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By Keshar Patel
India is the leading nation for modern-day slavery, commonly referred to as human trafficking. Global Slavery Index’s latest report states that an estimated 14,285,700 people in India are currently being exploited through sex and labor work. This includes prostitution, bonded labor, and child marriage. And evidence suggests that Dalits, a group of people considered “untouchable,” constitute a majority of those who are trafficked.
While there are specific laws in place to end discrimination against Dalits, none of them have successfully brought about change. In 1949, Article 17 of India’s constitution abolished the concept of “untouchability,” and in 1989, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCST) Prevention of Atrocities Act (PoA) was implemented to protect traditionally subjugated groups from the tyranny of upper-caste members. Despite this legislation, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) just released a survey confirming at least one in four Indians still practice untouchability. Needless to say, India, the largest “democracy” in the world, is in dire need of enforcing its constitutional rights and provisions for the most marginalized members of its society.
Because India’s jurisprudence remains ill-equipped to stringently provide legal protection for Dalits, human traffickers easily kidnap and lure vulnerable Dalit women and girls into prostitution and child marriage and men and children into bonded labor in factories and on farms. Although sexual exploitation remains one of the most prevalent and extreme forms of slavery, bonded labor actually comprises a majority of those enslaved today.
The average salary of a Dalit is roughly $1 to $2 a day. As a result, they are forced to borrow money from upper-caste neighbors or businessmen at enormous interest rates to afford basic foods. Lenders then impose an illegal debt and force families to work for generations. With an insufficient wage, a crushing debt, and deplorable working conditions, Dalits almost never rise out of bonded labor.
This year the Ministry of Home Affairs established an “anti-trafficking portal,” which includes information to track and report cases of human trafficking. However, the portal fails to provide information specific to bonded labor. This represents a greater institutional divide between responses to bonded labor, which should fall under the umbrella of the Department of Labour, and human and sex trafficking, which the Ministry of Home Affairs supervises.
Last year the Ministry of Home Affairs implemented increased sentences for sexual assault against women, including death sentences and life-terms. Yet prosecutors and policemen still fail to pursue caste-based crimes, such as rape against Dalit women. And the underlying message is clear—crimes against Dalit women will be rewarded with impunity. Rape of Dalit women is a means of punishing and silencing the Dalit community. As landless laborers who work for local landlords or factory owners, women are more likely to endure sexual assault and violence. Owners will use sexual abuse to punish and humiliate Dalit women in order to teach them a “lesson,” as well as to crush dissent and labor movements. Policemen turn a blind eye to such heinous acts, perpetuating the cycle of abuse and violence.
A prime example of such injustice is evidenced in the May 2014 case of the two Badaun Dalit girls who went to relieve themselves in a nearby field during the night and were attacked by five higher-caste men. The next day they were found hanging from a mango tree. Initially it was reported as a gang-rape and subsequent murder. But because India’s premier law enforcement agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), apparently also suffers from anti-Dalit bias, last week they ruled the girls’ deaths as suicides.
More notably, in 2010, the CBI failed to appeal the verdict of the notorious 2006 Khairlanji Massacre. In this case, a Dalit family filed a simple land-dispute complaint against an upper-caste individual. In retaliation, an upper-caste mob stripped and gang-raped the wife and daughter publicly before killing them and two other members of the family. The Bombay high court charged the accused only of murder and neglected to address the gruesome gang-rape of the mother and daughter. The verdict further demonstrated the existing upper-caste bias shadowing India’s judiciary system.
The mental, physical, and social trauma women suffer from rape and assault should merit greater protection from the state. And yet, the state seems unmoved by this reality. In all rape cases tracked by Human Rights Watch in 2007, the accused policemen and private individuals who committed such crimes were not convicted, escaping punishment entirely. Furthermore, cases of attacks against women documented by India’s National Commission and various NGOs display a distinct pattern of impunity for the accused.
Evidently, justice in court comes rarely, if at all. And should a Dalit attempt to demand their rights, he or she will certainly endure retaliatory violence. Village leaders and police officers are quick to brush aside the tribulations of the SCST and will often neglect to charge those who commit caste-based crimes under the PoA Act.
The PoA Act is a possibly powerful piece of legislation that could, if enforced, bring the cycle of exploitation to an end. The act ensures that any atrocity committed against an SCST will carry severe penalties. More specifically, the act criminalizes any use of force or assault against any Dalit woman. Of course, the police’s lack of willingness to register offenses under the PoA Act renders the legislation useless.
And so continues the blatant discrimination of Dalits who recieve little to no social protection. Limited ability to rise out of this low caste also contributes to Dalits facing generation after generation of abuse, exploitation, and injustice. Although India has the necessary laws to fight exploitation and trafficking, the will to enforce them remains elusive. Thus, if India is to find any semblance of legal equality for this community, increasing punishment to the fullest extent of the law for crimes related to caste is the only option.
Keshar Patel is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.