Caste Discrimination Worldwide: Unyielding Struggle for Human Rights

Categories: Discrimination

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 aredetermined by birth, are fixed and hereditary.

The assignment of basic rights among various castes is both 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.

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.

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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.

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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 theBrahmin, 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. Videos – Cases of Caste Discrimination

Click here to see a Playlist from IDSNs YouTube Channel with a selection of videos dealing with cases of caste discrimination and the consequences of this. Understanding ‘Untouchability’ A comprehensive Study of practices and conditions in 1589 Villages Caste-based discrimination is the most complex human rights issue facing India today. To date, the tools used to assess its status have been divided by discipline—human rights, legal and social science. Although significant contributions toward understanding untouchability have been made in each of these areas, it is difficult to comprehend the scope and pervasiveness of the problem without combining the tools of all three. We have spent the last four years compiling quantitative, comprehensive and reliable data exposing the current state of untouchability (caste-based discrimination) against Dalitsi (“untouchables”) in Gujarat, India.

This report presents data on untouchability practices in 1,589 villages from 5,462 respondents in Gujarat on the issue of untouchability. In 2000, Martin Macwan of Navsarjan received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, initiating a long-term partnership between Navsarjan and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. In response to Navsarjan’s identified need for an extensive study on caste discrimination, members of the RFK Global Advocacy Team from the University of Maryland/Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, and Dartmouth College/University of Michigan joined the team. The objective was to contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of the topic in order to better drive Navsarjan’s advocacy and intervention work. In its efforts across Gujarat and India, Navsarjan has experienced first-hand that a deeper understanding gained by intensive data collection leads to the development of more effective strategies to address the continued practice of untouchability.

Indeed, interactions with individuals across age, caste, gender and social sectors during the implementation of this study reveal that the potential for ending untouchability may exist within two large groups of people that can be seen as sources of hope. First, a large segment of Indian society, primarily of younger generation Indians, though largely ignorant about its scope and practice, appears ready and willing to learn about untouchability and work towards its true abolition. Second, another group of people across caste, nationality and religious affiliations have become deeply concerned about the prevalence of untouchability practices viewed from the perspective of human rights. This group of activists, advocates, donors, lawyers, students, academics, politicians and ordinary citizens has developed an awareness of untouchability as an issue of civil and human rights law.

The report presents both a general and multi-disciplinary view of current untouchability practices across rural areas in Gujarat (bringing together political science, sociology, law, public policy and community organizing) and provides evidence to refute the belief that untouchability is limited to remote and economically underdeveloped corners of India. The broad picture of untouchability can be used to educate Indian society about these practices and to initiate an informed national and international debate on how to address the problem.

Equally important, this report presents a picture of untouchability that promotes global visibility on the continued human rights violations suffered by Dalits and provides an example to other countries on methods for identifying, understanding and eliminating discriminatory activity. We believe that a systematic approach to understanding untouchability shatters the myth that the problem is intractable. Instead, we hope that the data presented here and the understanding it generates will spark new energy and commitment to the movement to end the injustice and indignity of untouchability. (to view the full report hit the link below)

Caste-based discrimination is a form of discrimination prohibited by international human rights law. Although it may not be equated with racism, it is quite clear from several references made by several UN treaty and charter-bodies that this issue warrants due recognition as an example of gross human rights violation that needs to be taken into consideration by all human rights mechanisms available in the UN system. ICERD definintions and CERD practice on descent-based discrimination The ‘descent’ limb of the definition of ‘racial discrimination’ Article 1(1) of ICERD defines ‘racial discrimination’ as follows: Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, 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 (emphasis added)

The term ‘descent’ as a prohibited ground of discrimination springs unheralded and unexplained into the basic framework of ICERD. It is one of only two terms in this list that isn’t borrowed directly from the UDHR formulation (the other being ‘ethnic origin’, in lieu of ‘social origin’). It does not appear in any of the key pre-ICERD texts on racial discrimination. It is also noteworthy that, although included in the definition in article 1(1), the term ‘descent’ was omitted from the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in article 5 of ICERD. CERD General Recommendation No. 29 on descent

