CASTE based discrimination is one of the most serious human rights issues in the world today, affecting more than 260 million people worldwide. Caste systems and prejudice against so-called ‘untouchables’ are traditionally regarded as part of traditional practices and originate from Hindu scriptures; also in Bangladesh, these traditions and practices have also been adopted by sections of the Muslim majority.
In Bangladesh, members of the ‘low castes’ increasingly refer to themselves as Dalits or Harijans as the restrained people to emphasise the fact that they have been exploited, oppressed and excluded through generations. The Harijans in Bangladesh are largely identified with their traditional occupations such as fishermen, sweeper, barber, washer men, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, cobblers and oil-pressers et cetera. Their traditional occupations are stigmatised due to economic, social and cultural exclusion as a continuance of traditional apartheid like ‘caste system’.
Recently the widely circulated photo of a girl in social media asking ‘why can’t the children from Harijan community get admission in the Gaibabndha Sadar Upazila Model School’ demands for a review of current socio-legal practices in Bangladesh regarding Harijan community.
Articles 27, 28, 29, and 31 of the constitution of Bangladesh seek to establish equality and non-discrimination. Therefore the state owes the responsibility of ensuring basic human rights of the Harijans and protecting them from all forms of discrimination. As a party to the major international human rights treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights, Bangladesh has the obligation to promote and protect human rights for all, including those discriminated on the grounds of caste, occupation and descent.
However, approximately 5.5 million Harijans in Bangladesh continue to suffer from multiple forms of discrimination and ‘untouchability’ practices due to the lack of sufficient protection which leads to political-economic-social exclusion.
The constitution of Bangladesh advocates for the realisation of the principle of non-discrimination under Article 28(1). Nevertheless a recent study shows that the Harijans in Bangladesh are discriminated on the basis of social status, economic strength, and cultural orientation.
On the other hand, the grounds of non-discrimination under Article 28(1) of the constitution are limited and specific in numbers such as religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; while, in practice, we have many instances of discrimination based on occupation, age and descent.
Though constitutionally discrimination is prohibited in Bangladesh, it is difficult for an individual to have legal remedy from the judiciary since there is no specific anti-discrimination law. Nonetheless, responding to the persistent and widespread discrimination against Dalits in Bangladesh, in 2013 the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh and Bangladesh Law Commissions engaged with Dalit human rights defenders to introduce a draft anti-discrimination legislation.
The draft includes a broader expression of the word ‘discrimination', where it occurs when any individual or community on the grounds of race, caste, occupation, place of birth, ethnic minority identity, sex, religion, sexual orientation, disablement, age, pregnancy and maternity or for any other reasons faces different or gets less favourable treatment and less facilities in the same situation than any other individual or community faces or would face.
The Anti-discrimination Bill was submitted to the ministry of law, justice and parliamentary affairs in April 2013 but returned to the NHRC, four years later, for further review. It has no progress till then. Therefore absentia of enabling legal framework seeks to formulate a process by which any policy or activity can be identified as discriminatory against any citizen or marginalised community.
Lastly, Bangladesh needs to take pragmatic policy and legislative initiatives to improve the living standard of the Harijans and ensure their dignity and worth as human beings. We have constitutional pledge to emancipate people from social and economic exploitation and gear up the pace of development towards building an inclusive society which cannot be achieved leaving behind the Harijan community.
Nafiul Alam Shupto is a student of North South University
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