Ethnic & Caste Segregation: Deepening Social Divisions in India & Europe

By Nikhil Verma

On June 2014, a tattered body with a swollen face was dumped in a shopping cart in North Paris. After having found the lying body on the road, Ion Vardu Sandu, 49, a Roma mechanic, said that “he was barely breathing, and his eyes were closed.” In the following sentence, he added “but he was also a notorious thief. Teens like him steal and give Romani people like us a bad name.” The body belonged to a 17-year-old Roma known as “Darius” and who went into a coma.
Two months earlier, more than 7000 kilometres away, in the village of Kharda, India, Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old boy was found hanging on a tree. Nitin was a ‘Dalit’, and his only mistake was to speak to a girl from an upper-caste community. All 13 men who were accused of Nitin’s murder were acquitted in 2017.
But what killed Darius, Nitin and million others like them? Is it the dehumanisation, the stigma or the fear of loss of dominance? While the magnitude of the violence varies, the undercurrent remains the same. A similar social hierarchy can be observed in other parts of the world. The condition of Buraku in Japan, African-Americans in the US, Osu in Nigeria – groups that also suffer prejudice in their respective countries – also mirror the terrible condition of ‘Dalits’ in India, and ‘Roma’ in Europe. Racial and caste discrimination manifest themselves in ways that are demeaning to the core of human existence.

Caste & Race

In an essence, caste and race are contemporaries. Segregation, discrimination and violence along with a social status determined by birth occur in these societies. The Indian discriminative order is based on the notion of ‘Sanctioned Impurity’ often reiterated through menial jobs such as manual scavenging and leather tanning by Elitist Brahminical upper-caste forces; the African-American varies and is based on the notion of an inferior subhuman race and often reiterated through violence – termed as untamed ‘savages’ by European settlers who encountered native population.
However, in terms of similarity, both ‘Dalits’ and ‘Roma People’ stand at the lowest level of the socio-economic hierarchy in respective continents of Asia and Europe. Both groups are intentionally excluded from consumer markets, employment and housing. Both ‘Caste’ and ‘Race’ impose enormous barriers in civil and political rights.
Babasaheb Ambedkar and Martin Luther King Jr. were fighting against the oppression of their own kind. But while King was able to humanise white people, Ambedkar couldn’t emulate the same in the Indian ethos due to Gandhi’s intervention on a multitude of legislative and social fronts – most famously his persistence to keep Dalits in the Hindu fold by denying them a separate electorate, the communal award and subsequently blackmailing Ambedkar to sign the Poona Pact through his hunger strike[1]. While political activism has been able to consolidate ‘African-Americans’ in the US, unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Indian social fabric.
This is evident from the fact that Dalits sit separately in government schools in 37.8% of the villages. In 27.6% villages, Dalits were prevented from entering police stations, In 25.7% of the villages, they are prevented from entering ration shops, and in 33% of the villages, public health workers refuse to visit Dalit homes.
In the case of Roma, there is pervasive illiteracy or semi-literacy (e.g., half of Roma adults in Greece, 35% in Portugal, and 25% in France report being illiterate) and extremely low-rates of completion of secondary schooling (from 77% to 99% of surveyed Roma across 11 European countries do not have an upper secondary school diploma).

History of Oppression

Surprisingly, India stands as the common denominator for Dalit, African-Americans and Roma. The Roma, also known as Gypsies, are believed to be immigrants who transcended to Europe from the North of the Indian Subcontinent in the 9th century – don’t confuse it with Romania, an independent Eastern European nation-state. Interestingly, some historians believe that Roma are no other than low-caste Hindus who were traded as slaves during the Mughal Empire.
The rife discrimination on the basis of work and descent perpetuates into an economic dependency that turns into institutionalised discrimination. Social, economic and physical segregation on race, caste and origin exclude people and devoid them of basic humanism.
While inconclusive, the question arises, by virtue of migration or slavery: Are Roma People the ‘Dalits’ of Europe, both symbolically and literally?

Experiences of Persecution & Social Stigma

The unfortunate yet unifying factor is the rampant persecution in form of prejudice, rife discrimination, spatial segregation and social ostracism. The modus operandi of discrimination against Dalits and Romani people starts with residential segregation. Most of the segregation drives people to outskirts of villages or small towns, limiting access to water and public utilities as well as widening the cognitive difference between societies.