CERD has confirmed its interpretation of ‘descent’, in the form of its General Recommendation No. 29 on ‘descent-based discrimination’, adopted on 22 August 2002. This General Recommendation: Confirms “the consistent view of the Committee that the term ‘descent’ in Article 1, paragraph 1 of the Convention does not solely refer to ‘race’ and has a meaning and application which complements the other prohibited grounds of discrimination”; and Reaffirms 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”. From this review of CERD’s practice, it is apparent that the Committee has consciously and consistently adopted an interpretation of the ‘descent’ limb of article 1 of ICERD that encompasses situations of caste-based discrimination and analogous forms of inherited social exclusion. Read CERD General Recommendation No. 29 on descent

CERD General Recommendation No. 32 on special measures

This CERD General Recommendation on the meaning and scope of special measures in the ICERD, adopted at its 75th session in August 2009, affirms General Recommendation 29 on Article 1, paragraph 1, of the Convention (Descent), which makes specific reference to special measures. The Committee also states that special measures should be ‘carried out on the basis of accurate data, disaggregated by race, colour, descent and ethnic or national origin and incorporating a gender perspective, on the socio-economic and cultural status and conditions of the various groups in the population and their participation in the social and economic development of the country.’

Subsequent CERD practice

Any “subsequent practice in the application of the treaty which establishes the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation” may also, in such circumstances, be taken into account. In the course of reviewing state party reports, CERD has expressed explicit reliance on the ‘descent’ limb of article 1 in order to address the situation of Dalits in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the UK, as well as the analogous situations of the Burakumin in Japan. CERD has also addressed situation of ‘descent-based discrimination’ in a number of other instances, even though in some of these additional cases the reliance upon the ‘descent’ limb of the article 1 of the Convention has been implicit.

Concluding observations have been made by the Committee in respect of Yemen, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Mauritius. Conflicts in Somalia had also been viewed by CERD as being based on descent, thus bringing them within the purview of ICERD. As CERD expert member Patrick Thornberry has argued, “whatever the argument on the relation between the specific reference to ‘race’ in Article 1 and the caste issue, there is a suggestion here that in the context of the Convention as a whole, and in particular in the context of special measures, the redress of caste disabilities finds a place.”

Response by affected countries

In early August 1996, CERD considered India’s consolidated tenth to fourteenth periodic reports. In this context, India sought to establish that discrimination related to caste did not fall within the scope of ICERD or within the jurisdiction of the Committee. “The term ‘caste’”, the Indian report declared, “denotes a ‘social’ and ‘class’ distinction and is not based on race.”The report expressly acknowledges that “Article 1 of the Convention includes in the definition of racial discrimination the term ‘descent’”, and that “oth castes and tribes are systems based on ‘descent’”. However, the Indian position concerning the interpretation of this term was that: … the use of the term ‘descent’ in the Convention clearly refers to ‘race’.

Communities which fall under the definition of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are unique to Indian society and its historical process. … it is, therefore, submitted that the policies of the Indian Government relating to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes do not come under the purview of Article 1 of the Convention. In the course of discussion of the report in the Committee, the Indian delegation said that India’s report “had focused on matters relating to race as distinct from other categorizations referred to in the Constitution. … Constitutionally, the concept of race was distinct from caste. …

To confer a racial character on the caste system would create considerable political problems which could not be the Committee’s intention. In the spirit of dialogue, however, India was prepared to provide more information on matters other than race, without prejudice to its understanding of the term ‘race’ in the Convention.” A number of CERD members challenged the Indian Government’s interpretation of the term ‘descent’, and in its concluding observations CERD insisted that “the term ‘descent’ mentioned in article 1 of the Convention does not solely refer to ‘race’”. Moreover, the Committee affirmed that “the situation of the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes falls within the scope of the Convention”, and went on to specifically recommend that “special measures be taken by the authorities to prevent acts of discrimination towards persons belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and, in cases where such acts have been committed, to conduct thorough investigations, to punish those found to be responsible and to provide just and adequate reparation to the victims.”

The Committee specifically stressed “the importance of the equal enjoyment by members of these groups of the rights to access health care, education, work and public places and services, including wells, cafés or restaurants.” CERD also recommended a public education campaign on human rights, “aimed at eliminating the institutionalized thinking of the high-caste and low-caste mentality.” Nepal has also appears to have acquiesced to CERD’s interpretation and practice in this regard. CERD has now taken up the issue of caste-based discrimination in Nepal on three successive occasions without demur from the Nepalese Government.

