Khairlanji: Discussion in House of Commons;UK

12May07

A discussion on India (Caste System)

Time:11 am

Month: May

 

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of caste and human rights in India with the Minister, who I hope will share many of my observations and thoughts. I say from the outset that I speak first and foremost as a friend of India, with huge affection and respect for its people, culture and history and a profound sense of optimism and excitement about its future and emerging role on the global stage.

I have had the privilege to visit this amazing country on numerous occasions, including a 10-day visit there last year with the Conservative parliamentary friends of India during which we benefited from wonderful hospitality from the Ministry of External Affairs and the Confederation of Indian Industry. I have previously spoken in the House about the importance of our relationship and trade with India and the need for the UK to do far more to capture a greater share of India’s enormous increase in foreign trade.

I speak in a spirit of friendship and respect, but true friendship does not mean shying away from difficult issues, and caste-based discrimination is one such issue. What moved me to seek the debate was a trip to India in February with David Griffiths of the human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The purpose of the visit was to consider the issue of untouchability and to see what challenges and barriers Dalit communities face. Dalits are the so-called “untouchables”—the 170 million people who fall outside the four main Hindu caste groups.

I went in February with a critical mind, keen to separate the challenges common to many developing countries in south Asia from specific examples of discrimination or human rights violations resulting directly from caste-based identity. During my short trip I was presented with an enormous array of evidence of persistent, systemic human rights abuse on the basis of caste, which results in the life chances of Dalits being severely curtailed. It is a practice that goes back perhaps 3,000 years and continues in many forms in the world’s largest democracy, whose constitution and body of law does not just outlaw discrimination on the basis of caste but contains specific legislation to protect scheduled castes and tribes.

Where does one start? I should like to start in Khairlanji, a village in the state of Maharashtra. On 29 September last year the wife, daughter and two sons of Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, from that village, were dragged from their home and lynched in full view of neighbours and other villagers. After they were bludgeoned to death by a mob, their mutilated bodies were dumped in a nearby canal. There was strong evidence to suggest that the female family members had been gang raped and suffered extreme sexual violence before being murdered. That was never proved because of the inadequacy of the police response.

At the heart of that horrific case was a village property dispute fuelled by a toxic mix of caste-based jealousy and prejudice. The Bhotmange family was one of just three Dalit families in a village dominated by a higher caste. The attack on the family cannot be explained away as a typical village feud, and the negligent police response cannot be explained away as mere bungling.
8 May 2007 : Column 26WH
Caste goes to the very heart of that horrific and troubling case. The police took several hours to respond to the initial call by the father of the family, who reported his family as missing and reported a suspected murder. Their initial investigation was wholly inadequate. They arrived three hours later, at 10 o’clock at night, dismissed the claim and demanded a fee of 500 rupees for coming to the village. Despite the report of missing persons, no search was undertaken, resulting in the loss of what might have been crucial evidence including that ofgang rape.

The following day, officers at the local police stations refused to register a case, and the incident received full recognition only when the body of the teenage daughter was recovered from the canal. Despite seeing evidence of an attack in the home, police dismissed the allegations as rumour. On the following day, when Mr. Bhotmange attempted to file a first information report at the local police station, the inspector initially refused to do so.

The Khairlanji killings and the woeful response by the local police and judiciary led to violent protests by Dalit activists, and in the past eight months the case has received significant international attention from the media and human rights groups. It has thrown a spotlight on an issue that many Indians feel uncomfortable talking about. On my visit to India in February, with the permission of the local police, I was taken to Khairlanji by a group of Buddhist activists who had helped to disseminate information about the massacre in the days afterwards. I later met Mr. Bhotmange, who is now living under police protection and fears that justice will never be served on those who murdered his family. Recent reports that I have read in the press about the progress of the trial do not fill international observers with confidence that all those complicit in the massacre at the end of last September will be punished appropriately. The case has become massively important.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one of the great problems is that although caste discrimination is wrong under Indian law and there is theoretically complete protection for people, in reality there is no access to justice through either the police or the judicial system because few people are prepared to represent victims of caste discrimination? The authorities do not get the whole message all the way through, so it remains unsaid and unreported. It is a vile system.

Mr. Crabb:I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and echo his sentiments. The problem is the huge gulf between the text of the legal documents that provide theoretical protection for Dalits and the implementation on the ground, which is wholly inadequate, particularly in rural areas.

I encourage the Minister to raise the Khairlanji case with the Indian Government and inquire about the progress of the trial. Of course I understand the sensitivities of inquiring into judicial proceedings in another country, but will he affirm that it is a case of international concern that he will raise at his next meeting with the Indian high commissioner?

It is brilliant approach suggested by Honourable Member of Parliament,UK, Mr Crabb; all civil societies have to be linked on humanitarian ground irrespective of political boundaries in between. Raising voice on behalf of dalit brothers is no-mean task; we at Atrocitynews appreciate Mr Crabb for taking diligent efforts in visiting Khairlanji and in putting up the case in front of parliament fiercely that could sensitise the international forums on heinous apertheid in India.



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