My Lords, officials at the British High Commission have regular discussions on human rights, including rights for Dalits, with the Government of India. My right honourable friend Ian McCartney, the Minister of State for Trade and Investment, raised human rights issues during his recent visit to India and subsequently wrote to Anand Sharma, the Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that 200 years ago William Wilberforce described what he called “the cruel shackles” of the caste system as,
“a detestable expedient … a system at war with truth and nature”?
With the launch this week of the film “India’s Hidden Slavery”, which highlights the violence, exploitation and discrimination experienced by India’s 167 million Dalits, will we work with the Government of India to challenge, not least through education, the persistence into the 21st century of this degrading and pernicious system, which threatens the social stability and economic progress of India? Does the Minister agree with India’s Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, that,
“Untouchability is not just social discrimination, it is a blot on humanity”?
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord and with the Prime Minister of India—it is indeed a blot on humanity. Discrimination on the basis of caste identity constrains the human rights, livelihoods and life chances of millions of men, women and children. It is a systematic injustice and a routine violation of the most basic human rights. For that reason, we are working with the Government of India to assist them in addressing the issue and in implementing the rather good legislation that they have but which is not yet being properly implemented.
My Lords, as one means of helping the Government of India, would the noble Baroness consider the suggestion made by a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that social data collected in India should be disaggregated by class, so that the relative disadvantage suffered by Dalits and Adivasis can be measured, particularly their relative attainment of the millennium development goals, compared with the population of India as a whole?
My Lords, I regret that I do not have a specific view on the data mentioned by the noble Lord, but I will certainly look into them. One of the programmes that DfID is funding concerns data in respect of Dalits, so I hope to be able to give him a full reply, a copy of which I will place in the Library.
My Lords, India is a vibrant, modernising democracy and a good friend within the Commonwealth. Should not our message be that, in so far as it does not deal sympathetically with the Dalit problem, that is not only wrong in itself but blunts India’s excellent record on human rights outside its borders?
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely correct. As I pointed out in my earlier response, it is why my right honourable friend has written to the Minister responsible in India. We raise this issue frequently and our High Commission regularly raises it with officials in India. It is a matter that we will not leave because it is a blatant injustice and has to be dealt with. The Indians are our very good friends and we want to work with them to help them to eradicate it.
My Lords, in view of India’s very rapid economic growth, does the Minister agree that there is an historic opportunity to ensure that the Dalits are included in this growing employment? Will she accept on behalf of government employees in India the Ambedkar principles of fair employment, particularly for Dalits? Will she encourage the many British companies now investing in India also to accept those principles of fair employment?
My Lords, we certainly support the Ambedkar principles and we are encouraging all companies that have a relationship with India, trading or whatever, to support those principles as well. Our main approach on labour standards is via the UN’s Global Compact, which is an agreement, launched by Kofi Annan in 2000, between the UN and business to uphold and promulgate 10 principles covering human rights, labour, the environment and combating corruption, but the Ambedkar principles are very good.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that India has a policy of reservation, both in employment and for slots in higher education, for scheduled castes—the Dalits—and scheduled tribes? Does she agree that a more important task for India is to pay attention to primary and secondary education for the Dalits and others so that they can progress to higher education and good government jobs?
Indeed, my Lords, we applaud the policy of reservation for the moment, but we hope that one day, with more education opportunities for Dalits, it will no longer be necessary. For that reason, many of our programmes are to do with education, especially of women and girls in India.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in contradiction to India’s national constitution, nine out of 28 states have passed anti-conversion laws, which deprive people of the freedom to choose and change religion and deprive Dalits of the right to move out of the caste system?