Indeed, Nepal has volunteered substantial amounts of information concerning caste-based discrimination in its periodic reports. When Pakistan was examined by CERD in February 2009, the Government took a principled decision by engaging constructively in a dialogue with the Committee on how to tackle the challenges faced by the Government in addressing the issue of caste-based discrimination in contemporary Pakistan. CESCR General Comment No. 20 on non-discrimination

General Comment No. 20 on Non-Discrimination in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) at its 42nd session in May 2009. In this General Comment, the Committee reaffirms CERD GR No. 29 that “the prohibited ground of birth also includes descent, especially on the basis of caste and analogous systems of inherited status.” The Committee recommends States parties to “take steps, for instance, to prevent, prohibit and eliminate discriminatory practices directed against members of descent-based communities and act against dissemination of ideas of superiority and inferiority on the basis of descent.” Caste in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights

In none of the human rights instruments does the term ‘caste’ appear. Nevertheless, an examination of the travaux preparatoires of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights shows that caste was explicitly contemplated by the drafters as being encompassed in some of the more general terminology in the UDHR’s foundational non-discrimination provision. In 1948, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly was in debate over the inclusion of the word ‘birth’ in the list of prohibited grounds of distinction in what was to become article 2 of the Declaration. Mr Habib, representing India, said that he ‘favoured the use of the word ‘caste’ rather than ‘birth’, as the latter was already implied in the article.’ Mrs Roosevelt for the United States of America, and a member of the informal drafting group, demurred to both this intervention. In her opinion, ‘the words “property or other status” took into consideration the various new suggestions that had been made.’

Mr Appadorai of the Indian delegation in effect accepted the US and Chinese caste-inclusive interpretations of some of the more general language in the draft article. He said ‘his delegation had only proposed the word “caste” because it objected to the word “birth”. The words “other status” and “social origin” were sufficiently broad to cover the whole field; the delegation of India would not, therefore, insist on its proposal.’ It is apparent therefore that caste was acknowledged in the drafting process as being encompassed in the terms ‘other status’ and/or ‘social origin’, if not also in ‘birth’ (the specific grounds of the Indian objection to this term not being entirely clear from the travaux). To that extent, a special meaning may be regarded as having been attributed to those terms.

As well as appearing in the non-discrimination provisions of most subsequent international human rights instruments, the terms ‘social origin’ and/or ‘other status’ (either or both of them) have been incorporated in the non-discrimination provisions of the significant number of national constitutions that have borrowed these formulations from the UDHR. At the same time, it is noteworthy that a number of national constitutions have put the matter beyond question so far as their domestic legal regimes are concerned by explicitly referring to caste in their non-discrimination provisions. This applies to the constitutions of India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burkina Faso.

Caste discrimination:

More than 165 million people in India continue to be subject to discrimination, exploitation and violence simply because of their caste. In India’s “hidden apartheid,” untouchability relegates Dalits throughout the country to a lifetime of segregation and abuse. Caste-based divisions continue to dominate in housing, marriage, employment and general social interaction—divisions that are reinforced through economic boycotts and physical violence. Working in partnership with the International Dalit Solidarity Network, India’s National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, and the Gujarat-based Dalit grassroots organizationNavsarjan, IHRC works to hold the Indian government accountable for its systematic failure to respect, protect, and ensure Dalits’ fundamental human rights.

In 2007, for instance, the IHRC issued a series of statements and a report based on its analysis of India’s failure to uphold its international legal obligations to ensure Dalit rights, despite the existence of laws and policies against caste discrimination. The report Hidden Apartheid—which was produced in collaboration with Human Rights Watch—was released as a “shadow report” in response to India’s submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which monitors implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. IHRC also participated in proceedings related to the Committee’s review of India’s compliance with the Convention and presented the report’s findings.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Caste Discrimination Worldwide: Unyielding Struggle for Human Rights. (2016, Aug 16). Retrieved from

Caste Discrimination Worldwide: Unyielding Struggle for Human Rights essay
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