First Indian gets 2007 Rafto Prize for human rights

First Indian gets 2007 Rafto Prize for human rights

This is the first time an Indian has been awarded the prestigious Rafto Prize for Human Rights. The announcement came today morning in Bergen, Norway office of The Rafto Foundation that India's National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) shall get the coveted Rafto Prize. The award ceremony is due this year on 4 November 2007.

The Rafto Prize is a human rights award gaining international status, several past Rafto laureates like Aung San Suu Kyi, Josè Ramos-Horta, Kim Dae-Jung and Shirin Ebadi, have subsequently been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Rafto Prize contributes to a focus on human rights violations and on people and communities which need the attention of the world.

The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) will receive the 2007 Rafto Prize for its brave struggle to promote Dalit rights, and for its efforts to emphasise that the discrimination and oppression resulting from caste prejudice is a serious violation of international human rights.

The NCDHR was established in 1998 by a group of human rights organisations and activists concerned with the status of Dalits' rights in India. NCDHR's efforts include documenting human rights violations, providing legal assistance to victims of discrimination and atrocities, and lobbying national and internationally. The organisation has led a successful campaign to raise awareness of the Dalits' plight and discrimination they suffer. NCDHR's struggle has been instrumental in mobilising international human rights organisations to combat caste-based discrimination both in India and neighbouring South-East Asian countries.

India 's constitution clearly states that discrimination based on religion, sex or caste is prohibited, yet the Dalits continue to face systematic discrimination in all spheres of Indian society. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956), who was himself a Dalit and the architect behind the Indian Constitution, conceded that, "Rights are protected not by laws, but by the social and moral conscience of society".

India 's efforts to enforce laws that are meant to protect Dalits are severely flawed. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first leader of his country to compare the condition of Dalits with that of black South Africans under apartheid. India must prioritise the fight against the oppression of Dalits and other marginalised groups, and ensure an end to the systematic violation of human rights.

Millions of Indians are born into a social and cultural system which fundamentally conflicts with the notion that all human beings are born free with equal rights. Of India's more than 1 billion citizens, 167 million are labelled as 'impure', 'casteless' or 'untouchable'. These are referred to as Dalits, meaning 'the oppressed'. The identity of the Dalit people, and their struggle for dignity and basic human rights, has been formed through thousands of years of humiliation, discrimination, and exclusion.

Dalits are refused equal access to education and health services, experience harsh discrimination in social and religious life, and are excluded from all but the most menial of jobs. In many areas, Dalits have their property taken away from them, and are forced to relocate to other villages and towns against their will. Every day, the Indian police and the judicial system turn a blind eye while Dalits are subjected to caste-motivated murder, rape, and harassment.

The caste system is an intrinsic part of Hinduism, the world oldest religion, and the dominant faith in India. According to the teachings of Hinduism, all individuals are born into a caste which awards them different status and defines their opportunities in life. Caste discrimination is also a problem within other religions. An example of this is Christian churches discriminating against Christian Dalits through allocating separate mass and burial grounds for them.

The oppression experienced by the Dalits today indicates that respect for human rights cannot be taken for granted, even in democracies such as India, which is a signatory to most international human rights conventions.