As part of his mantra of "everyone's support, everyone's development and everyone's trust," India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi must take effective steps to eliminate the discriminatory caste system not only in word, but in deed. Pictured: Modi (left) on April 3, 2019 in Kolkata, India. (Photo by Atul Loke/Getty Images)
To combat the evils of an age-old caste system -- a form of hierarchical oppression enabling people born to upper-caste groups to discriminate against members of lower castes, particularly "untouchables" (Dalits) -- the founding fathers of the democratic Republic of India, established in 1950, adopted a Constitution that guarantees all citizens equality before the law.
Articles 15 and 16 of the Indian Constitution forbid discrimination "against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them... No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition..."
Article 17 is even more specific:
"'Untouchability' is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of 'Untouchability' shall be an offense punishable in accordance with law."
India's Constitution also directs the state to promote the educational and economic interests of weaker sectors, and protect them from all forms of exploitation (Article 46). As a result, New Delhi has instituted a policy resembling American "affirmative action," reserving 15% of government jobs for members of scheduled castes.
In spite of these laws, the more than 160 million so-called "ex-untouchables" continue to be subjected to discrimination, oppression and violence.
A recent case, involving a parliamentarian from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's own ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, illustrates just how serious the stigmatization of Dalits still is, and how prevalent the prejudice against them remains.
Legislative Assembly Member Rajesh Mishra reportedly has been threatening his daughter's life for marrying a Dalit. The wedding took place on July 4. On July 10, the bride -- 23-year-old Sakshi Mishra -- released two videos on social media, appealing to her father and his "goons" to stop harassing her groom and her.
"Please accept [the marriage] and let us live in peace," she said. "I want to be happy. I want to be free."
She also asked that her father change his "mentality," and reminded him that her husband and his parents -- who have also received threats -- are "human beings and not animals."
Mishra is a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste, members of which have reacted angrily to a popular new movie -- titled "Article 15" -- directed by Anubhav Sinha and based on the true story of a controversy in India surrounding the facts of a 2014 case of rape and murder of two girls from a low caste.
That the film's "social message" is the focus of wide debate is in itself an indication that India has a long way to go to live up to its Constitution and its laws. Two crucial pieces of legislation -- the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989 (and its 2015 amendment), and the 2013 Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act -- are rarely invoked. Furthermore, the conviction rate for violators is low.
This situation was described in the latest annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom:
"In 2018, religious freedom conditions in India continued a downward trend. India has a long history as a secular democracy where religious communities of every faith have thrived. The constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom, and the nation's independent judiciary has often provided essential protections to religious minority communities through its jurisprudence. Yet, this history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives—including, at times, the government's allowing and encouraging mob violence against religious minorities. Those have facilitated a pervasive and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities."
The government in New Delhi needs to rectify this situation immediately. As part of his mantra of "everyone's support, everyone's development and everyone's trust," Prime Minister Modi must take effective steps to eliminate the discriminatory caste system not only in word, but in deed. He also needs to provide proper education and empowerment programs for the many impoverished and illiterate "untouchables." Otherwise, India's affirmative action policies, geared towards reserving slots for lower castes in government jobs, are of little practical significance.
Jagdish N. Singh is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.