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World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance

7 September 2001

Human Rights for the "Children of God"
LWF, WCC Stand behind Dalits at World Conference Against Racism

by Erika von Wietersheim

"Dalits' rights are human rights!" Wearing this slogan on headbands, a large group of women and men, mostly from India, ran from panel discussions to demonstrations during the NGO Forum at the UN World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Associated Intolerance (WCAR). They are representing the 250 million Dalits of India who comprise the outcast substratum of Indian society. "Here in Durban we want to show the world that we are mercilessly and shamelessly oppressed in India," one young Dalit told a television reporter.

Examples of Dalits' oppression could be heard in numerous discussions and personal conversations at the August 28 - September 1 NGO Forum, and can still be read about on flyers and leaflets being distributed everywhere. The South African newspapers too have been reporting almost daily on the Dalit issue since the World Conference began.

"The Dalits-who used to be known as 'untouchables'-do not belong anywhere in India's caste system. We are outcasts," said Dr. Raja Selvakumar from India, a member the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) delegation to the UN Conference. He noted that Mahatma Gandhi referred to the so-called "untouchables" of India as the "children of God" since they were not even credited with having a history, descent or place of origin.

"Every village in India has an area set aside for Dalits to live. Neither water nor garbage collection or schools are provided there," said Dr. Sarada Karnatakam, also in the LWF team. The situation is particularly difficult for Dalit women. Compelled to work as household servants, they are not only exploited but also raped regularly, she said. Recently a Dalit woman "was dragged naked into the streets and ridiculed," after she tried to defend herself and insist on her human rights. "Dalit girls are also abused in the name of religion when they are taken to temples as sacred prostitutes. As soon as they lose their virginity, they are sold to brothels," added Karnatakam.

"Belonging to the Dalit 'caste' means that we have to do the society's dirty work. We have to clear away corpses and gather up human excrement by hand in buckets and baskets," was an often-repeated example of the humiliation experienced by Dalits.

These are only a few voices from among the world's 260 million Dalits, of whom about 10 percent are Christians. The remaining 90 percent are mostly Buddhist, Muslim or Hindu.

Both the World Council of Churches (WCC) and LWF have taken a strong stand at the Durban conference on behalf of the victims of the caste system-not only the great majority of the Dalits in India but also, according to Peter Prove, LWF's Assistant to the General Secretary for International Affairs and Human Rights, "all people who suffer discrimination on the basis of their occupation and descent, for example in Senegal, Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal."

During its Ninth Assembly in Hong Kong, China in 1997, the LWF resolved to stand in solidarity and support with all the member churches and others in their struggle against oppression of Dalits, particularly that of Dalit Christians.

"The Dalits' problem is an expression of racism, discrimination and marginalization in a most concentrated form," said Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, LWF General Secretary, who is also participating in the Durban Conference. Noko pointed out that the Indian Constitution purported to abolish untouchability and outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste but did not do away with the caste system itself.

The WCC has concerned itself with the Dalits' problem since the late 1980s. It consciously did not just concentrate on the Christian Dalits but offered its support to Dalits of all faiths. At the World Conference in Durban, the WCC and LWF, both with significant Dalit representation in their delegations, are working together with numerous other church groups in complementary ways. "It is our job as the church to make trouble in a process in which governments are trying as much as possible to avoid critical but necessary attention to the real issues of contemporary racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. As churches and NGOs we can build bridges between the victims and international organizations," says Prove.

"Even though the Indian government doesn't see the caste system as a racism problem, it is one of the most flagrant examples of racial discrimination. The Indian government has admitted that the problem of caste discrimination exists, and has banned 'untouchability'. However, India refuses to discuss this topic at the conference, saying it is an internal problem. They say that enough is being done about in India itself, that enough attention is being paid to it," says Marilia Schüller, leader of the WCC delegation to the World Conference.

Yesudoss Moses of the National Council of Churches in India, a member of the WCC delegation, is involved in the Dalit Caucus at the Durban Conference. He is working with other Dalit representatives to save Paragraph 73 of the draft Program Action of the World Conference, which urgently calls upon states to "prohibit and redress discrimination on the basis of work and descent." India wants this paragraph deleted. "But India is finding itself isolated. There is great sympathy for the Dalit problem. It will be difficult for other countries to speak against the Dalits' interests," says Moses.

"But we are hoping for more," he continued. "We want the same paragraph also to mention explicitly 'victims of caste discrimination'." Here the Dalits are hoping that their rights will be made more clearly and visibly a part of the international agenda than before. In this way, more pressure can be put on India really to change the caste system.

However, whether particular sentences are deleted, retained or added, at the August 31 - September 7 World Conference in Durban the Dalits have shown that 260 million people are no longer prepared to let themselves be treated as third class human beings. They are demanding universally accepted human rights for themselves and calling on the international community to live up to its responsibility.

"No other oppressed group in this world has managed to put itself in the international limelight so quickly, so loudly and so convincingly," says Bob Scott, the Communications officer of the WCC delegation in Durban. "In the end, what is in the official text of the UN program is only secondary. Every Dalit can now say, I am a Dalit, and the world will know what that means. Support for the Dalits is one of the miracles which has happened with the help of the UN apparatus."

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