Posted on 02 September 2011
Sensitive cables reveal views that portrayed Indian Dalit groups as
threats to US
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).
"US has a dwarfed understanding of caste system. They look at it from
the prism of racism," says Dalit intellectual Udit Raj
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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
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
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
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
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.
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