The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) powerfully says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1), and that “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Article 2). In a similar vein the Indian Constitution declares that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them” (Article 15).
However, as is common knowledge, these rights enshrined in the UDHR and the Indian Constitution have remained aspirational objectives. In India, all citizens are guaranteed the rights enshrined in the Constitution by the virtue of being citizens, but only a few have access to these rights. Why is it this way? Why are people still unequally treated when India is a free and democratic country? Why should people still starve to death, live on the streets, be denied employment and minimum wages, not have access to education? Why do most people fear approaching the police or the courts? Is poverty the culprit? Is economic development the answer to all this?
When groups and communities of people are denied full access to all citizenship rights because of their identity and their position on the societal ladder, it is called social exclusion. Social exclusion keeps a social group outside power centres and resources. It takes the form of segregation from the social, political, economic, cultural, educational and religious domains of society. It thus imbues a sense of superiority and inferiority in members of a society or culture and results in a system of domination and subjugation. These processes ultimately lead to oppression and exploitation.
Social exclusion is a profoundly unjust process. Its roots lie deep in history but current systemic processes allow the injustice to continue with impunity. Most importantly, there is societal sanction for this injustice. In spite of the fact that many people would feel that social exclusion is wrong, most of those who are not socially excluded still perpetuate it because it allows them to remain in a position of greater power than the excluded.
Affected groups are hurt materially in terms of income, health and education. They are denied access to resources, markets and public services. They can also be hurt emotionally, as they are shut out of the life of the larger community.
Socially excluded people are often denied the opportunities available to others to increase their income and escape from poverty by their own efforts. So, even though the economy may grow and general income levels may rise, excluded people are likely to be left behind, and make up an increasing proportion of those who remain in poverty. They are denied a life of dignity and human rights.
Communities and peoples around the world have faced different forms of discrimination: blacks in the United States, Hindus in Bangladesh, Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, Chins in Burma, the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in modern-day Germany, black Algerians in France, indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada. Clearly, then, discrimination against certain groups of people – who can be identified through their caste, race, gender, language, religion or place of origin – is not a preserve of underdeveloped countries.
In 21st century India, backward castes and dalits are still subjected to such acute stigma that they are not allowed to use water from wells used by the upper castes, are denied employment to occupations other than their caste-based one, and are barred from entering places of worship. A dalit group called bhangis still carries on the caste-based occupation of cleaning human excreta. This form of exclusion under the caste system gets legitimacy from religious texts and beliefs.
Despite Mahatma Gandhi embracing ‘untouchables’ as Harijans, and Babasaheb Ambedkar laying down the Constitutional path to equality, dalits continue to be discriminated against, both by State institutions as well as upper caste society. ‘Untouchability’ was abolished under India's Constitution in 1950 through the enactment of the Protection of Civil Rights (Anti-Untouchability) Act of 1955 and the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. According to the 1989 law it is illegal to force dalits into bonded labour, deny them access to public places, foul their drinking water, force them to eat ‘obnoxious substances’, or parade them naked.
Yet, these forms of discrimination and of brutal violence against dalits continue – from public lynchings to parading dalit women naked. In many parts of the country, dalit children are either not allowed to enter schools, or made to sit separately from non-dalit students. According to the 2005 National Crime Records Bureau statistics, two dalits are killed and three dalit women raped every day and three dalits assaulted every hour – and these are only reported cases.
These scandalous levels of violence and discrimination against dalits were documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a 1999 report called ‘Broken People’. But a decade later, caste-based exclusion and violence against dalits has not abated, despite our belief that India is shining – which led to another scathing report by HRW in 2007 calling violence against dalits in India ‘Hidden Apartheid’.
Tribals, religious minorities, women, and the disabled, too, face social exclusion in India. Non-tribals see tribals in a derogatory manner, particularly their food habits and ways of living, which are very different. Muslims are among the most poor and marginalised of people - there are more Muslims who live below the poverty line than any other group - and subjected to vicious violence as happened most notably, but not exclusively, in Mumbai in 1993 and in Gujarat in 2002. The Sachar Committee report of 2006 said 25% of children of Muslim parents in the 6-14 year age group have either never attended school or have dropped out, that Muslims are heavily under-represented in elite services like the IAS, IFS and IPS, and that Muslim-OBCs are significantly deprived in comparison to Hindu-OBCs. The disabled are severely limited in their mobility, in access to education and jobs, despite being promised all of these in a central legislation 15 years ago. Women are the victims of a patriarchal system that confines and constrains them in every way, denies them access to education, to economic independence and in extreme cases, to life itself, with female foeticide and infanticide.
