Caste: Racism in all but name?

Times of India,

The Indian government may gloat over the diplomatic triumph that caste-based discrimination was not equated with racism at Geneva’s ‘World Conference on Racism’ last week.

The conference, dubbed Durban II, had a shaky start. The US stayed away; and the Israelis staged a walkout as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began to mock the Holocaust. But the real shocker was reserved for scores of Dalit activists camping outside the conference venue. On 24 April 2009, the five-day meeting ended without including ‘Dalits’ in its resolution. It was a major blow to some Scandinavian countries and groups like Human Rights Watch, which have been demanding that India’s caste-based discrimination is racism by another name.

New Delhi may be celebrating. For now, it has stymied the nations and NGOs it sees as interfering in “India’s social fabric”. But question remain. Why does the world see us as racist and why do we claim that caste and race are different social categories. Who is wrong?

Both are right, says Dalit ideologue and writer Chandrabhan Prasad. “Caste and race are not the same, but their implications are same — discrimination on the basis of one’s birth.” He blames “stupid NGOs” for the outcome in Geneva, saying it was a mistake to equate caste with race. “It’s a technical point, which the Indian government exploited to its advantage”.

The tussle over ‘caste and race’ has continued for years. In 2001, the Indian government and some Dalit groups came to blows just before Durban I, a conference on ‘‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’’. Ever since, activists pushed the cause internationally, arguing that Indian Dalits were like the blacks in the US till the 1950s because they faced problems in the workplace, at school and in temples. Additionally, the Indian lower castes are said to face violence, rape and other hate crimes every day.

Paul Divakar, convener of the Delhi-based National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, says, “In a country that prides itself as being the world’s biggest democracy, more than 200 million people from the Dalit communities suffer from caste discrimination.” But the government argues that the Indian Constitution gives equal rights to all citizens and caste discrimination is a punishable offence.

It has persuaded few. Before the UN conference in Geneva, church organisations around the world expressed solidarity with the Dalits at a Bangkok conclave. On 24 April 2009, led by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, the church leaders vowed to continue the fight against caste discrimination. It is hidden apartheid, says Rikke Nohrlind, coordinator of International Dalit Solidarity Network. Casteism, he says, “has been skillfully hidden by certain governments, and Dalits are treated as lesser human beings.”

Campaigners say one small victory is that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Naventhem Pillay suggested creating an “observatory on discrimination”. One small step for UNHCR, a giant leap against untouchability!

(Source: The Times of India, 26 April 2009, )


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