Sensitive cables reveal views that portrayed Indian Dalit groups as threats to US
September 3, 2011 5 Comments
The Indian census does not ask respondents for caste status, making any figures an estimate at best: David Mulford (US ambassador to India January 2005 to February 2009).
Back in 2005, the United States recognised that the Dalits in India were subject to “human rights abuses, including rape, trafficking, and segregation” and that “widespread prejudice against Dalits in India will make quick progress difficult”. However, it chose to ignore attempts by Dalit organisations and individuals to globalise support for Dalits and push for reservations in India’s private sector.
An October 25, 2005 cable titled ‘India’s shame: Lingering bigotry afflicts 200 million Dalits’, an extract of which was released by WikiLeaks on August 26 and cannot be independently verified, was sent by the then US ambassador to India David Mulford. It focused on the testimony of the founder of the All India Confederation of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes Organisations Udit Raj before the US House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Global Human Rights chaired by Congressman Christopher Smith in Washington in September 2005.
It is an assessment which concludes that the status quo regarding US policy on reservations in India’s private sector be maintained claiming that Dalit groups have vested interests and threaten agitations against US companies by conniving with Maoists groups. Strangely, Mulford also claimed that human rights abuses in the country were on the decline, and restricted only to rural areas.
This cable was sent in the backdrop of improving relations between India and the US and after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then US President George Bush signed an agreement to increase cooperation in economic, foreign investments and human rights fields.
Udit Raj’s organisation and another organisation Dalit Solidarity Network were represented by him, Joseph D’Souza, Indira Athawale and Kancha Ilaiyah. They had tried to focus attention on job reservations in the private sector in their presentation which was titled ‘India’s Unfinished Agenda: Equality and Justice for the 200 Million Victims of the Caste System’ and the failure of the Government of India to make sure Dalits are represented fairly in the Indian society.
While the cable said absolutely nothing of the other members who represented the Dalits, it highlighted Udit Raj’s background as a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) in the 1980s and portrayed him as a “corrupt, communist politician”. It called him “an outspoken opponent of US foreign police” who “regularly participates in anti-American demonstrations”, “and has used his advocacy of Dalit causes to cultivate a high-level media profile and strengthen his CPI (M) credentials”. It also quoted Poor Christian Liberation Movement leader RL Francis’s claim that “Udit Raj does not distribute the funds he raises abroad to the larger Dalit community”.
Mulford commented in the section titled “Tread Carefully” that “the human rights arguments of Udit Raj and other Dalit activists are compelling and likely to receive a receptive hearing in the US” and that “Dalits are certainly the victims of abuse and discrimination” but that “India is undergoing dramatic social change, which is eating away at untouchability” and that “most atrocities now take place in rural areas”. He did not quote any media or government report to support this assessment though.
Udit Raj challenges this assessment by Mulford. “Mulford understood our issue through the understanding of those intellectuals who have played down the caste oppression since Independence. When there is open admission of caste in the matrimonial columns of newspapers everyday, how can it be concluded that caste discrimination has gone down?” he questioned. “Also, I have never received any funds from abroad. It is a baseless allegation,” he said.
Mulford, without naming anyone, claimed that “Some Dalit leaders have a vested interest in perpetuating GOI paternalism and the reservation system as they are personally benefiting from the status quo”, concluding that “the most useful action the US can take is to praise and provide assistance to efforts by India’s private and public sectors to address Dalit discrimination. This would be more effective than attempting to shame the GOI into action by repeatedly emphasizing the negative aspects of India’s social structure”, essentially ignoring the arguments by the Dalit groups that the Indian private sector too is dominated and run by the upper castes.
The cable called the issue of reservations a politicised one, which benefited a select few, questioning even the exact percentage of Dalits in the country. It also advocated that the caste system needs to be eradicated to get rid of untouchability instead of having caste-based reservations.
It said the UPA government “has been responsive regarding the untouchability issue and is debating what to do about it”. It drew from the Article 17 of the Indian Constitution which “outlawed untouchability in 1950” and said that successive governments “continued to rely on caste reservations in public sector employment and education” which “benefited a creamy layer of Dalits who were able to take advantage of reservations” but “did nothing to discourage Indians from embracing a caste identity”.
“The reservations issue became politicised in the late 1980s, when the GOI began extending reservations to more and more groups, causing a heated backlash among groups that were left out, who feared they were being deprived of desirable government jobs and slots in educational institutions. Today more there are more than 50 percent reservations in some areas, causing deep resentment among higher-caste Hindus, including the occasional public suicide by frustrated job-seekers,” the cable said.
