Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The 'Untouchable' Condition in Critical Race Perspective

90 Pages Posted: 27 Sep 2008 Last revised: 8 Feb 2010

See all articles by Smita Narula

Smita Narula

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

Date Written: September 1, 2008


Caste-based oppression in India lives today in an environment seemingly hostile to its presence: a nation-state that has long been labeled the "world's largest democracy;" a progressive and protective constitution; a system of laws designed to proscribe and punish acts of discrimination on the basis of caste; broad-based programs of affirmative action that include constitutionally mandated reservations or quotas for Dalits, or so-called "untouchables;" a plethora of caste-conscious measures designed to ensure the economic "upliftment" of Dalits; and an aggressive economic liberalization campaign to fuel India's economic growth. This Article seeks to answer the question of how and why this seemingly foolproof recipe for equality has done little to mitigate centuries of oppression and exclusion for over 167 million Dalits at the bottom of India's caste system. To the contrary, caste-based discrimination, inequality, and oppression comfortably survive and even thrive in modern day India. The Article further asks whether the clarion call of "Dalit Rights are Human Rights," increasingly heeded by the international community and heard around the world, can now succeed where all else has seemingly failed. It concludes that "Dalit Rights are Human Rights" is not a self-fulfilling prophecy but one that can galvanize a project of social transformation so long as it does not restrict itself to the constraints of the legal and moral regime in which this struggle now lives. The Article situates "caste" in a global context, particularly in the context of debates around affirmative action, racial inequality, and racial justice in the United States.

Suggested Citation

Narula, Smita, Equal by Law, Unequal by Caste: The 'Untouchable' Condition in Critical Race Perspective (September 1, 2008). Wisconsin International Law Journal, Vol. 26, p. 255, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 08-30, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1273803

Smita Narula (Contact Author)

Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University

78 North Broadway
White Plains, NY 10603
United States
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