Spatial segregation can be understood as the “residential separation of groups within a broader society” and as an expression of its inequality. [van Kempen and Özüekren 1998:1632]

Segregation Against The Dalits

New Delhi, India
Dalit ‘Bastis’ – Residential estates (locally called ‘colonies’) are quarters in the city where ‘Dalits’ or ‘untouchables’ live. In a report by (Veronique Dupont, 2002), the researcher noted that ‘Bastis’ especially – the quarters where ‘untouchables’ live – are still an urban reality that testifies the persistence of social ostracism manifested in terms of residential segregation.

figure 1 - segregations against dalits

A scrutiny of the index of the Eicher City Map of Delhi (1996) reveals 13 such localities that are clearly identified by their names: Harijan Basti/colony, sweeper colony, Balmiki (a caste of sweepers and manual scavengers) Basti/colony, Dr. Ambedkar (the historical leader for the emancipation of ‘untouchables’) Colony/Nagar.
A more recent study by Vithayathil and Singh (2012), which tried to build on Mehta’s study of Pune using ward-level data of 2001, released by the Census of India, finds that there are high levels of residential segregation by caste in India’s seven largest metro cities—Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad.
This segregation also reinforces the threat of social ostracism, economic boycotts, and even physical violence, which is an important factor in maintaining the De-Facto order of the social hierarchy.

Segregation Against the Romani People

Bucharest, Romania
Romania, a south-eastern EU member state is home to the world’s largest Roma community (1.5 million) with almost 700,000 out of them living in absolute poverty. Eviction is the Romanian way when it comes to segregated ‘Roma’. Instances of segregation through evictions are rampant and often underreported in national media.
In 2012, 80 Roma families were evicted from Baia Mare Municipality, North Romania and moved near an old chemical factory. Similarly, in 2014 and 2015, 20 families were evicted from Central Bucharest in the masquerade of re-privatisation of properties on Vulturilor street.

figure 3 - segregation against the romani people

Structural Social Divide & Deepening Social Division

Both caste and race perpetuate similar forms of oppression – through privilege, segregation, exclusion and discrimination. The effects could be felt allocation of resources, sense of security, inequality in opportunities and misappropriate wealth acquisition.
The social ethos of Europe was transformed after the reckoning of the war crimes committed against Jews during the World War II. Western Europe has mostly kept a check on social inequalities after the Treaty of Rome, in 1957. However, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were still grappling to adjust to a new world order perpetuating stigma and blame on communities such as the ‘Romani’ one.
Similar to the discrimination against Dalits and Roma, there has no morally recocking against racial and caste prejudice. Dark skin, stealing and crime, the universal caricatures of prejudice, go on. Filth, dirt and second-grade citizen: this is the status of all three marginalised groups.
However, none of the host countries acknowledges the role of structural & institutional inequality that limits the opportunity of integration and assimilation. While other groups victims of discrimination such as African-Americans have been largely able to progress and break stereotypes with a black president and black participation in the popular culture.
“I would say India is the story of caste, and it is not a pretty story. In America, I know many white people who are not racist. I don’t think I have come across as many upper caste people who are not casteist”, said Sujatha Gilda, a Dalit Indian-American author in an interview about her book, ‘Ants Among Elephants’.

figure 4 - structural social divide & deepening social division

figure 5 - structural social divide & deepening social division (part 2)

Unifying The Fight Against Discrimination

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has made great strides in creating a much more tolerable society. It outlaws all manifestations and practices of racial, religious and national hatred in compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), ratified by India, the USA and European states on January 4th, 1969, which included 88 signatories and 179 parties.
Although periodic reports have to be submitted by signatories, India hasn’t included a single mention to date about ‘Dalit’ abuses. For ‘Roma’ it has been represented in the international forum via World Conference Against Racism. Other than that, the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies, the ILO Supervisory Bodies, the Special Procedures mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, and the Human Rights Council itself (as well as its institutional predecessor, the Commission on Human Rights) have been at the forefront of identifying human rights issues facing Roma since the mid-1990s.
For ‘African-Americans’ or ‘People of African Descent’, The United States has failed to comply with key protections under ICERD in a report by Human Rights Watch. The report concluded that the US had a disproportionate number of executions and arrests for similar crimes. Decisions by US Southern states to decline Medicaid expansion have a disproportionate impact on African Americans – with 57% of them living in the South of the country.
Hence, apart from CERD, there is an urgent need for an international civil body to check all descent-based discrimination in check and brings it to the international limelight for scrutiny. The question, though, still persists: when will be embrace our humanity and converge together to fight against the perceived lines of segregation and discrimination?


[1] “Did Gandhi Blackmail Dr. Ambedkar For Poona -Pact? – BhindiBazaar.” 17 Aug. 2017, http://www.bhindibazaar.asia/gandhi-blackmail-dr-ambedkar-poona-pact/. Accessed 19 Dec. 2018.

Featured picture sources: collage by Nikhil Verma; Roma Woman (Wiki Commons); Dalit Child (Flickr); Rosa Parks (Wiki Visual).

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