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Stephen Crabb MP: Caste and Human Rights in India

Stephen_crabb_mpStephen Crabb MP is the new Chairman of the Conservative Party's Human Rights Commission.

On 29th September last year the wife, daughter and two sons of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, from the village of Khairlanji in the Indian state of Maharashtra, were dragged from their home and lynched in broad daylight.

After being bludgeoned to death by a mob, their mutilated bodies were dumped in a nearby canal. The female family members are believed to have been gang-raped before being murdered.

At the heart of this horrific case was a property dispute fuelled by a toxic mix of caste-based jealousy and prejudice. The killing of these Dalits, and the apathetic response by local police, led to violent protests and the case continues to receive attention from international human rights groups and media.

In February, while on a human rights visit to India with CSW, I was taken to Khairlanji by a group of Buddhist activists who had helped to disseminate information about the massacre in the first days after the event. I later met Bhotmange, now living under police protection, who fears that justice will never be served on those who murdered his family.

Khairlanji represents just one example of the systemic caste-based human rights abuse which still exists in India today, despite a constitutional and legal framework in which "untouchability" is abolished.

During my brief visit in February I was presented with a wide range of evidence of continuing discrimination against Dalits in the fields of education, employment, and access to health services and justice.

On virtually any statistical measure one can choose – literacy, malnutrition, infant mortality, sexual violence - Dalits fare much worse than the national average. Furthermore, Dalits are overwhelmingly the victims of bonded labour and human trafficking, two of the most serious forms of modern slavery.

In March the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission held a hearing in Parliament which took oral evidence directly from a delegation of Dalit representatives visiting the UK.

Last Tuesday we sought to present this evidence to Foreign Office Minister Geoff Hoon MP in a debate where I found myself being supported by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn MP in calling for the Government to use our friendship with India to help bring justice to India’s 200 million Dalits.

The importance of our relations with India is recognised on both sides of the House of Commons. I have previously argued in Parliament for a stronger trading relationship between the UK and India.

But the pursuit of close economic and political relations must not mean that we remain neutral on issues of caste. As Thomas Friedman says, globalisation has created a world which is now flat. India’s increasing global reach, through its trade and diaspora, means that it should expect the international community to take an interest in the condition of Dalits.

India is a beautiful and wonderfully diverse nation; it is also a truly remarkable liberal democracy. When we speak of human rights issues in India we are talking about a fundamentally different set of issues than those associated with the authoritarian regimes of Burma and North Korea.

In India there is a freedom to debate the issue of caste and an increasingly critical media which is responding to the new aspirations and values of young Indians.

Last December Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first sitting Indian prime minister to openly acknowledge the parallel between the practice of "untouchability" and apartheid in South Africa, describing it as a "blot on humanity".

I am hugely optimistic about India’s future. But the societies that are likely to do best in the 21st century are those in which the conditions of freedom and social mobility are maximised.

Caste-based discrimination, which constrains the life chances of more than 200 million people, must have no place in the new India.


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