SWM 2014: Action against untouchability in Bangladesh
Case study by Livia Saccardi
Abul Basar is a Bangladeshi activist who for years has been working on a variety of development and human rights issues in the country. In particular, his focus has been on the ongoing marginalization of Dalit communities and the best ways to address the root causes of their situation. Here he discusses with Livia Saccardi the daily discrimination Dalits face in Bangladesh– and why, despite these challenges, he believes change is on the way.
What forms of discrimination do Dalits in Bangladesh experience?
Dalit communities in Bangladesh experience various forms of discrimination in almost all spheres of life, as they have historically been identified and assigned to menial jobs by the dominant classes. Stratification of communities along caste lines is a highly complex issue – it results from a variety of often overlapping factors, including caste, religion, place of birth or heritage of descendents, occupation and psychosocial norms that place people in situations of discrimination and segregation.
It is very humiliating that even in the twenty-first century, a major portion of Dalit communities are still experiencing untouchability – even served with separate utensils at the local restaurants. In some areas of the country, eateries keep plates, glasses and cutlery with special marks so no one else would use these; Dalits may even be seated separately at weddings and other social functions. As they are treated as untouchable, they are also not allowed to rent or build houses outside their exclusively designated areas. In rural areas, they are sometimes even prevented from sharing water from ‘non-Dalit’ water sources.
Dalit children are sometimes treated with derision in school by their teachers and other pupils. For example, in 2010, the headmaster of a government primary school in Jessore, the southern part of the country, asked 70 students from the Dalit community to get out of the Independence Day ceremony organized by the school as they were from a lower caste. The headmaster told them ‘you are from a lower caste, you are not fit to attend such a big ceremony, eminent citizens are invited here, get out.’
Are there any positive initiatives that address the root causes of discrimination against Dalits?
Yes, I raised an issue in a meeting where an official in the ministry of primary and mass education was present about how the names of some primary schools are themselves the cause of discrimination against students from the Dalit community, and I gave an example – there is a government primary school named Methorpotti or ‘sweepers colony’. When students from the school apply to secondary schools with this name on their certificate, it immediately indicates that they are from a Dalit community. As a result of the discussion in the meeting, the name of that particular school has been changed.
The situation facing Dalits has also become an important issue in the media. Coverage of Dalit rights events has increased. A considerable number of journalists have written stories on the situation of Dalits in their respective newspapers. Now we can say that Dalit rights are on the agenda.
You have been involved in campaigning for an anti-discrimination law that could be approved by the current parliament. Could you please explain what this involves?
Yes, since 2011 I have been working to support the development of antidiscrimination legislation in Bangladesh, with the support of MRG. As a result, the Bangladesh Law Commission has been responsible for drafting the law.* As you know, there is still no legislation that addresses the untouchability practice affecting Dalits and other socially excluded communities, even indigenous communities in the northern part of the country. You cannot go to court for judicial remedy as this type of offence is not defined in any legislation. As the newly drafted act defines untouchability and all types of discrimination based on work, descent or other grounds as an offence, anybody will be able to go before a court and seek remedy, if the draft is adopted by the parliament.
Could you please highlight its main strengths?
It is the first ever draft law in Bangladesh that defines the discrimination based on work and descent that Dalits and other socially excluded groups are experiencing. Also, it explains untouchability in its definition section – this is one of its strengths. The new law will give us the right to take action; you will be able to go to court for judicial remedy in cases of discrimination and untouchability, as defined in the draft law. And on the basis of the example set by the anti-discrimination law, we should get a broader change in social attitudes towards untouchability and discrimination against Dalits. It could be the foundation for a judicial shift that will give us the right to take action in cases of hate speech and untouchability. That is why it is important that the draft gets passed by the parliament.
*Abul Basar expresses his gratitude to Dr Professor M. Shah Alam, the then acting chairman of the Law Commission, for his efforts in drafting the law.
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.
Photo: Dalit community in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Livia Saccardi/MRG