The Dalits are known as the 'untouchables' in many parts of South Asia. They face discrimination at all levels of social interaction such as from hotels, to barbershops, from temples to mosques and schools. Socially their standing is negligible. They are not involved in social dynamics and are often used by influential people to pursue their unholy aims. Tolerated and patronised as long as they remain in their traditional social roles, they are openly threatened and insulted, and beaten while attempting to bring changes among them. This sort of ongoing discrimination has taken a toll on more than 6.5 million Dalits in Bangladesh.
A large number of Dalits living in the municipal areas are employed in the public/private sectors as sweepers and cleaners with very low salary. As an excluded community, they continue to work in some of the most menial and low paid dangerous jobs in the country, such as cleaning toilets, sweeping streets, and emptying the septic tanks of others. They generally do not get equal treatment and legal protection when a crime is committed against them, as most cases are settled or negotiated through informal authorities often arbitrarily or on a discriminatory basis. Backward in outlook they are mostly illiterate falling prey to child-marriage, dowry and superstitious behaviour in general. Sometimes they face severe forms of human rights violations, including abduction, rape, torture, destruction of houses, land grabbing, eviction from land, threats and intimidation.
Key challenges to the full enjoyment of fundamental human rights for Dalits in Bangladesh include lack of access to education, extreme poverty issues, health and housing problems, and unequal access to work and employment. The Dalits are usually very poor leading a hand to mouth kind of existence. Most of them in rural areas are landless and live in houses built with straw and mud, often on common land, under constant threat of eviction. They are not allowed to rent or build houses outside their designated localities. The worst affected are the Dalit women who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination. They are yet to be empowered to take an active part in the socio-cultural, economic and political arena in the community and the country. Discrimination against Dalit women and children should be prevented and measures should be taken to empower them through national initiatives, such as income generating activities.
Although the Constitution of Bangladesh promises equal rights for all citizens, thousands of members of the Dalit community are treated as 'untouchables' and are ostracised by the society. The equal rights for all citizens and prohibition of discrimination by the State on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth is guaranteed in article 28(1) of our Constitution. The principle of non-discrimination is also enshrined in other constitutional provisions. Despite these Constitutional guarantees, political-economic-and-social-exclusion on the basis of caste is practiced across the country. As such social exclusion is manifested in the physical structure of both rural and urban areas throughout the country.
It is the responsibility of the State to ensure their basic human rights and protect them from all sorts of discrimination. As a signatory to the core international human rights treaties, the Government of Bangladesh has the obligation to promote and protect human rights for all, including those discriminated on the grounds of caste, work and descent. With a view to upholding its international obligations to eliminate all forms of discrimination, the Government needs to duly consider and implement elimination of caste-based discrimination. In order to improve the lives of Dalits, there is an urgent need for legislative changes such as the adoption of anti-discriminatory law, recently proposed by the Law Commission of Bangladesh. To promote the socio-economic status of Dalits and other excluded groups in Bangladesh, the Government should establish a special commission or create a special cell in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to oversee the developmental affairs of the excluded groups. For effective implementation of the human rights obligations of the Government, the NHRC should furthermore address the Dalit issue as a priority agenda by requesting a national study on discrimination on the grounds of caste, work and descent. The key national priorities to improve the situation of Dalits in Bangladesh should be set in a comprehensive national action plan to eliminate caste, work and descent based discrimination.
The writer is Assistant Professor and Head of Department of Environmental Science, State University of Bangladesh.