A Pattern of Apartheid: Human Rights Violations Against India’s ‘Untouchables’

A Pattern of Apartheid: Human Rights Violations Against India’s ‘Untouchables’

The international community is no stranger to discrimination that is largely driven by ideological, racial, and social differences. Rooted in long-standing Hindu tradition, India’s caste system is a form of social stratification in Southeast Asia. Despite its longevity, the system is inherently discriminatory and unjust, specifically towards the Dalit people, India’s original inhabitants who gave themselves the name in the 1930s. However, despite banning the practice of “untouchability” in 1950, inequality is still perpetuated in India through the caste system. Even with India’s efforts to slowly stop using the ancient system, the Dalit people specifically suffer immense human rights abuses as a result of the caste system’s hierarchical structure and regressive ideology; these violations include freedom from violence, the right to health, and equal treatment before the law.

To understand the extent of these social, economic, and political abuses, the Dalit case will be compared with that of the infamous South African Apartheid; in both of these situations, extensive human rights abuses were performed through a system of segregation. Ultimately, as a result of the similar nature of the two cases, the following question is proposed: is there a valid case to be made that the blatant violence, discrimination, and abuses against the Dalit people equates to apartheid? When examined closer, the research reveals that the widespread and systematic discrimination against the Dalits, as a result of the social caste system, has indeed led to social, economic, and political human rights violations that mirror those of South Africa under apartheid.

Racial Discrimination: South African Apartheid

To better understand the human rights abuses against the Dalits, it is essential to examine violations that took place during the South African Apartheid. The apartheid movement in the mid to late 1900s, enforced by the National Party government, was an ideology that called for the separation of the various racial groups in South Africa; it was a social system that sought to marginalize and oppress the “non-whites.” The legalization and subsequent implementation of this ideology resulted in massive, institutionalized human rights violations. The most identifiable violations were South Africa’s unwillingness to uphold freedom from violence, the right to an adequate standard of living, and equality under the law.

The freedom from violence, according to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment.” During the apartheid era, South Africa violated this international human rights norms through the use of police brutality as a response to political demonstrations. For example, in the case of the black township of Sharpeville in 1960, the police fired into a crowd of unarmed black protesters, killing at least 67 and injuring more than 180 people. Additionally, as a result of the protests and the government’s various terrorism laws, most resistance leaders were captured and executed a year later. The 1967 Terrorism Act, in particular, was a crucial piece of legislation that gave immense power to the police, assisting the government’s battle against “terrorists” by allowing the police to target specific individuals who resisted the apartheid system. However, it is crucial to understand that while this law was crafted as an anti-terrorism law, it essentially allowed the government to become “an instrument of terror” themselves against the non-white citizens of South Africa.

The apartheid era also saw a violation of the international human right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [oneself], as defined by Article 25 of the UDHR.  During apartheid, hospitals were segregated by race. While whites enjoyed pristine, clean, and functional institutions, black health facilities were subjected to underfunding along with a lack of proper resources and staff. Furthermore, the use of the migrant labor system, which drew black African men to the cities for jobs while prohibiting them to reside in “white” urban areas, also violated the right to health. These men were forced to live in nearby rural areas where there was inadequate access to clean water, electricity, or emergency services. Ultimately, the South African government prevented black South Africans from acquiring proper housing, sufficient food and drink, and satisfactory health services, thus demonstrating that this apartheid sought to discriminate in all different aspects of life.  

Lastly, there were widespread and systemic violations of the right to equality before the law where all “are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination.” The entire system of apartheid manifests this violation, as the granting of rights, privileges, and protections by the state was primarily based on racial categorizations. This act of separation by the white supremacist government was inherently a violation of the right to equality, as being black automatically eliminated an individuals’ rights and opportunities. In the end, all of these human rights violations are consequences of apartheid’s racial segregation; by separating the various racial groups in South Africa, the white minority was able to implement an ideology of inequality and discrimination that privileged one group and systematically abused the other.

Social Segregation: The Dalits

There are many similarities between the racial segregation in Africa and the system of caste oppression in India. India has had a long history of casteism, and even in the current era of rapid modernization, the Dalit people in particular still remain outcasts with little social mobility. Deemed to be part of the lowest caste and the “untouchables” of society, the Dalits continue to suffer from discrimination and oppression due to the structure of the caste system. While the cultural and historical contexts of India and South Africa are remarkably different, there are numerous parallels between the human rights abuses committed against the Dalits and black South Africans under institutionalized apartheid.

As mentioned previously, the Dalit people face immense discrimination and violence as a direct result of their birth status, much like how the brutality against black individuals in South Africa was caused by their race. In investigating the violation of the right to freedom from violence, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) found that “de facto segregation of Dalits persists” as a result of the systemic abuse, including torture, extrajudicial killing, and sexual assault against the population. This violence is often carried out by the police and government, who face little to no consequences for the actions taken.

This violation of the right to be free from violence is not a new phenomenon, as the Dalit people have faced caste-based violence and discrimination for decades. However, as India modernizes and Dalit protest movements begin to grow, violence has subsequently increased as well. For example, between 1995 and 1997, CERD found that 90,925 cases that were registered with the police were designated “crime and atrocities” against scheduled castes, most notably the Dalits due to their low social status. Furthermore, because the Dalits are often hesitant to report the crimes, or simply unable to due to police intimidation and the possible ramifications of reporting, the actual numbers and statistics may be much higher.

Further, research shows the full extent of the abuse. As CERD’s Shadow Report detailed, 58,000 cases between 2001 and 2002 were registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act, legislation that makes it a crime to abuse the Dalit population and the tribal community. These abuses, because they are widespread and systematic, highlight the prevalence of the issue, as the perpetrators of these crimes are both state and private actors. In a close similarity to the race-based South Africa Apartheid, the hatred towards a particular group, the Dalits, pervades Indian society simply due to their social status in the caste system.

There are also parallels between the violations of the international right to a standard of adequate living; the Dalits suffer from a lack of access to sufficient healthcare services, as well as poor working conditions that result in an increased risk of health-related issues. Akin to the results of the South African migrant labor system, the state intentionally limits Dalit access to government resources and facilities, as well as diminishes economic opportunities to obtain such services due to extreme poverty. Separated facilities such as bathrooms and temples are determined based on one’s caste placement, and the Dalits tend to receive the poorer and less efficient resources if they are guaranteed any rights at all.

In the rural areas where much of the Dalit population resides, residents also suffer from poor electricity, sanitation issues, and few basic amenities that are necessary to survival, such as access to water and adequate housing. The extent of this rights’ violations can be seen in the government response to the Gujarat state earthquake in 2001; it was declared one of the worst natural disasters in India’s history with over one million people left homeless, many of which were Dalits. In the wake of this disaster, the Dalits were victims of aid corruption, poor rehabilitation efforts, and insufficient access to basic amenities like food, water, and housing. Meanwhile, upper-caste populations enjoyed far better shelters, adequate access to aid, and luxuries post-disaster.

The extensive restrictions and actions taken to inhibit and degrade the physical and mental well-being of the Dalit people are a result of India’s governmental structure and the Dalits limited participation and access to positions in the government. In 2014, former Prime Minister Narendra Modi won on a platform promising economic growth and job creation for all, which resulted in tremendous support by millions of the Dalit population. However, political turmoil and the continued alienation of Dalits led to a sense of mistrust in Modi, and in April 2018, hundreds of Dalits held protests in response to a Supreme Court ruling pushing for the implementation of a thirty-year law that punishes atrocities against Dalits despite Modi’s promise of social development. Furthermore, there have also been changes to the Reservation Policy in India’s constitution, a policy that concerns caste-based quotas for government and university jobs. With the changes, there will be a decrease in the number of university jobs available to Dalits. Overall, despite holding office for five years, Modi’s efforts to bridge the gap between castes were met with little enthusiasm by Dalits, who see his actions as political shows that fail to address the real issues of segregation and discrimination, although these issues were present even before Modi took office.

Moreover, furthering this social divide is the rising Hindu nationalism across the country with a focus on “economic protectionism and increased border security,” especially in regards to the influx of Rohingya refugees. Even though he advocated for development for all peoples, Modi’s political ideology centered around increasing the sense of nationalism, shockingly similar to the actions of other right-wing nationalist movements in other areas of the world, including the United States and Europe. Modi’s nationalist goals entailed defining India’s national identity in terms of the Hindu identity, something that much of the Dalit population struggle with as many are converting to Buddhism as a means of defying upper caste mistreatment.

Things may be looking up slightly, however, as India elected new Prime Minister Ram Nath Kovind, a member of the “untouchable” Dalit population in June of 2017. While Kovind is not the first Dalit to be president, what is surprising is that the Bharatiya Janata Party, a predominantly upper caste party, backed his nomination. Yet, despite the limited political development in India, Dalits continue to face immense restrictions regarding social mobility and integration, as caste groups still play a key role in the existence of the divide between Dalits and non-Dalits.

Lastly, in association with the violation of Article 7 of the UDHR guaranteeing a right to equality before the law, the very nature of the caste system perpetuates an unjust and regressive-like ideology that mimics the effects of the racial discrimination in South Africa and ultimately characterizes the Dalits as “lesser humans.” This right, which also grants “equal protection against any discrimination,” is extensively violated. The practice of separating groups into different caste levels based on their social status at birth, a factor they cannot control, is inherently unequal and discriminatory.

Both the Dalit situation and the South African Apartheid share numerous violations in common, the greatest is the fact that race and caste discrimination have been used to divide society into groups, privileging some over others, and that one’s worth is based on uncontrollable factors, namely their race and social status at birth. In both societies, people are born into a role categorized as “undesirable” by those in power, whether that be black or Dalit, that permits discrimination and human rights violations because it was socially acceptable to do so with each respective country.


Discrimination and oppression are not limited to certain countries or time periods. In the case of human rights, violations are widespread and often are repeated throughout history. In South Africa, apartheid was one of the most devastating and impactful rulings of the twentieth century; characterized by riots, violence, and a system of racial segregation, it endured for over fifty years before the formation of a democratic government in 1994. For the Dalit people, the abuse and social exclusion resulting from the caste system continues to this day. While their situation has not garnered international attention in the same way that South Africa did, the comprehensive research into the same three human rights violations within both cases is enough evidence to equate the combined social, economic, and political exclusion of the Dalits to subtle but visible apartheid. Ultimately, the separation of groups based on social status and caste level in India mirrors the separation of groups based on race in South Africa, thus allowing for the use of the label “apartheid” in reference to the Dalits; both are discriminatory policies that result from a system rooted in segregation.

This continued apartheid-like ideology of repression and alienation in India, in accordance with the South African segregation, merely demonstrates the perpetuation of hierarchies, privilege, discrimination, and marginalization in what would be thought of as two very different parts of the world.

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