abolishes “untouchability”, a most extreme form of discrimination wherein the lowest caste in society is deemed “unclean”, shunned and ostracized. Article 17 is not only stating an ideal to be worked towards – it categorically and permanently criminalises such a practice. Yet this label continues to blight the lives of hundreds of thousands in India, and persist as reality for the Ahirwar in Madhya Pradesh. It is an impossible and soul-destroying reality that disgraces India. It is a reality that can and should be fought by the government’s every last ounce of strength and willpower.
Legislations such as the Untouchability (Offences) Act 1955, the the Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955 and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 provide the enforcement architecture to constitutional guarantees against caste-based discrimination and other entrenched practices concerning untouchability. However the enforcement of these legislations is a far cry of what it ought to be. Several other factors adversely affect the implementation of affirmative penal laws intended to prevent discrimination; a corrupt and inept policing system, caste-prejudices of police officers, prosecutors and judges further inhibit the enactment of these legislations. Thus the deterrance effect of penal laws like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 is diminished and caste-based atrocities continue in India. The case at hand is one such example.
Please write to the authorities mentioned below demanding a thorough investigation into this case. The suffering of the Ahirwar must be ameliorated and vindicated. The first step may be achieved by officials simply ensuring the proper implementation of existing welfare schemes providing food and employment. The police who wield jurisdiction over the area should exercise their authority and see to the removal of the fences and wires that separate the Ahirwar and their cattle from life-sustaining water. Families living in squalid conditions and obviously below the poverty line should be given their ration cards at the earliest possible moment. Officials should send inspectors at regular intervals to monitor the discrimination faced by Ahirwar children in schools and during mid-day meals. The Ahirwar should also be interviewed to see how many are currently being coerced
The AHRC is also writing separate letters to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and the Chairperson of the Committee on the Rights of the Child calling for further intervention in this case.
To support this appeal, please click here: