A group of upper caste youth allegedly urinated on the face of a Dalit vendor, Ashok Kumar, after beating him up in Rohtak on May 28. He was beaten up outside a liquor store when he tried to stop five Jat youths from stealing his money and the eggs that he sells everyday. Though some onlookers rescued him, the gang attacked him again at an isolated place in the night.
Though the news made it to one of the leading newspapers, it ended not with a bang but with a whimper. If this had happened to an Indian student in Australia, the reaction would have been different. We cry racism at drop of a hat but ignore the caste-based atrocities that happen here. This is why Dalit leaders are compelled to take up these issues with international bodies. But, Indian embassies often ask why Dalit leaders want to wash dirty linen in public. To this a leading Dalit leader, Martin Macwan, retorted, "You've admitted there's dirty linen to be washed. Good. That's a start."
Several organisations like the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), the Dalit Network Netherlands (DNN) and the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) have worked hard to make caste-based discrimination an international human rights issue.
Where untouchability and caste-based atrocities were a little understood issue earlier, now 14 countries raised it during India's recent human rights enquiry at the UN Human Rights Council. Gradually, companies are also becoming aware of this issue. The new leading standard for corporate social responsibility, ISO 26000, has now included caste discrimination as an issue all companies in caste-affected countries have to deal with.
Two recent reports on the Tamil Nadu garment industry highlighted that most workers are Dalit girls. The India Committee of the Netherlands is targeting 73 European brands to cooperate with local non-profit organisations, unions, companies and authorities to improve the working conditions and lives of these girls. Personally, I felt queasy about lobbying internationally, denouncing our official apathy. But as I continued documenting atrocities against the Dalits and the impossibility of justice in most of the cases, I wondered what other recourse we have. Gerard Oonk, director, DNNDSN, emphatically underlines, "We do not think that bringing India's dirty linen to the international arena will do away with atrocities and untouchability. We hope that bringing global pressure to bear on the Indian government will persuade them to implement their own laws."
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon and others lobbied with the Labour Party and Britons against the idea of colonialism. We as a country took a moral stand on Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress for freedom from apartheid.
This is why I now back the Dalit struggle for international support, though it irks me that our countrymen have to go to the West to seek justice. If we would get justice on our land, why would we wash our dirty linen in public?
Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a journalist based in the Niligiris. She writes on social issues. The views expressed by the author are personal.