Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Globalisation and historically disadvantaged groups

The political and communicative consequences of globalisation have benefited marginalised groups such as the Dalits in India and women in Pakistan. Such groups can, to some extent, offset their paucity in numbers and inferior social status by building solidarity networks globally. Greater globalisation will eventually help the even weaker groups like Adivasis and gays raise their voice and be heard.

Historically disadvantaged groups are the most powerless and marginalised sections of any population. The Dalits (Untouchables) of South Asia (including those known in Pakistan as Chuhras and Musallis) are conspicuous among them. Indigenous peoples or aborigines — such as the Adivasis of South Asia, the Sami or Lapp people of Scandinavian countries, and the Australian aborigines — also suffer from long historical disadvantage. Closely following such stigmatised groups are those dispersed at all levels of mainstream society but socially and culturally considered inferior. Women belong to that category in almost all ‘high cultures’. A group that almost universally suffers from persecution is that of gays.

Things have changed for the better for some of them in some parts of the world after the UN-based human rights regime started recognising their special plight. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979), the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992), and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1994), are UN-instruments related to historically disadvantaged groups. Of these, only the convention on women’s rights is a proper treaty. The one on minorities is only a declaration and not a binding treaty, and as far as the rights of indigenous peoples are concerned the UN has only produced a draft that the General Assembly has yet to adopt. Gays are still not recognised as an oppressed group.

For such groups, globalisation furnishes an opportunity to connect with worldwide solidarity networks and UN agencies and thus attract attention to their oppression. We shall consider below the efforts of Indian Dalits and Pakistani women to internationalise their situation.

The legal status of Indian Dalits improved a great deal when in 1955 the Indian parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act, which criminalised the practice. Also, by an act of parliament, quotas were fixed for the scheduled castes (Dalits) and tribes (Adivasis) in government services, central and provincial legislatures and educational institutions. Consequently some 22 per cent jobs were reserved for them. The Act applied to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains — all those rooted in the Hindu religious tradition. However, even when such measures have brought relief to them social taboos against them are still held widely in society and brutal attacks on them occur all over rural India. In any event, some 50 years of reservations have produced a Dalit intelligentsia that has been raising its voice against the continuation of the caste system.

In December 1998, the Dalits launched the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). On December 10, 1998, 50,000 signatures and the campaign memorandum were submitted to the President of India. Another 100,000 signatures were collected abroad and submitted to UN Commission on Human Rights. The UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights appointed an expert to study their situation in India and other South Asian countries.

The full impact of Dalit networking was felt at the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance held at Durban, South Africa from August 31, to September 7, 2001. The BJP-led government tried to vilify the campaign as unpatriotic and misleading but it goes to the great credit of Indian democracy that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an autonomous non-political state institution, presented a statement at the conference in which the existence of the practice of untouchability was accepted. It was, however, pointed out that efforts were afoot to root out the evil of caste hierarchy and untouchability from the social and cultural spheres. The World NGO Forum endorsed the view of the NHRC.

As regards the efforts of women in Pakistan to make use of globalisation in their struggle against oppressive laws and practices, we must recall that prior to General Zia ul Haq’s rule (1977-88), Pakistani governments had been quietly extending family-planning facilities and girls had started attending modern schools in greater numbers. Zia interrupted this egalitarian trend. In 1984 a Law of Evidence was adopted which reduced the worth of evidence given by a female witness in a court of law to half that of a male witness. Also, proving rape under the Hudood laws became extremely difficult, since it required four pious male witnesses to testify that the crime had been committed in their presence.

The government of Nawaz Sharif (1997-99) moved the so-called 15th Amendment or Shariat Bill in August 1998 in the lower house — the National Assembly. Had it been passed, it would have widened the extent of female subordination even beyond the ‘Islamic reforms’ of General Zia. It was opposed by women’s rights and human rights organisations. They formed an alliance and began a sustained campaign of protests and demonstrations. They received messages of support from international human rights and women rights NGOs and built up quite a campaign. On December 8, 1998, for example, ambassadors of countries that funded Pakistani human rights and women rights NGOs, officials of the UNDP, various government officials and NGO representatives attended a meeting held in connection with the International Human Rights Day. NGO speakers used the occasion to highlight the threat posed by the Shariat Bill to human rights and women’s rights.

The government hit back by launching a campaign in general against NGOs supported by foreign donors, but targeting human rights and women’s rights NGOs in particular. Pir Binyamin Rizvi, then Punjab minister for social welfare, accused them of propagating anti-national and anti-Islamic ideas. The intelligence services were given the task of screening NGOs. The 15th Amendment could not be passed because the Senate continued to defy the government. The military coup on October 12, 1999 terminated the parliamentary procedure.

The Adivasis have not been so enterprising in developing global linkages and the gay community of South Asia has not made use of globalisation because it lives in anonymity and fear, although in India some gay organisations have been founded and network with organisations in the West.

The above evidence should leave no doubt that the political and communicative consequences of globalisation have benefited marginalised groups such as the Dalits in India and women in Pakistan. Such groups can to some extent offset their paucity in numbers and inferior social status by building solidarity networks globally. Greater globalisation will eventually help the even weaker groups like Adivasis and gays raise their voice and be heard.

The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books. His email address is Ishtiaq.Ahmed@statsvet.su.se

Source: Daily Times, November 10, 2004

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