Mulford further quoted the NDA government appointed head of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes Suraj Bhan’s comments to the press that “the reservation system is not functional as it gives legal sanction to untouchability and bogus claims by higher caste members claiming to be Dalits have been on the rise and reserved seats are not being filled on the plea that there aren’t enough suitable candidates”, also quoting his arguments that “untouchability will not disappear until the caste system is eradicated”.
This, Udit Raj counters, shows a dwarfed understanding of the caste system. “They look at it from the prism of racism and religious conflicts. Their feedback is after all from the upper caste employees at their missions,” he said.
Mulford dismissed the fact that Dalits constitute 21-25 percent of the country’s population. “While social scientists generally agree that approximately 21-25% of the Indian population are Dalits, it is difficult to determine with great accuracy how many Indians fall within this category. Dalits are themselves divided into upper and lower castes, and many in the upper echelons claim they are not Dalits at all. The Indian census does not ask respondents for caste status, making any figures an estimate at best,” the cable said. Mulford pointed out, ironically, that of “six Embassy FSN (Foreign Service Nationals) political staff, three are Brahmins, one Kayasth, one Rajput and one Sikh” and that “No political FSN has taken a stance on Dalit issues”.
Udit Raj, the cable claimed, had told embassy officials that Brahmins are the natural enemies of Dalits and use their dominant position to perpetuate the caste system. “Claiming that Brahmin FSNs predominate in the Embassy Political Section, he accused them of keeping the real story of Dalit oppression from Political Officers,” the cable said. He is also quoted as having said that Brahmins run the Indian Embassy in Washington, dominate the GOI and sweep the Dalit cause under the rug. “Raj opined that upper caste Indians are not embarrassed by the lingering racism and do not want the system exposed and reformed, as they would lose their slaves,” the cable said.
Mulford, however, rejected the Brahmin dominance of Indian politics and government structure as factually incorrect; pointing out instead that South India has been making “great strides” in reducing the importance of caste in politics for many years. It talked of the “success of the Dravidian parties” in Tamil Nadu and the establishment of Dalit-based politics in North India “as epitomized by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati” which is “recruiting Brahmins”, also pointing out the emergence of fringe parties with mostly upper caste MLAs like the Lok Janashakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan and of OBC leader Uma Bharati in the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Mulford though indicted the Indian media for giving insufficient coverage to crimes against Dalits, pointing out that despite initial reporting on incidents, the press moves on to other stories quickly when it comes to cases of crimes perpetuated against Dalits. The cable also quoted Raj’s assertion that the Indian media portrayed him and the others who testified before the US Congress representatives as “beggars who were unpatriotic to go to a foreign government to discuss the plight of Dalits.”
Udit Raj says he and other representatives had argued that globalisation was diluting job opportunities for Dalits and it was important to mobilise global economic players to do something beneficial for the community.
Pointing out that there are no Dalits as CEOs in any private company in India, they had argued that funds for promoting education and health flowing from America must empower Dalits also with English knowledge and equal education. They had also met representatives of the World Bank (WB) and told them that their projects sponsored for drinking water, housing, roads, and other basic amenities must provide for reservation to Dalits and also requested the US House Committee to plead for reservations in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and USAID aided projects, arguing that Indians managing the US enterprises are also from the upper castes and hence those enterprises too are not free from discrimination in hiring Dalit manpower.
Mulford, on the other hand, wrote that while Dalit groups are finding it difficult to internationalise the issue of oppression of Dalits because upper caste Hindus refuse to support them, they are actually threatening the US companies of agitations against them if they do not tow their line.
“They hope to involve international lending institutions such as the World Bank, and plan to urge them to address the plight of Dalits in all their Indian programs, or face Dalit agitations calling for their withdrawal from India,” the cable said.
The cable also claims that Udit Raj was unconvincing in his argument that “without American intervention to compel the GOI to take action, many within India’s lower castes would abandon conventional politics and embrace Maoist revolution.” He claimed that Udit Raj’s arguments were “overwhelmingly negative” and that he, “in a veiled threat, pointed out that a major shift in Dalit support towards the Naxalites could negatively affect Indo-US relations by drying-up US investment in much of India, as no US Company would build a plant in an unstable area.”
But Udit Raj says these were things he said before the Indian media and not before the US representatives. “I spoke of a possible shift in Dalit support towards Naxalites due to oppression much later in India based on my assessments. These were not part of our presentation there (in the US) or part of discussions with US officials,” he said.
Arpit Parashar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.com.