The combination of caste and gender, or religion and gender is referred to as multiple social exclusion, and it is necessary that all kinds of social exclusion be understood through this intersectional lens. The piling of one marginal identity over another exacerbates the incidence of exclusion among disadvantaged population groups. Imagine the kind of discrimination that a rural, illiterate, Muslim, disabled, dalit woman would face for the coming together of all of these marginalities. Interestingly, discrimination is barred in the Indian Constitution in Article 15 (referred above), on only five grounds: religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth. This allows intersectional forms of discrimination and violence to continue. Constitutional guarantees against social exclusion are thus at a distance from the complicated realities of it.
The September 2006 incident in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district is an example of all the horrors that socially excluded groups suffer and how the law deals with it. Four members of the dalit Bhootmange family – mother, daughter and two sons - were brutally murdered in full view of the village. The two women were stripped, paraded through the village and raped before being killed. The alleged reason for the killings was that the Bhootmanges had managed to educate themselves and asserted their right to a life of dignity. No notice was taken of the incident by the authorities until angry demonstrations by activists forced the government to start a CID inquiry. Not a single person agreed to testify as an eye witness except the father who had escaped. Two years later, the court convicted eight of the 11 accused brought to trial (35 others taken into custody were let off earlier due to insufficient evidence). However, the court accepted the cause of the killings as ‘revenge for an earlier assault’ not caste hatred. It also ruled out the rape charge for lack of evidence which was blamed by some on the poor investigation procedures of the police.
Stalin K’s recent documentary film India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart holds up a mirror to show the ways in which caste-based social exclusion and its intersectional avatars span across religions in 21st century India – from Hinduism to Christianity to Sikhism and Islam – and with equal intensity in both rural and urban India.
One of the urban avatars of social exclusion is the protests by upper-caste students across India in response to the government’s ‘reservation’ policies. There were violent protests by upper-caste students after the release of the Mandal Commission Report in 1990 and again in 2006 when medical students in Delhi protested against the 27% quota for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in elite higher educational institutions.
There is a gendered angle to the anti-reservation protests by upper caste students as well that Historian Uma Chakravarti eruditely points out in her book ‘Gendering Caste’. She refers to an anti-Mandal Commission protest at Delhi University brought out by upper-caste women students where they carried a placard saying: “We don’t want unemployed husbands!” This was a rare occasion where women students were protesting against reservations not for themselves, but their prospective upper-caste husbands, in effect implying that they can never think of marrying Dalit or OBC men who might now become IAS officers because of reservations.
Affirmative action is a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution to do away with historical disadvantage of marginalised population groups and is an effective means to ensure social inclusion. While there are strong protests against reservations because it kills merit, there is no challenge to the fact that reservations in certain occupations, places of living and property devolved through birth and lineage is inherent within the caste system. It is this historical reservation that has excluded dalits and OBCs that affirmative action attempts to undo.
Another recent urban incident of social exclusion was the indiscriminate violence that Biharis have been facing at the hands of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Mumbai where ‘place of birth’ was the ground on which ‘outsiders’ were being denied access to employment opportunities, despite the fact the right to carry on a profession of one’s choice anywhere in India is also a fundamental right in the Constitution.
Social exclusion then is an outcome of a combination of factors – historical, cultural, religious, economic, legal and political – that ensure that powerful communities like upper-caste Hindus in India, or White Christians in the USA continue to wield power in spite of caste, religion or colour based discrimination being abolished. The consequence of this exclusion is the denial to access basic human rights guarantees that are there for all citizens, irrespective of their identity.
A lot of work has been done in the West to quantify social exclusion and monitor progress towards integration. The UNDP’s Human Development Index focuses on the multi-dimensional aspects of deprivation, while the French Action Plan for Employment provides 35 quantitative evaluation indicators on social exclusion. The European Union is trying to establish quantitative indicators to evaluate social inclusion initiatives. The ‘poverty charter’ of Britain’s New Labour proposed around 30 measures to track movement towards nationally defined social integration goals.
Not much work of this nature has been done in South Asia to analyse and understand social exclusion. Most studies of caste-based exclusion in India have explored social exclusion through case studies, and made qualitative assessments and extrapolation from simple anecdotal evidence. There is talk in some academic circles about the need to undertake a Dalit Development Index or Dalit Deprivation Index, and, similarly, to identify indicators for a Tribal Development Index or a Tribal Deprivation Index. A Minority Development and Deprivation Index and a Women’s Development and Deprivation Index are also proposed.