Modern slavery continues to be a significant problem, even in 2017. There are 46 million people around the world today who live in slavery, and 18 million (39%) of them are in India. Although these numbers are shocking, the fact that there is such high prevalence of slavery in India isn’t.
Slavery in India is mainly dominated by bonded slavery and child slavery. Until very recently, India had not ratified the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which it finally did in June this year. The existence of bonded slavery can be traced back to the Indian Zamindari system, which heavily relied on the caste system for its perpetuation. The son of a slave had to pay the never-ending debt of his ancestors by serving the zamindar. Although this system was abolished after independence, its interplay with the caste system has had serious repercussions.
Caste in modern India is not dead, nor is it dormant. Caste didn’t disappear with the dawn of modernity and development or Indian independence. The caste system in India has adapted itself to the changing Indian economy and politics, and continues to hold a pivotal place in an Indian’s life. According to the 2015 Equity Watch report, there has been a 19.4% increase in crimes against Dalits from 2014. The number of cases registered under the Scheduled Caste (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) Prevention of Atrocities Act has also risen every year since 2011, taking a leap in 2014 to 47,064 cases, from 13,975 cases in 2013. Other reports go on to suggest the existence of serious obstacles that lower caste people face in obtaining justice, with alarming conclusions like, “most cases of caste abuse and of rape most frequently end in compromises.” Women and girls belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes still face significant discrimination and high rates of sexual violence. However, in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya gang rape case, this scenario is predicted to change, with the wider definition of sexual offences against women after the introduction of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013
It is not that there has been a complete failure on the part of the law, or a lack of inherent Constitutional provisions safeguarding the interests of the minorities. India in fact has strong Constitutional affirmative action provisions, based on reservations, when it comes to representation of minorities. It is a paradox: the best anti-slavery laws co-existing with the highest rate of slavery. The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976 helps the victims of bonded labour by providing them with a little bit of capital once they’re out of slavery. The recent 2016 Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act is a great attempt on the part of the government to better the status of Dalits in India, by instituting special courts for SC/ST victims and making more subtle discriminatory practices offences.
There still remains a lot to be done for the Dalits, but we must also acknowledge the fact that distributing the spoils of state power strictly according to caste only perpetuates the caste system. It looks like a hopeless predicament that India has arrived at. The nation strives harder to get rid of casteism by making use of it, engraving identities in places varying from the Indian Constitution to education institutions. Indians are still living what Dr. B.R. Ambedkar described as the ‘life of contradictions’ and the caste system has, as the Mandal Commission noted, only conditioned the consciousness of the lower castes in accepting their inferior status in the ritual hierarchy. The economic freedom which Ambedkar imagined would emancipate the lower caste Indians has been overpowered the caste system’s strong social existence.
Casteism is a gross violation of human rights and it is closely connected with the high prevalence of slavery in India. This link must be recognised both in India and internationally, and the two must be tackled together. In spite of recent positive steps in India, there is much still to do.