South Asian apartheid based on caste has provoked surprisingly little international fury over decades in comparison to the more infamous South African version. Both systems confer economic advantage to some based on the human rights abuses of millions of other human beings. But, in comparison to South African apartheid, the South Asian variety is considerably less renowned in significant part because it is less well understood. The ignorance of the rest of the world insulates it from the anger that it should provoke. And we in the North are rewarded for that ignorance with lucrative trade deals many involving forced labour using industries providing cheap goods and commodities to our high streets. For example it is still probable that everyone reading this in the global North is wearing at least one garment that has been tainted with the forced labour of Dalit and Adavasi girls and young women.
So it may be understandable why the bulk of citizens are ignorant of these issues and so have not raised their voices in protest at caste based apartheid in South Asia. But it is not excusable that development and anti-poverty organisations remain so circumspect. There are honourable exceptions of course such as Christian Aid and Action Aid, but the disinterest of the wider community is striking.I would contend that the blissful ignorance of this issue that many anti-poverty and development organisations affect will prove less tolerable over the coming years. The Sustainable Development Goals, while not explicit on the issue of caste, are explicit in their recognition of the importance of inclusivity to achieve effective development and the need for slavery-eradication in order to obtain poverty reduction and a sustainable economy. National and international NGOs alike must recognise that both these Goals imply that poverty reduction is a political issue requiring fundamental changes in the contemporary status quo. As such they bump up against the prejudices and pretensions of the privileged, most significant the caste based prejudices of the elites of South Asia with the resultant consequences for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.
Unless we recognise these political dynamics at play in our contemporary world we will never grasp the sort of political pressures and processes that will be necessary to change the laws, policies and customs that are still used to subjugate others.
The Kafala system of the Arabian peninsula, which provides employers there the right to unilaterally change terms and conditions of employees, and prevents employees from changing employers or even returning home, is used to provide the legal basis for the enslavement of South Asian migrants. It positively rewards political elites who indulge their prejudices against South Asian migrant workers by enslaving them, including for the World Cup construction in Qatar. In South Asia itself the rule of law does not extend to hundreds of millions of Dalits and Adivasi and hence the powerful are able to enslave them with impunity.
Different political economic models are unappealing to the elites in these situations because they would involve treating those they disdain with decency and recognition of our common humanity.
So changing these political economies requires national and international political pressure. And yet Qatar and Dubai remain valued trading partners with Europe. And the United Kingdom so values its relationship with Saudi Arabia that it doesn’t allow its enthusiasm for the enslavement of migrant workers, its creation and sponsorship of DAESH, the Islamic State, its addiction to the decapitation of human beings, or its intent to crucify a child who protested in favour of democracy, to prevent it from supporting Saudi Arabia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. Though to be fair that is perhaps only the second most damaging thing the UK has done to the ideals of human rights and the principles of rule of law in recent years. Its declared intent to repudiate the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights brings an even more existential threat to the concept of international rule of law.
Furthermore the discussions of India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council seems untroubled by that country’s high toleration of caste-based violence, its shortcomings in relation to rule of law, and its paltry efforts to end slavery within its own borders or for its citizens overseas.Dr Ambedkar noted that “History shows us that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”
International repudiation was fundamental in bringing political change in South Africa. And yet when the present-day counterparts of Verweod and Voster attend the assemblies of the international institutions that were founded to uphold the principles of human rights and rule of law they are greeted with a warm embrace rather than a cold shoulder.
Since the days of Sparta the privileged have conspired to keep power out of the hands of the helots. That process continues to this day.
But it won’t continue forever. Brian Friel who died last week noted the inevitability of the mounting tide of resistance in his play Freedom of the City. In it a civil rights activist describes the process when ordinary people, the oppressed of a given society, decide enough is enough: “you know your children are caught in the same morass.[But] for the first time in your life you grumbled, and someone else grumbled, and someone else, and you heard each other, and became aware that there were hundreds, thousands, millions of us, all over the world, and in a vague groping way you were outraged.”
That process of outrage has already begun. The development community needs to decide which side it is on. Political leaders need to decide which side they are on. Technocratic responses to poverty, the attempt to transfer things to people who do not have things can never succeed if the reasons that people don’t have things in the first place is because they are prevented from having them by political systems constructed by the elites of their societies.
Instead hard political work is needed to confront the edifices of injustice that are meant to keep those on the bottom where those on top deign the should be. There is a need for a renewed focus on developing partnerships with civil society to empower alienated communities, conducting research and investigation to expose injustice and confront those responsible, begining dialogue and collaborations with trades unions, businesses as well as civil society that are necessary to shift power into the hands of those who have been excluded from power.
The struggle of the helots, the Dalits, the migrants, the outcasts continues. And, unless we properly understand that, irrespective of what we try to do or how we try to do it, we are fated to become part of that most accursed community in human history and society – the well-meaning.