Bob in ‘“Dalit Rights are Human Rights”: Caste Discrimination, International Activism, and the Construction of a new Human Rights Issue’, focuses on the recent efforts by India’s Dalits (Untouchables) to transform centuries-old caste-based discrimination into an international human rights issue.
Bob demonstrates that the Dalits have achieved limited but important advances among transnational NGOs, international organizations, and foreign governments since the late 1990s, by comparing early failures and later successes in international activism.
Bob stresses that given the limited power of international law, there is no guarantee that even full accomplishment of the Dalits’ global agenda will affect policy in the countries where they live. However, overall he argues that "Dalit activists have made significant progress on the international plane since they began their human rights campaign in the early 1980s."
Bob asks what explains these successes—and what lessons the Dalit experience hold for other groups seeking to transform domestic grievances into internationally recognized human rights issues?
Bob makes two primary arguments:
(1) Organisational changes among Dalit activists played a major role in these successes, most importantly the formation of a unified Dalit network within India and the subsequent creation of a transnational solidarity network.
Dalit activism expanded substantially in the late 1990s, both at home and abroad. At the domestic level, there had been no prior nationwide group promoting the Dalit cause as a human rights issue. The foundation of the NCDHR in 1998 broadened the base of domestic Indian mobilization, while the group’s nationwide sig- nature campaign and “Black Paper” energized activists. Internationally, the Dalit’s organizational capacity also increased sub- stantially in the last years of the century. Soon after its own formation, the NCDHR moved to the international arena, forming the IDSN in 2000. As Bob states, "The vibrant and increasingly dense transnational advocacy network around them has made its presence known through persistent, sometimes vociferous, lobbying of international organizations and states, preparation of high quality reports on Dalit issues, and activism aimed at gaining media coverage."
(2) Rhetorical changes played a key role. He states that "Dalits changed the rhetoric surrounding caste-based discrimination. For one thing, the transnational Dalit network has continually emphasized the scale of human rights violations against Untouchables." By re-positioning the Dalit cause within the 'work and-descent category', the Dalit network forge tied with other populations worldwide suffering similar forms of discrimination. The Dalits thereby moved from their long-standing focus on caste-based discrimination to a broader framing within the more internationally acceptable terminology of discrimination based on “work and descent.” As Bob highlights, "By so doing, activists hoped both to underline the problem’s scope and to attract broader support from international actors, some of whom might otherwise be reluctant to offend the Indian government."
Bob highlights the lessons learnt and broader implications for international human rights activism by other aggrieved groups in this article. Bob highlights that by naming an abuse specifically as it was done in the Dalit case made it possible to move away from the broad and vague languare of international human rights law towards clear concept, making it possible target perpetrators and shame institutions into corrective action. Bob concludes that the eventual successes of Dalit activists highlight the relevance of organizational and rhetorical factors, over which aggrieved groups exercise significant control.
Bob, ‘“Dalit Rights are Human Rights”: Caste Discrimination, International Activism, and the Construction of a new Human Rights Issue’, 29 Human Rights Quarterly (2007), pp. 167-193