BBC World Service
I have a right to...

Article 1: All human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights

  • In much of Asia and parts of Africa, distinct groups suffer from discrimination which is based on their descent.
  • India has a total population of 1 billion people. Caste discrimination in India affects the largest number of people because 16% of the population - 160 million people - are at the bottom of the cast hierarchy.
  • Despite formal protections in law societal norms continue to pose challenges to change.


Caste is determined by one's birth into a particular social group. It is based on descent and is hereditary in nature.

In much of Asia and parts of Africa, caste is the basis of discrimination and exclusion of distinct groups.

Over 250 million people worldwide suffer from this form of discrimination which is an obstacle to the fulfilment of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Communities affected by caste include the Dalits in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as well as the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria's Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania.

Background in India

In India, the nearly 3,000 years old caste system is imbedded in the Hindi religious culture.

Indian society was originally divided by categories of work or varna. This system developed into more complicated divisions of society - castes.

Dalits, formerly known as 'untouchables', are viewed by many as separate from or below the caste system. Despite attempts during the last 100 years to break down caste barriers, the caste system is still a dominating feature of Indian society.

Legal Framework

Under the Indian Constitution, discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal.

In 1989 the Indian government enacted legislation to combat discrimination based on caste when it passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The government has also enacted legislation which provides quotas for people from low castes in politics and government jobs.

The Indian Constitution reserves a proportional number of seats in both Union and State assemblies for Scheduled Castes. Despite these formal legal protections, in many areas, Dalits are either unaware of their legal rights or don't have the resources to seek redress, thus discriminatory treatment continues.

In India, Dalits, now known by the Indian government as Scheduled Castes, make up 16% of India's population.

India's Poorest

Status as a Dalit affects every dimension of an individual's life. Dalits are among the poorest of Indians.

Their status is frequently the basis for violence, including land encroachment, murders, attacks, rapes and arson.

They suffer from wage discrimination, infringement of the right to vote and run for elections, discrimination in schools, disproportionately high drop out rates and levels of illiteracy, dehumanising living and working conditions, impoverishment and malnourishment.

They generally do not own land and are often relegated to separate villages or neighbourhoods and to low paying and undesirable occupations such as street sweeping and removing human waste and dead animals.

They are often not allowed to use the same wells or attend the same temples as higher-castes.

Dalit women are affected by the burden of both caste and gender and even farther removed from legal protections.

Dalit Voices

In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, the Dalits have a strong political presence and parties representing their interests are central to forming the state government.

In May 2002, the leader of the low-caste dominated Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati Kumari, was sworn in as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

According to BBC's Ram Dutt Tripathi, for the first forty years of elected governments in Uttar Pradesh, every single chief minister belonged to upper caste communities.

He said, "It was only in 1977, with the election of a lower-caste chief minister, that these [Dalit] communities were able to see a link between power and decisions that directly benefited them."

One Dalit voter in Uttar Pradesh claimed, "What we want is izzat" (dignity in Hindi). Now Ms Mayawati struggles to reconcile Dalit demands with those of the broader population.

Equality Movement

Dalit movements have been fighting casteism since the 1920s.

Today the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a movement led by Dalit human rights activists works to protect and promote the human rights of Dalits.

The Campaign seeks solidarity from authorities in countries where the caste system continues to marginalise the Dalit population.

It addresses the governments of particular countries as well as the International Human Rights bodies of the United Nations.

The work carried out by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, to end caste discrimination, has been significant.

Despite resistance from the Indian government about putting the issue of caste on the agenda at the World Conference against Racism in Durban, the National campaign on Dalit Human Rights as well as other advocates were successful.

Their contributions to the conference in Durban helped raise the international profile of the issue.

Human Rights Resolution

In August 2000, the United Nations Sub-commission on the Promotion and protection of Human Rights passed a resolution on Discrimination Based on Work and Descent.

The resolution, aimed at addressing the issue of caste, reaffirmed that discrimination based on work and descent is prohibited under international human rights law.

The Sub-commission also decided to further identify affected communities, examine existing constitutional, legislative and administrative measures for the abolition of such discrimination, and make concrete recommendations for the effective elimination of such practices.