Caste and the world


Efforts to treat caste-based discrimination on a par with racial discrimination at the recent Durban Review Conference did not fructify because caste remains an intractable issue for the international audience. Why is it that only Dalits are vocal about this problem?

What is shocking has been the near-total absence of any debate in the Indian public sphere about the setback...

Photo Courtesy: International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN)

The search for justice: Dalits protesting in Geneva where the Durban Review Conference was held.

Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible… Virtue has become caste-ridden and morality has become caste-bound.

B.R. Ambedkar, in Annihilation of Caste, 1936

The efforts to internationalise the issue of caste-based discrimination against the 260 million Dalits in South Asia and treat it on a par with racial discrimination, which had received a boost in 2001 at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) held in Durban, suffered a serious setback at the Durban Review Conference held recently (April 20-24, 2009) in Geneva. While in 2001, WCAR had discussed caste euphemistically as “discrimination based on work and descent”, in line with terminology devised by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the outcome document of the Durban Review Conference (DRC) has evaded even an allusion to caste.

The DRC’s mandate was to review the Durban Declaration and Program of Action — an elaborate document that was the outcome of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. Since the 2001 Durban Declaration had explicitly expressed sympathy for Palestinians “under foreign occupation”, there was a sustained United States-Israel effort to debunk the UN document. The media attention last month was therefore focused on the boycott of the DRC by 10 UN member-States led by the US and its cohorts, Israel, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and five EU countries.

Absence of debate

What is shocking has been the near-total absence of any debate in the Indian public sphere about the setback to the fight against caste at the international level. WCAR 2001 had been a landmark event for the Dalit lobby, led primarily by the National Council for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). But even in 2001, the battle had only been half-won. After intense lobbying, the preparatory document for WCAR had included Paragraph 73, urging governments to “prohibit and redress discrimination on the basis of work and descent.” The Indian government then mounted pressure on other governments to jettison this paragraph from the final document. The Dalit effort, scuttled diplomatically in intergovernmental meetings, had a sympathetic hearing at nongovernmental forums.

Despite constitutional guarantees and laws, the Dalits in Indian society are separate and unequal. Statistics provided by statutory bodies reveal that routine violence against Dalits is part of the Indian landscape. That every hour two Dalits are assaulted, every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered and two Dalit houses burnt — even if these are grossly underreported — does not make even a dent on public consciousness.

While New Delhi is being spruced up for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, it is yet to adopt the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. As the capital was gloating over the diplomatic success in stalling the Dalit caucus’ bid to mobilise international opinion on caste discrimination at the UN, on May 9, the Safai Karamchari Andolan offered detailed evidence to a disbelieving Supreme court bench listing individual manual scavengers and the location of houses where they clean dry latrines in north-east Delhi. According to information obtained under the Right to Information Act, it was submitted that 1,085 scavengers are still working in Delhi.

India’s dogged resistance to discussing caste at UN forums comes in stark contrast to the official positions of other South Asian nations. Looking at the gains from DRC, Rikke Nöhrlind, coordinator of the International Dalit Solidarity Network in Copenhagen, says: “Several other caste-affected countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mauritius addressed the issue in their statements.” Nepal’s Ambassador Dinesh Bhattarai made an explicit reference to the need for a global fight against the “evils of untouchability and caste discrimination”. Malik Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, emphasised that victims of racism must include those who are “marginsalised on the basis of descent and caste”. Both Nepal and Pakistan grapple with huge populations of “untouchables” and are willing to come clean about it.

Glossing the issue

In contrast, Vivek Katju, the Indian delegate at DRC, harked back to India’s experience of colonialism that was “based on racism” and reiterated the several provisions in the Constitution that recognise the rights of minorities. There was no mention of caste. Henri Tiphagne of People’s Watch, Tamil Nadu, bore witness to a “depressing” statement at a side-event of the DRC chaired by Gay McDougal, UN’s Independent Expert on Minority Issues: the National Human Rights Commission member, Justice Babulal Chandulal Patel, referred to caste discrimination as “a family matter”.

There are three fundamental reasons why India’s system of “hidden apartheid” would perhaps never be seriously subjected to international scrutiny, unlike, say, apartheid in South Africa, an issue on which India, too, was righteously and hypocritically indignant. First, the Indian State believes it has the right to do what it wants about the caste system and with its 170 million Dalits — “a family matter”. Even as an atrocity is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes according to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, a list of counterclaims is unfurled: that the drafting of the Indian Constitution was overseen by a Dalit, B.R. Ambedkar; that K.R. Narayanan rose to be the President of India; that we have a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who is Dalit; that we have a mandated number of Dalits entering legislatures and Parliament; that India’s most populous State is governed by a Dalit woman, so on and so forth. Such a projection of unique yet manageable contradictions — the political empowerment of a few coexisting with increasing everyday violence against many — allows India to gloss over the appalling gap between legal provisions and the proven inability of the State to implement these, compounded by the fact that antiquated societal norms outweigh rule of law.

Secondly, some eminent sociologists had argued, in the countdown to WCAR 2001, that caste-based discrimination is not comparable to racism. As many foreigners ask: how do we know who is from which caste when everyone looks alike? It is this apparent invisibilisation of the debilitating hierarchies of caste, and the ability of elite Indians to claim victimhood as one-time subjects of colonial racism, that help elide the question of caste. Such interpretations suffer from a facile biological reading of racism, failing to see racial discrimination and caste discrimination as sociologically and politically constructed. Indians practising caste do know how to place the other person’s caste within minutes of a meeting or conversation. Surnames, accents, food habits, place of origin or residence and other personal preferences are giveaways. Yet, the intractability of caste for an international audience persists.

Everyone’s problem

Thirdly, and crucially, as long as the fight against caste is seen as the problem and concern of only Dalits-as-victims, it shall not be possible to mount an onslaught on caste. We must begin to realise and recognise that all Indians suffer from caste; and the conscientisation to fight and annihilate caste must be the onus of all castes. Ambedkar’s impassioned tract of 1936, Annihilation of Caste, it must be recalled, was an address to caste Hindus and not Dalits. Ambedkar believed the destruction of caste demanded the destruction of Hindu religion that sanctioned caste. Yet today, few non-Dalits in India engage with his ideas. In other words, it is not enough for Dalits to be anticaste; though it is Dalits who are subjected to physical violence and degradation. Unless the brahmins down to shudras recognise that clinging to caste negates the human spirit and humanity, the fight against caste shall be as incomplete as it would be impossible. This, however, does not seem plausible since the privileged castes have a lot to lose, in terms of material security and comforts, if they question caste. As long as we believe it is only Dalits who need to lobby with the UN or fight caste at the village ghat, India shall remain entrapped in caste.

S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana.


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