Human rights issues of minorities in contemporary India: a concise analysis.

Author:Ghatak, Sambuddha
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay


India is today one of the most powerful developing nations. This newly industrializing state enjoys a prominent status as the largest democratic nation-state in the world. Unlike some emerging polities, it has had several successful elections without military incursions into politics. It is a nuclear power and increasingly becoming a major economic actor in this era of the "New Globalization." In spite of her impressive developments, however, India continues to confront human rights problems with respect to minorities, who in the context of this study are Dalits. They are generally members of the Scheduled castes and "assimilated" Scheduled tribes; they constituted 24.4% of the national population in the 2001 census (out of approximately 1 billion). (1)

Caste classification creates amongst its citizens social strata in the country. And, this social schema determines a group's status in the socioeconomic configuration of the society. Due to the peculiar features of this system, the institution has attracted many scholars to its study. (2) Notwithstanding the extensive scholarship on the topic, we do not have a clear explanation of the term in part because of the complexity of its practice. (3) This study is not on the caste system per se; it is on the nature of the breaches of the human rights of minorities, generally exacerbated by the character of the caste structure, that this essay seeks to address. Accordingly, we shall proceed with the discourses around the following themes:

  1. Situate the study within a brief theoretical framework of human rights, minorities globally and constitution;

  2. Briefly discuss the cultural and historical reasons for the discrimination against the Dalits;

  3. Examine relevant provisions of the national constitution, international human rights instruments and the human rights of minorities in the society;

  4. Summarize a case study from a fieldwork conducted in the English Bazar municipalities of Malda district in West Bengal on some human rights issues; and

  5. Conclude on ways that might advance the amelioration of the infractions of the human rights of minorities.


Commonly, human rights concerns have become global in the 21St century. Condemnations of gross human rights infringements committed in the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria and China, for instance, are vocally rebuked in London, Washington, Paris, Johannesburg and elsewhere by governments and human rights NGOs distressed about its infractions. (4) Moreover, the UN often denounces human rights violations that happen in all regions of the world.

The dilemma worldwide is that all citizens--particularly minorities without political clout--don't have the benefits of human rights proclamations equally in society. Nevertheless, constitutionally and doctrinally (in religious teachings) individuals are expected to enjoy human rights because they are guaranteed in their national constitutions, (5) provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. Additionally, human rights dogmas are sanctioned in most theological texts and their pedagogy. Because of the unsatisfactory implementation of human rights precepts equally in society, the general call for the respect of human rights by activists continues. Also, the common desire, among human rights agents, to fight for the respect of minorities' human rights globally has gained currency. in truth, their rallying cry on behalf of those who suffer from victimization in their political, economic, religious and social milieus reached its crescendo within the last twenty years or so. The criticism of campaigners against human rights infractions is intended to bring pressure to bear on polities to change legally and politically those actions/policies that often marginalized individuals and minority groups in a system. The hope is that an emphasis on the observance of human rights provisions may result in their proper implementation resulting in peaceful coexistence in society. Arguably, the creation of such a condition might further the legitimacy of the state in the eye of individuals and groups, attenuate political instability and encourage social harmony. (6)

Notionally, a fundamental discourse regarding the respect of human rights in all societies might be examined ontologically--that is to say philosophically, what does it entail to be treated as an individual (with identical rights as the privileged in society)? Are all persons--simply because they are human beings--equal and thus must inherently enjoy equivalent rights in a society? In theory, moralists tend to advocate rights for all in a polity insisting that in such a society political stability, equality of opportunity and the "good political life" for everyone could be advanced. Realist scholars often argued that such a vision of society may only be possible on paper and in philosophy. They further contend that any assumption on the practicality of "human equality" articulated in national constitutions, human rights instruments, religious texts and preachments is delusionary. Indeed, realists aver that the pursuit of individual/group and national interests will in most instances trump human rights provisions outlined in these "sacrosanct" documents.

Historically and contextually, this whole doctrine of human equality as avowed in human rights instruments, national constitutions and a number of religious books is not only intricate but also confounding. Take, for example, the classical Greeks maintained that they were inherently superior to non-Greeks, who were not entitled to equal treatment as orthodox or "pure" Greeks. (7) In traditional and modem Africa, aboriginal groupings such as the Twa and Baka have being treated differently and considered "inferior" to the dominant groups in Rwanda and Congo Brazzaville. It is common knowledge that political and social treatment of human species as either superior or inferior is endemic in many contemporary societies. (8)

The foregoing brief theoretical discourses and argumentations should serve as reminder of the impact of "labeling" a group as either "superior" or "inferior," "in-group" or "out-group" and the resultant human rights violations of the supposedly "inferior" population by the "superior" in many societies. Furthermore, the minority and majority political dynamics in many communities tend to bring to the fore the problematic issues of human rights infractions particularly as they relate to the politics and marginalization of minority groups in the competition for who gets what, when and how. But what is a minority group?

According to Francisco Caportati's explication,

[a] minority group is a [collectivity] numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in a non-dominant position, whose members--being citizens of a state--posses ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language. (9)

Human rights infringements in polities with minority groups who may not share vital characteristics with those of the dominant group/s--and who may have historically suffered from certain social and religious scars such as slavery and negative stereotypes--are rampant. These collectivities are frequently marginalized and their political plights in society are often exacerbated by their relegation to the bottom of society through the doctrine of"social closure." Theoretically, Max Weber explained social closure as a tactic for group survival whereby social groups establish monopolies [in the control of power] in order to avoid competition with possible rival groups that could be detrimental to the "dominant" group who wishes to monopolize the major benefits in society. (10) This supposition is furthered by the theory of privilege which contends that those who enjoy a position of privilege would do whatever it takes to maintain their position of advantage. The methods that are usually applied for maintaining a privileged position include demonization of prospective rivals in the competition for the position of privilege; destruction and intimidation of real or putative rivals in the struggle to maintain a position of privilege; changing the rules of the game when the dominant group's position of privilege is being threatened, among others. (11) In practice minority groups, with a few exceptions, seldom have political clout in a democratic dispensation particularly in the developing nations. This dilemma for minorities is made more severe if political parties are organized along ethnic lines. Allegiance in the society tends to be centrifugal--i.e, loyalty to the ethnic group, rather than centripetal (i.e. citizens devotion to the nation-state and its policies), in the main, a country's stability is often threatened when minority groups suffer from political, social and economic ostracism that is brought about in part when their human rights, as citizens, are violated. Be that as it may, the preceding suppositional dialogue is intended to provide a template for the proceeding analysis on the development of human rights infractions of marginalized groups in India--who are often minorities (i.e. Dalits). This analysis will also seek to demonstrate how law makers through the instrumentality of the national constitution of this country have attempted to tackle the question.


Culturally, the discrimination against the Dalits has its origin in the caste system mandated by the Hindu religion. What is now called Hindu society is generally made up of four very large units which transcend specific regional associations. This scheme and practice are propagated in a variety of widely revered Hindu...

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